An Appreciation: Allen Becker, Founder of PACE Entertainment Group
Allen Becker, the founder of PACE Entertainment Group who died at 90 in his Houston home on Dec. 12, was a most unlikely businessman to leave a legacy of transformation in the live entertainment industry.
An unassuming life insurance agent in 1965, Becker was recruited by a banker friend to help promote a consumer boat show at the then-new Houston Astrodome that changed the course of his career and, eventually, that of the entire live business.
Not the least, he mentored and nurtured new talent who would become industry superstars like Messina Touring Group founder Louis Messina, Live Nation’s President of U.S. Concerts Bob Roux, Concerts West’s President and CEO John Meglen, and others. His sons, Gary and Brian, became industry leaders in their own right, with Brian eventually becoming CEO of Clear Channel Entertainment after PACE’s acquisition by SFX and subsequent sale to Clear Channel Communications in 2004.
Many of them spoke to Pollstar to remember Allen Becker’s life and legacy.
Starting with the boat show success, Becker eventually expanded into motorsports, concerts, theater and real estate with the development of a chain of amphitheaters. With the founding of PACE (Presentations, Associations, Conventions and Exhibitions) with partner Sidney Shlenker in 1966, he helped create a national touring model to serve underserved regions of the country.
Brian Becker, now CEO of BASE Entertainment, remembers the earliest days of PACE Entertainment and marvels at his father’s early successes.
“We were absolutely the leading promoter of sports motorcycle stadium shows, motocross racing, called Supercross, monster trucks and all those events,” Brian says. “I think by the first day we were clearly the dominant player in the country. There were other exhibitions made up of some really extraordinary promoters and organizations on the ground, to be sure.”
The Astrodome, until the arrival of Allen Becker, had developed a secondary revenue stream during baseball and football off-season by giving tours of the then-“Eighth Wonder of the World,” but it wasn’t enough. Becker not only brought in family and sports events, but in 1973 brought tennis – the so-called “Battle of the Sexes” between Billie Jean King (who won handily in straight sets) and Bobby Riggs, which at the time became television’s most-watched sports event in history. Son Gary Becker was a ballboy for the match.
Again, it was Allen Becker’s entrepreneurial vision at work. Tennis was accessible as a youth sport in those days and fit in with the family sporting fare PACE was already producing.
“The reason for that is because everything was about the stick and ball in those days,” Gary says. “For kids, It was tennis and baseball and football. If you were a kid then, you could play those sports instead of sitting in front of the TV. Other forms of youth sports, like skateboarding, freestyle motocross and others, came later. But it was the advent of those sports that helped propel PACE into creating events. And it brought PACE into the spotlight. Now, all of a sudden, these kids that weren’t playing baseball or football had an avenue to have something they could participate in.”
Such was the Astrodome’s success that, In 1975, Allen Becker was asked to help produce the grand opening of the Louisiana Superdome, now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in New Orleans, where he met a young promoter named Louis Messina.
Under the PACE Management banner, entertainment for the Superdome grand opening included a concert with the Allman Brothers Band, which Messina was handling. Aside from another concert with The Isley Brothers, The O’Jays and The Temptations, marquee events were a Bob Hope show, a Grambling State vs. Alcorn State football game and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Allen Becker saw the writing on the scoreboard.
He had recently won the rights to promote events at the Summit, a new arena in Houston, and Becker asked Messina to partner with him to promote concerts there. Messina suggested forming a company and moved to Houston.
It was a leap of faith for both Becker and Messina, who launched PACE Concerts on Nov. 20, 1975, with a sold-out show by The Who, the opening night of the band’s North American tour supporting The Who by Numbers. That was followed in short order by shows with ZZ Top and Willie Nelson.
“It’s like that line that Chesney wrote, ‘You had me from hello,’” Messina said of the beginning of his relationship with Becker, who he considers a father figure.
“He had me from hello, and I had him from hello; we just gelled. New Orleans was still living in yesterday. There’s no way I could have survived in New Orleans. And Allen had a thing going on, so, yeah, he bet on me and I bet on me, too.”
Gary Becker eventually helmed PACE Motorsports, while Brian Becker worked more closely with their father with another division, PACE Theatrical Group. And Messina had his partnership with Allen Becker of PACE Concerts.
“Dad liked Frank Sinatra, and likewise Liza Minelli, but he knew nothing of The Who and ZZ Top or any of the bands that were touring in the mid-1970s,” Gary says. “And that’s where Louis came in. And I mean, Allen gets a lot of credit, and he gets all the credit from Louis because that’s just the kind of guy Louis is.”
They began promoting small club shows with then-unknown artists like Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band and leveraged that history to get the rights to work bigger acts in larger cities, starting from the ground up to eventually overtake established promoters like the original Concerts West, then dominant in Texas.
With the addition of Messina, PACE Concerts quickly became a force to be reckoned with, promoting not only Springsteen but Van Halen, U2, Fleetwood Mac’s reunion tour and others and spearheading tour concepts like Ozzfest, Texxas Jam, Monsters of Rock and the George Strait Country Music Festival.
PACE began building amphitheaters in earnest in the mid-1980s, starting with the Starwood outside of Nashville, Starplex Amphitheatre in Dallas and Lakewood Amphitheatre in Atlanta. The company partnered with Sony Music Entertainment and Blockbuster on many of those buildings, giving them partial ownership rights, which came in handy when it came time to route major tours through the “sheds.”
Concerts West President & CEO John Meglen worked for the original company before decamping to Canada and Michael Cohl’s CPI, ultimately returning to the U.S. to launch another division, PACE Touring, with Messina. He maintained a warm relationship with Becker throughout his career, even when he wasn’t working for him.
“I remember having a conversation with him and I said, ‘Allen, let me ask you a question,” Meglen recalls. “‘If I’m doing a tour and come to Philadelphia, what’s going to happen? The Spectrum’s the arena, but you guys have this amphitheater right across the street. What do I do?’ And he said, ‘John, you do what you believe is right for your business. I would like to think in a jump ball, you would tip that our direction, too.’”
PACE’s development of an amphitheater network and the additions of PACE Concerts and PACE Touring were keys to the company’s rapid expansion into becoming, by the time of its sale to SFX, the world’s largest live entertainment company.
“It was the best thing for us at the time,” Brian Becker says. “There were other great exhibitors and promoters around, to be sure. Don Law, Larry Magid who’s involved with Electric Factory, Bill Graham, Jack Boyle, who’s no longer with us. But this was the only company that was operating across the country as a national tour promoter. The amphitheater network was extraordinary. The network was doing something like 600 shows a year. It really laid the groundwork for SFX [which acquired PACE Entertainment in 1998, before selling to Clear Channel Communications which spun off Live Nation in 2004].”
Brian Becker notes that while his father preferred to work behind the scenes, his entrepreneurial curiosity and willingness to take risks for projects and people he believed in changed the industry. One of the things he deeply believed in was serving potential audiences who historically hadn’t had such entertainment available to them.
“It was innovative, It was crazy, to try to do it,” Brian says. “And Texas – I remember back in that day, most people in the industry thought there was a six-hour plane ride from one coast to the other and nothing in between. All you were doing was covering a bunch of unimportant markets. Candidly, one thing that stood out of necessity, was to discover and develop a benefit from what was considered secondary markets. And treat them as important markets, because they are.
“We had the belief that all of these great markets were underserved and they had tremendous resources to spend on going to shows. They wanted to go see shows and we could grow this market.
“So the idea of doing an amphitheater in Pittsburgh or the idea of doing a music festival [Texxas Jam] at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, those were big, bold ideas. Now, if you look back and go, oh, that was a big deal; but at the time, they were big, big bets, right?
Another big bet was the founding of PACE Theatrical Group, which created the “Broadway Across America” production franchise and acquired theater producers in the United Kingdom.
Starting with its formation in 1982, PACE Theatrical Group began touring Broadway hits including “Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Miss Saigon,” and other Andrew Lloyd Webber productions. The company was an investor in “Sunset Boulevard.”
In fact, the success of touring Broadway productions helped keep PACE Entertainment Group healthy during leaner years for PACE Concerts – an early indicator of the importance of a diversified business model that, for many, saved the store during the first year of the COVID pandemic and touring shutdown decades later.
And, according to Gary Becker, among Allen’s greatest sources of professional pride are the three Tony Awards the company has won for productions as well as its investment in huge hits like “Sunset Boulevard.”
What Allen Becker passed along to his sons is more than just a love of theater, or music or business.
According to both, he imbued them with a sense of ethics and fair play.
“The most memorable advice my father gave me is ‘Don’t count the other guy’s money, because it just doesn’t matter. You’re making a deal and a partnership’,” Gary says. “He taught me that both parties get to win. And then, to be honest and fair. It remains a hard business, and it’s probably even harder now, but be honest and fair. That was just him.”
Brian adds a variation on the same theme.
“Let everyone walk away getting a fair return for what they’re doing, and you’ll have a long-term partnership, which is what this business is based on,” Brian says.
“Things like leaving money on the table and making sure that everyone succeeds, because everyone comes away with something, means everyone wins. And there are two things you can lose quickly: your time, and your integrity. You can never have an unlimited amount of either.”