If you’re like most students, you probably know little about the hulking mass of stone, metal and glass overlooking campus that is known as the Performing Arts Center. But don’t let the sleek, spaceship-like appearance fool you – the people who inhabit the PAC are very down-to-earth, and some of their stories are as unique as the building itself.
A storehouse of stories
“Most people think we’re just a symphony hall that hosts upscale concerts, but we get a lot of strange shows here,” said Nancy Cochran, the PAC’s theatre operations manager.
Unknown to most, the PAC is actually a very busy place, hosting about 150 public events and half as many smaller, private events each year. Fortunately, the center has a full-time staff of 13 employees, as well as many part-time workers and volunteers who help facilitate business.
“Two out of every three days are taken up with some kind of activity,” managing director Ron Regier said. “They don’t happen automatically; there’s a lot of preparation and planning that goes into it.”
Being the only venue of its kind situated between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the center has been graced by many big names in entertainment. Performances ranging from comedy acts such as Jay Leno, George Carlin and Bill Cosby to musical performances such as “Stomp,” “Cats” and Tony Bennett have all come to the center. Behind the scenes, each show has its own unique story.
One memorable show involved comedian “Gallagher” smashing large fruits onstage with a sledgehammer as part of his routine. Patrons seated in the first two rows were given plastic rain gear to protect them from the splatter, but the ruckus didn’t stop there.
“He also began hitting hard candy out into the audience with a tennis racket,” Cochran recalled. “One of the candies ricocheted off a patron’s eyeglasses, causing them to chip or break. Of course, he was very apologetic and said he’d take care of it,” she said with a laugh.
Other shows are memorable from a planning perspective, like when Jay Leno insisted on entering the stage on a motorcycle.
Then there are shows noteworthy for things that weren’t planned for, like when pop-country singer Faith Hill headlined a show at the PAC just after having a baby with husband Tim McGraw. Apparently, McGraw was backstage babysitting but surprised everyone, including his wife, by joining her onstage for a duet.
“Nobody knew he was going to come out,” Cochran said. “One of our stage techs had to find a Barney video for the baby while he and his wife took the stage.”
And then there are the incidents best left forgotten, like the time one pushy patron insisted he be let backstage to meet pianist and musical composer John Tesh so he could show him a picture of his wife, who he felt resembled Tesh’s wife. After initially being denied backstage, the man became insistent, claming he was a part of the Special Forces in Vietnam and that he would, no matter what, find a way inside the building.
“We had to involve campus police, but the situation was diffused,” Regier said. “Those kinds of things go on behind the scenes all the time.”
A short history of the PAC
Originally conceived in the ’80s, the PAC is the result of cooperation and collaboration between the university and the local community. With the understanding that the PAC must satisfy the needs of both groups, it was decided that the structure could be nothing short of extraordinary.
Early on in the design process, it was recognized that sound quality would be the predominant role of the center. Architects and engineers strived to obtain the best acoustics imaginable, requiring them to basically design the building from the inside out.
“The main hall was designed for natural acoustic sound,” Regier said. “There were budget issues, but that never compromised the acoustic characteristics of the hall. That’s something that we’re really proud of.”
Designing around acoustics requires certain volume, height and width measurements, so functionality played a large part in the center’s outward appearance. However, architects also wanted to make the building aesthetically pleasing. The result was a structure with a silhouette actually designed to mimic that of Bishop Peak.
Built in 1994, construction was heavily funded by donations from the community, most notably local media-owner Christopher Cohan, who made a significant gift of $2.1 million. The PAC is officially named the Christopher Cohan Center in honor of his charity.
But if the building is the center’s body, the organ is undoubtedly its heart. Named after the family that donated the money to make it a reality, the Forbes pipe organ was manufactured by C.B. Fisk, the “Ferrari” of organ makers.
Built on the same grand scale as organs typically found in cathedrals and concert halls of the world’s largest cities, the 20-ton, 2,767-pipe organ uses primitive technology from medieval times that, when combined with the PAC’s advanced acoustic and technological features, creates the ultimate setting for musical performances. When it finally arrived in 2006, the PAC and the community eagerly welcomed the pipe organ.
“The organ is truly incredible,” said Paul Woodring, accompanist and curator to the Forbes pipe organ. “It puts us on the map for artists looking to perform in a superior hall with a superior instrument.”
Being such a unique instrument, not just anyone can hop on and play the organ like a piano. Organists typically have to rehearse for days prior to an event simply to learn the instrument’s unique characteristics.
“An organ recital is more about the organ than the artist,” Woodring said. “The instrument itself is the attraction, so recitalists choose the best instrument available for their performances. Having an organ like ours attracts first-rate talent from around the world.”
The heartbeat of the community
While many of the center’s acts are well known, some are not. Ask staff members, however, and they’ll say that some of the smaller-scale events are the most important.
Among these are the annual Grizzly Academy graduation ceremonies, where kids with troubled pasts graduate from a rigorous boot-camp program in hopes of gaining a second chance. Rather than simply holding the ceremony at a gymnasium, the students’ families and friends are invited from all over California to the PAC. While not as noteworthy to some as a Broadway tour, events like these are just as special to staff.
“It’s a very important part of the process for these kids psychologically, and it reinforces that this is an important time of change,” Regier said.
“For us to be part of the heartbeat and service of the community – it’s a role that I relish for our building.”