Q’s With Bobby Rossi, Ruth Eckerd Hall Executive Vice President, Programming

Courtesy Ruth Eckerd Hall
– Clearwater Catalyst
As Ruth Eckerd Hall’s executive vice president, programming, Bobby Rossi is one of the Tampa Bay market’s most influential live executives.

The Tampa Bay market doesn’t begin and end with Tampa and St. Petersburg. Across the bay from Tampa and north of St. Petersburg lies Clearwater, an enclave on the Gulf Coast that’s home to about 120,000 – and many of the region’s hottest shows.

Ruth Eckerd Hall sits at Clearwater’s live nexus, in large part thanks to Bobby Rossi, its executive vice president, programming, who has built the 2,200-capacity theater into a prime destination for local concertgoers and national touring artists alike during his quarter-century tenure there.

Like many in Florida’s live business, Rossi got his start with Fantasma Productions, where he spent eight years prior to his time at Ruth Eckerd learning from the company’s influential founder Jon Stoll.

“It was like rock and roll high school for somebody coming out of college,” says Rossi, recalling digging through Fantasma’s archives of contracts shortly after he graduated from college in North Carolina.

Today, Rossi has an advanced degree – or several – in the live industry. Ruth Eckerd attracts renowned musical artists (Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Van Morrison), comedy talents (Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle), touring Broadway (“Rent,” “Legally Blonde”), and more; the Hall was nominated for the Theater of the Year ACM in 2020. A few miles away, Rossi oversaw the return of the historic, 700-capacity Capitol Theatre just down the road in Clearwater, booking performers from Jay Leno to Diana Krall there since its 2014 reopening. In non-COVID times, each venue stages about 125 shows a year.

Over the last decade, Rossi has also led Ruth Eckerd Hall On The Road, which promotes shows throughout the Tampa Bay market, from arena gigs at Tampa’s Amalie Arena (Dolly Parton, Amy Schumer) to post-game concerts at St. Pete’s Tropicana Field, home of baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays. He even has special shows on the books to surround Super Bowl LV, which will be held at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7.

The shows all fall under the umbrella of Ruth Eckerd Hall Presents, which ranked No. 81 on Pollstar‘s year-end worldwide promoters list in 2019.

“We’ll do a show on the head of a pin if we can,” Rossi says. “We’ve broken that chokehold of what PACs are. We’ll go from Jane’s Addiction to Tony Bennett, and that’s the direction that really has worked really, really well for us.”

Rossi connected with Pollstar to discuss Ruth Eckerd’s business, the Tampa Bay market and Fantasma’s lasting legacy.

POLLSTAR: How has your job evolved since joining Ruth Eckerd Hall? What does it entail today?
BOBBY ROSSI: It’s been pretty much a steady diet of presenting with Ruth Eckerd and then the Capitol Theatre, our sister venue in downtown Clearwater. Then about 12 years ago, we started Ruth Eckerd Hall on the Road. My mantra has been, “We’re promoters first, and we have venues.” We don’t like the tag of [PAC] because it pigeonholes you – what people feel you should be doing opposed to what the community and we want to do as far as entertaining the community.

We promote in Tampa, we promote in St. Pete. I’m producing some Super Bowl shows. Corporate events and festivals and all that. All in all, it’s well over 300 events a year, but it keeps us on the pulse with all the agents and managers to hopefully be a one-stop shop. We wouldn’t have an artist or an attraction that we [wouldn’t] have a place for. That’s what we wanted to build our business around.

We’re giving the community what they want, not what New York thinks we should have. I’m pretty frank with agents about that. Not everywhere is Miami or Chicago or Newport. We can do five nights of Larry the Cable Guy, and that works. That’s what we do.

Chris Urso
– Ruth Eckerd Rules
Situated north of St. Petersburg in Clearwater, Fla., Ruth Eckerd Hall is among the Tampa Bay market’s most coveted plays.

What’s most popular in Tampa? And how has that changed in the last 25 years?
When I was with Fantasma, we came into this market quite often to bring in a variety of shows. That time, the late ’80s into the mid-’90s, was the start where many arena acts were starting to play theaters. We would always play the arena with certain artists, and as the years went on, we started to see some of the acts like the Jackson Brownes of the world saying, “We’ll just do two nights in the theater instead of one night at the arena.” Maybe it was due to avails, it could be due to intimacy, it could be, “Hey, we’re doing a solo tour instead of a band tour, let’s play the theater in the market.” We started seeing that happening, and the tremendous success from it. They were coming out of arenas and we were very aggressive.

I knew this market well, and I knew the population was booming and it wasn’t so identified with necessarily a seasonal senior community. [Ruth Eckerd] is minutes away for people [living in Clearwater] to just go. There’s no bridges to cross, no parking issues. Convenience was a big part. Like, “Hey, Van Morrison’s playing down the street” or “Tony Bennett’s playing down the street.” We were just trying to take advantage of what we saw, and again, not being stereotyped in what should be here. […] If it means shows of different varieties seven nights in a row, oh well, that’s what it is. Audiences, we learned, will come. They really didn’t care what you did the night before or what you did the night after.

The connections that I’d made with agents and managers from my time at Fantasma, there was a trust factor. They knew we wouldn’t send their artists to a place where it wasn’t going to work. That was a big part of that first couple years [at Ruth Eckerd in the late ’90s] where we broke some of the rock acts in. Then, we wanted to give them a home that was going to be welcoming and had interesting niches they could remember us by, whether it be catering or the way the backstage hallway looked or the star suites. We transformed the PAC into a much more comfortable environment that hopefully everybody, from the bus drivers to the crew to the riggers, would remember.

Sometimes it’s a coin flip as to where an artist is going to play, based on availability of a venue or the limited amount of time they might have to choose. Maybe the decision’s made by, “Hey, we really liked that place at Ruth Eckerd or the Capitol.” I’m sure that has led to some of the shows – the “jump balls” – coming our way, because we take really good care of the artists and make the experience nice.

What sets your market in Tampa apart from other Florida markets like Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville?
Depending on the artist, it’s a track record of how they’ve done in the building. They’re gonna look [at a venue or market] and say, “We’ve played five times and sold out five times. Let’s not fix something that’s not broken.” That could be part of it. As long as the experiences are good, we fight to keep that history and their loyalty to us.

As far as touring goes, it could be a lot of things, why they come in. With expenses, now they’ve got to reach as many eyeballs as they can, so it might be going to a bigger venue. Instead of playing five theaters, they may come in and play a boutique amphitheater and one theater and a casino. It really just depends on what their goal is. If it’s a lot of bodies to talk about a new record that’s out and sell a ton of merch, that’s going to be a different mentality than [those with other goals].

For example, we just did a run [in February 2020] with Little Big Town. Little Big Town typically doesn’t play theaters our size. They usually play amphitheaters and bigger venues. However, this record [2020’s Nightfall] was very acoustic, a lot more ballads. […] That one was sort of calculated – like, this album and our new music is going to lend itself better to a really beautiful stage with lighting and comfortable seats and all those things that create more intimacy. 

Each [market and venue] is different. Tampa has a downtown venue, the Straz [Center for the Performing Arts]. We’re a suburban venue near the beach. They have a parking garage; we have on-site parking. There’s different characteristics to why an artist would want to play downtown proper.

Jeff O’Kelley
– Wild Night
Van Morrison grossed $1.5 million over three 2017 shows at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Fla., the venue’s highest-grossing Pollstar Boxoffice report.

Van Morrison’s 2017 shows at Ruth Eckerd are the venue’s top-grossing report in Pollstar‘s Boxoffice database, with $1.5 million grossed over three sold-out shows. Can you tell me about that run, and other highlights from your time at Ruth Eckerd?
When I came over in ’96, we got the call out of the blue about Van Morrison playing in ’97. It was gonna be two nights; it wound up turning into four nights. It was an act that was a catalyst in changing the way people perceive Ruth Eckerd Hall. [It] had been 1977 since he was in the market here. You can only imagine as a fan of an artist to wait that long. We had orders coming from all over the world. They were saying, “We’re gonna come and vacation then” or “We’re going to come in from these states.”

From that point on, it was easy for me to say, “We just did four nights of Van Morrison that sold out.” It was good as an icebreaker to say, “OK, now let’s do Ringo. Now let’s do Jackson Browne. Now let’s do James Taylor. Now let’s do Mötley Crüe.” That was really, really instrumental in helping us crack the door of the change that we knew had to come and we wanted to come. Then, to have him back in ’17 for more shows […] was really nice. In between, we’ve had a lot of growing and a lot of adjustment, adapting to all the changes in our crazy business. But he’s been like a bookend of that window where we accomplished a lot and really made our mark.

The Ringos, the Jackson Brownes, the James Taylors, the Van Morrisons – do you consider those types of acts your bread and butter?
It’s hard to say what does the best, because economically things are different. But certainly those names on your marquee, those kinds of artists anchor the style that we think [suits the] demographic here. That’s certainly a sweet spot. We wish that there were more of those – the Styxs, REO Speedwagons, Journeys, Steve Miller Bands, George Thorogoods. Hopefully the new crop of artists have the [same] longevity in the live business. I don’t know if we’ll see that in touring bands that are out now.

But you know what? There’s always new attractions coming in that we never expect. We’re doing a lot of bloggers. We’ve had a good run with these celebrity shows that we’ve done. They aren’t really so much offered, we just dig around and we kind of talk to agents. We did something with Goldie Hawn. We had the cast of Modern Family. We had Al Pacino. Then these get back to the agencies, and they’re like, “Do you want to do something with Clint Eastwood?” Those are fun. You wear a producer hat, almost.

That trend in alternative programming has been fun to watch.
Who doesn’t love Carol Burnett? She’s played the Hall five times. From grandmas to 10-, 15-year-old girls crying, they love her. Those are rockstars to people, in a different way, because they’re on the big screen or they’re on the little screen. The Capitol, too, we do a lot of classic films there, so we’ve been able to bring in like Richard Dreyfuss to do a “Jaws” anniversary and we tied it in with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is down the street, as a fundraiser. So we do things like that.

Like anything else, not everything works. You start these, and then you get everybody who’s ever been in a movie saying that they want to come out and do a live thing. I was like, “Nah, that’s not going to work.”

Courtesy Ruth Eckerd Hall
– Presenting Dolly Parton
Rossi (third from left), Dolly Parton and other executives pose to celebrate the country icon’s performance at Tampa’s Amalie Arena in November 2016, co-promoted by Ruth Eckerd Hall Presents.

How does the Capitol fit into the puzzle?
It’s been another godsend. The skepticism within the city was, “Can these two venues endure without sabotaging one another?” Even though one’s only one-third of the size.

Once we restored it, we opened with three nights of Jay Leno, right off “The Tonight Show.” We wanted people to know that there’s gonna be some nights where there’s $150 tickets there and there’s going to be nights where there’s going to be $5 tickets there. To get Leno to come, right out of closing “The Tonight Show,” and [people are] saying, “What are you doing Jay?” “I’m going to Florida, I’m going to play [the Capitol].” We got a million dollars in press. Above the name of the St. Pete Times was “Jay Leno to open Capitol Theatre.” At the time he was leaving “The Tonight Show” – all eyes were on this guy in the whole country.

We can do up-and-coming comedians, up-and-coming artists, or we can do veteran artists that are maybe not selling as well at Ruth Eckerd, and the Capitol’s their new home. A ton of acts now play the Capitol that were Ruth Eckerd acts: Richard Marx, Gordon Lightfoot, Chris Botti, Olivia [Newton-John]. It’s enabled us to get these really big stars. Joan Rivers, Michael McDonald, Howie Mandel, Sinbad, those are all former Ruth Eckerd acts in their prime.

I’ll say, “Hey, let’s do a double at the Capitol.” If they go for it, then we get it that way. Or it might be the opposite. They might say, “Hey, we really want to build at the Capitol, and our goal one day is to play Ruth Eckerd.” It’s coming from both ends. The Americana singer-songwriter alternative stuff has been something that may not have worked as well at Ruth Eckerd, because a lot of them were artists that were coming up – the Amos Lees of the world and Brandi Carliles, in her time. Those kinds of artists started at the Cap, then they came back for a double cap, and then, Ruth Eckerd. It’s what you want as a producer, promoter, presenter, whatever, to say, “Hey, come grow with us in our stable of venues. As long as you’re having fun, we’re having fun doing it.” But their eyes on the goal of saying, “One day I’m gonna play the big place.”

Jeff O’Kelley
– Ruth Eckerd Stranger
Willie Nelson performs at Ruth Eckerd Hall, where he’s played seven times over the last decade.

You’ve staged some reduced capacity shows during the pandemic. Tell me about that process.
We were working really strong with the governor. They were really, really supportive to get us to 50% [capacity in] September. We just had renovated and expanded our lobby at Ruth Eckerd, a 7,000-square-foot atrium. We put tables in the atrium, and I said, “I’ll do this, but I want to bring in national acts to play. I want to make this where it becomes an event.” We talked to artists we knew that were either southeast-based or had some connection to the Hall and said, “Do you want to play for 125 people in tables of four? You can do like four nights. Come as a duo, come acoustic, come as a trio, whatever it has to be.” We wound up doing four nights with Sister Hazel, four nights with Mindi Abair. We had Henry Paul of The Outlaws come in from Nashville and he did a duo. John McEeun of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Anybody that we felt like was a couple hundred miles away, you can drive in, we got rooms on the beach. They were so excited to play for real people and get away from the screens and feel their feedback. It worked out really well. Nobody got rich, but everything was successful and enabled us to at least get live music back.

We incorporated some amazing security and purification systems that were great; those are all in place now to be there to accommodate our patrons for years to come, long after we’re out of this mess. When it becomes just regular cold and flu season, we’ve covered.

We’ve been noticing of late that a lot of artists are coming in with the half-house, 50% capacity two-night [run] in mind. We just booked foreigner for two nights [March 27-28], and there’s other acts of that caliber now that are holding dates to do 50% capacity and do two nights, to make what they would’ve made in one before. It’s better than the alternative, right? We’ve got a pretty good, steady diet of shows at both Ruth Eckerd and the Capitol.

Tell me about these shows around the Super Bowl.
Obviously the intention initially was to be larger, more public, sort of concert festival gatherings around Tampa. Now we’re down to just doing a couple invite-only shows outside for, I think it’s 500 [guests]. It’s going to get artists work and production companies work. We’re happy to be doing that.

Yesterday, I spoke with John Valentino
He’s my mentor. He’s my man.

You mentioned Fantasma earlier. I wanted to ask about the Fantasma diaspora throughout the Florida market and how it impacted the area. It seems like you guys are all over.
It was like rock and roll high school for somebody coming out of college. I would sit there and look through files of old contracts. Jon Stoll would do shows on top of drive-in theaters with Ted Nugent and Rush and Bob Seger. The movie would finish and then he would put these guys up on top of the projection room and face backward to the cars. I was like, “This is like genius.” Those are the pioneer guys that created our business. It was a pretty terrific learning experience.

They were major, major promoters of the time. Jon Stoll, who has since passed, was really instrumental in breaking out of that expectation of what the promoter would do. In those days, you think of promoters like Ron Delsener and Jack Boyle and Larry Magid. You know, rock acts, rock acts, rock acts. Jon started getting in with these artists that would do multiple cities, but not necessarily always do arenas – the Joan Baezs of the world. His thought was, “If I can do that act in seven markets instead of two, at the end of the day, you probably make the same thing, but you’ve been with that act now for a week and they’re going to get to know you better.” That always meant a lot. If you spend a week with Bob Seger, instead of two days or one day, he’s going to know your face, he’s going to know your name, he’s going to know your company.

Harry Connick Jr. was a great example. We would do Harry Connick Jr. like 10, 11 cities, because not every promoter specializes in that – or may not want to. [Fantasma] was like, “Let’s go up to Biloxi. Let’s go to Shreveport. Let’s go to Charlotte.” Harry’s like, “We trust you guys. Go for it.”

That’s what enabled a promoter like that to go from maybe doing 100 events a year to maybe 500 events a year.

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