Thursday, March 9, 2023

A Night At The Opera

Anatomy Of A Dream

2022 was a big year for Killeen Consolidated Industries, or Ringmaster LLC for short.  First we had the enlightening experience of putting together the Subterranean Circus Grand Reunion, aka The Last Tango In Gainesville, which brought together for perhaps the last time a thousand stout hippie hearts and a few gerontology groupies.  There are days when the weather breaks perfectly, the musicians never hit a bad note and everybody falls in love with each other, and this was the ultimate panacea.  Even Chuck LeMasters was cheerful.

Next, we recruited fellow octogenarian Bob Simmons to make a movie of the proceedings, a film that would capture for posterity the Big Day in all its glory and emotion.  Simmons wove together the exemplary music of the day with interviews reciting the history of the Subterranean Circus and what it was like back in the halcyon days of the late 1960s and 70s.  The movie was good enough to be featured at the Central Florida Film Festival in January 2023.  Not bad for a bunch of rookies.

If you’re 82 years old, you can proceed to the couch, sit down and mull over a grand year of sweet accomplishments til the end of time.  Or you can check the coal car, examine how much fuel is left and advise the engineer to keep the train rolling.  We’re not much for mulling, thus I invited four of my friends to a meeting to discuss the most ambitious plan of all. 

A few months ago, Tom Shed, Cathy Dewitt, Paco the Redundant and Mike Boulware met with me at Mike’s homey place in the woods to discuss the possibility of creating a Hogtown Opry.  At the start, I asked the group to tell me all the reasons it couldn’t be done.  I expected a recitation of problems, but nobody was pessimistic, even the cautious Tom Shed.  Mike started the ball rolling by saying he thought it was a great idea, and timely.  Gainesville is a youngish rock ‘n’ roll city, but our music would be as expansive as “country” gets and we’d be the only game in town.  Not to mention, Gainesville is completely surrounded by rural counties with plenty of potential customers.  The other folks in attendance were also optimistic, although all realized it was a gigantic undertaking with plenty of pitfalls.  Tom Shed, who managed the legendary Great Southern Music Hall for several years, knew many of them.  The original plan was to have a show every Saturday night with the possibility of an occasional weeknight show if the right entertainer was in the area.  We were seeking to rent a venue with a minimum capacity of five hundred seats as close to the city center as possible.  The optimum site to our way of thinking was the now-closed First Baptist Church building on University Avenue near downtown.  Not likely, perhaps, but you have to start somewhere.  If a church was good enough for the Grand Ole Opry, it was good enough for us.

Everybody Loves A Shrine

Thanks to the gracious assistance of the gatekeepers at Continuum Apartments, Mike Boulware and I were allowed to inspect the premises at 425 West University Avenue.  We    were immediately taken with the size and scope of the place.  The bottom floor featured a nest of sizeable rooms suitable for a raft of possibilities.  The second floor offered a large open expanse roomy enough for a huge stage and at least 500 seats, including several old church pews.  There is a charming, if dusty, balcony with intact cushiony  theater seats and a small room for a projectionist, lighting man or what-have-you.  We meandered through the place slowly, remarking on its history and marveling at its still-viable interior.  Obviously, the church required a major cleanup, the construction of a proper stage together with sound and lighting installations.  Jeff Goldstein, who had studied the building earlier for possible use as a Gainesville Music Museum, assured us the acoustics were close to perfect.  The history of such an iconic building, its size and location, made the church our top choice.  Now all we had to do was convince the owners we were a sane lot, despite some evidence to the contrary.

On September 22, Mike, Tom and I met with John Fleming of Trimark Properties, which had just purchased the building along with several stories of the famous Seagle Building across the street.  Fleming’s group is allegedly interested in preserving as many of Gainesville’s few remaining historical buildings as seem viable.  At the time of the Seagle purchase, Fleming said, “My time at Trimark Properties has given me a unique opportunity to preserve and protect historic spaces in Gainesville.  The Seagle Building is a Gainesville icon and we’re honored to bring Trimark’s decades of property management to the table as we strive to ensure the building’s character and beauty continue to withstand the test of time.”  We assumed John felt the same way about the First Baptist Church building and we thought that our plan for the site was likely as good as any. 

The meeting seemed to go well.  Fleming appeared a charming, good-humored fellow who had been with his wife to the Grand Old Opry in Nashville and was obviously familiar with the final result we were striving for.  He talked about the work needed on the building and we went back and forth about the possibilities, which included co-renting with another entity, each of us using the place on specific days.  We were willing to allow considerable latitude in a leasing arrangement because the place was perfect for our intentions, with the exception of very limited parking in the area, an issue we were willing to tolerate.  Weeks went by and we heard nothing.  We texted and got no response, leaving us with a couple of possibilities; John Fleming was captured by aliens, he fell off the bed and banged his head causing grievous memory loss or his mother didn’t teach him good manners.  In any case, it was time to search for more fertile ground.  As with the Subterranean Circus Grand Reunion, every day that passes you lose another potential customer.     We want to be there before the next teardrop falls.

This Must Be The Place

After a weeks-long scouring of metropolitan Gainesville and numerous treks down blind alleys, we decided to ignore Jeff Goldstein’s warnings and check out the venerable University Auditorium on the UF campus.  Dealing with all the red tape incumbent in any business relationship with the many-tentacled University of Florida is always a daunting affair but the building is a historic gem and even Jeff had to admit the acoustics were superior to what we’d find elsewhere.  The UA also has 843 seats, reasonable parking on Saturday nights and a management team led by Jason Degen which is knowledgeable, helpful and lonely.  The place sees little action for several reasons, the foremost being that any food and drink sold there is purveyed by the university’s catering companies, which keep all the proceeds.  A second deficit is that all concert gear brought into the place must be removed at the end of the event rather than stowed there for the following week.  Both are costly considerations and have run off prospective customers, but as we all know the University is set in its ways.  Besides, every bride has a few blemishes---you have to take the bitter with the sweet.  Long story short, we took the UA’s deal and the Hogtown Opry begins  operations, for better or for worse, on May 20, 2023.  Write that date down on the back of your hand so you won’t lose it.

There are many positive things about setting up shop in University Auditorium.  One of the better aspects for concertgoers is that Opry tickets can be purchased via UF’s experienced and competent ticket office instead of a card table at the Boot Barn.  Our insurance is less than it would be most places and the building staff for events is already in place.  If you have not had the pleasure of attending a musical event in this era of tear-it-down-and-build-a-new-one, you will be enchanted by the scope and grace of the age-old iconic building.  Ancient structures have a charm unrivaled by soulless latter-day replacements.  As a matter of fact, so do the Opry participants.   

All $100 tickets come with First Night t-shirts similar to the above illustration
What’s It All About, Tammy?

Most of you have been around.  You’ve noticed that music venues have an unfortunate habit of crashing and burning sooner than later.  Some others continue to exist out of the goodness of the owner’s heart, as in the case of a few terrific local facilities which are involuntary non-profits, bobbing along on the shoulders of hope and optimism.  The Hogtown Opry will not be a non-profit enterprise.  Ticket prices will be variable, but not cheap.  What we promise, however, is a venue that uses its money to build and better the enterprise, not for personal profit.  Bill Killeen doesn’t need any money, but he’s not interested in throwing any away, either, so there will be a profit or there will be no Opry.  Where there are profits, there is a continuation of the business.  In our case, we will keep adding features to the venue which lend to the enjoyment of the audience and musicians.  We hope the latter group will understand that most of what we do, like it or not, is to ensure the success and longevity of the operation.  I intend that the Opry continue on long past my own lifetime and am putting in place people I’m confident will allow that to happen.  Despite its lean to country, I expect the place to be a quasi-clubhouse to many local music-makers and others passing through, a gathering spot where everyone is comfortable dropping in on those special  Saturday nights.  While we get our bearings, we’ve decided to go with a show every three weeks.  By year’s end, we expect to go twice monthly.  After that, who knows?  Maybe we’ll even get our own building where we can sell Moon Pies and R.C. Cola.

Tickets for our first event, which will feature the take-no-prisoners Hogtown Opry Band together with Robert Bowlin, winner of numerous fiddle, flatpicking guitar and mandolin contests around the country and the fiddle player for the iconic Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the 1990s; award-winning singer-songwriter Wil Maring, who strutted her stuff at the Grand Ole Opry and toured extensively in Europe and Japan.  And that’s just so far.

Early $100 tickets for the first show will be available tomorrow at the addresses below.  Several of our friends in the community will also be selling them for us for a short time; don’t call them, they’ll call you.  All $100 seats will be front and center at the University Auditorium and will come with a jam-up and jelly-tight First Night t-shirt, a $30 value.  so it’s more like a $70 ticket, right?

If a c-note is too stiff for your liking, $60 and $40 ducats will be available through the University of Florida ticket office beginning April 3.  We’ll post a notice here and on the Hogtown Opry Website, which will miraculously appear in the very near future (

One more thing.  All, and we mean ALL, proceeds from tickets will go towards the improvement of the Opry.  That means Bill isn’t keeping any.  We will try to bring entertainers here who would not otherwise appear in the Gainesville-Ocala area and we shall also continue to search for a building of our own so the principals in this rodeo will all have someplace to go when we get up in the morning.  In addition to the great music, we’ll bring you a few surprises now and then over the objection of Mike Boulware to tickle your fancy.  Rumors to the contrary, Willie Nelson will not sing the national anthem.  This time.

That’s all, folks, except for the addresses below.

$100 show tickets may be purchased by checks made out to Ringmaster LLC and sent to Bill Killeen, P.O. Box 970, Fairfield, Florida 32634 or via Paypal.  When using Paypal, just paste the link below into your browser.  All $100 presold seats are in the first eleven rows center.

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