Correspondent

To attract top-tier acts and performing artists to the Tri-Valley's concert circuit, local booking agents know how to get creative.

From money to imagination, calendar gymnastics to reverential relationships, the tools of a bookie's trade -- and how they use them -- can turn a wheeler-dealer into a wonder.

Robert Gundrey, Wente Vineyards' vice president of hospitality sales & operations, says it's all about relationship building. Lining up musical acts for the Livermore vineyard's outdoor summer concert series since 2002, he brings vast restaurant directing and catering development experience to the table. But even he admits, he had little background handling musicians before booking concerts for Wente.

Robert Gundrey, left, vice president for hospitality sales and operations for Wente Vineyards, poses for a photograph before jazz trumpeter Chris Botti
Robert Gundrey, left, vice president for hospitality sales and operations for Wente Vineyards, poses for a photograph before jazz trumpeter Chris Botti performs in concert as part of the winery's concert series on Monday, Aug. 19, 2013, in Livermore, Calif. Gundrey books the performers for the outdoor summer concerts. (Cindi Christie/Bay Area News Group)

"I love music, that's it," he says. "I learned: I attended conferences, met agents.

It's negotiating and, at Wente, it's making sure you book without entwining it in the many other events we do. I knew I could jump in and do it."

In his first season, "doing it" meant filling the venue's 1,700 seats at an all-time high of 27 shows. Most years average eight shows, and 2013 was particularly hard to book, due to competition from the America's Cup Pavilion. Continuing economic weakness made the several shows that have sold out this summer a major accomplishment.

"People learn to do without. They aren't as free with spending, but a hot artist who touches the nerve of a consumer will draw no matter what," he says.


Advertisement

Gundrey says '70s and '80s rock 'n' roll always sells well. An "Under the Sun" tour this year was a successful venture geared for younger audiences. Steve Martin, on last year's bluegrass banjo tour, sold out faster than lightning. But a 2009 James Taylor visit and Ringo Starr in 2006 are Gundrey's career highlights to date.

"Taylor was such a nice guy and sang for longer than his set," Gundrey recalls. "I bought one of Ringo's paintings, and, every day, I look at it and think, 'Wow, he performed where I work.' "

Wente's wine, golf course, good food (Bonnie Raitt stopped her show to thank the catering staff from the stage), and appreciative audiences have caused more than one artist to say it's like summer camp for adults, Gundrey boasts. Behind the scenes, he knows it's his ability to scramble (tents, when a deluge nearly added "underwater" to a 95 percent sold-out Beach Boys concert) and to keep the stress away from the performers that causes artists such as Huey Lewis to return (four times in the last 12 years).

County Fair

Angel Moore's eight years at the Alameda County Fair make her appreciate the calendar. Well-placed as second on the Northern California Fair circuit, the Wilson Events and Viking Agency she uses to book amphitheater and local community acts respectively, have no trouble attracting talent.

"It's a great, safe family-friendly venue," she says. Switching from a two-show-a-night format to one show opened a larger pool of artists. "The Fair gained a wider reach of artists," she says, citing top draws such as Tower of Power, Salt N Pepa, Rick Springfield, and Weird Al Yankovic.

Livermore Valley

Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center's Executive Director Len Alexander is retiring this year, after 50 years in show business. He's a money man and says artists will "go where the fees are and come back if they're treated well." Still, there's craft beyond the cash: understanding audiences and performers; negotiating fairly; commitment to both quality and diversity. He says Livermore's "intellectually curious 'NPR' audience" has welcomed sellouts like Paula Poundstone and George Winston as well as "take-a-chance" artists like this season's Lauren Fox, Mariah McManus and Cyrille Aimee.

"Never underestimate the capacity of audiences to try new things. Always treat the artists as your family. Share the success," Alexander advises. Tom Mitze, from Thousand Oaks in Southern California, has been hired as interim executive director starting in September.

Dougherty Valley

City of San Ramon Arts Program Manager Kathi Heimann works with theater management company Venuetech to book the Dougherty Valley Performing Arts Center series. After 13 years, she still carries a royal flush in her hand: everyone loves California. And her venues' single-date gigs gain oomph from being a stop on a chain of larger "block books" the management company compiles.

"Greatest hits" on her list reflect Tri-Valley audiences' eclectic tastes: from Moscow Ballet to Boys to Men to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The hassles of coordinating with the local school district on the shared facility don't preclude her from saying that creating community through the arts is "the greatest job in the world."

Firehouse

Robert Vogt's theater supervision for the City of Pleasanton has quadrupled as the Firehouse Arts Center's programming expands. Booking, for him, is geography and puzzle-solving. "Radius clauses" preclude some artists who are playing in San Francisco from performing at his venue, but big names who are free to travel will come "if the money is right." Pulling in a blend of national, West Coast and local artists means everyone in the 227-seat theater can find enjoyment.

The busy Bay Area provides a competitive challenge, but Vogt takes it in stride, saying, "I try to understand my audiences and book with their interests as well as my own. With that knowledge, it then becomes a big puzzle! I love puzzles."

---