By GUY D’ASTOLFO
For years, Stambaugh Auditorium – despite its imposing pillars, superior acoustics and stately wood-and-stone interior – was hiding a weakness.
The building still possessed the same monumental grandeur that it had on the day it opened in 1926. But despite its beauty and history, Stambaugh was being left behind as a venue for nationally known entertainment.
By 2006, the main auditorium was underused and becoming an afterthought as the then-new Covelli Centre started to bring in top-name acts.
Getting back on track took a while. It was a process marked by fits and starts as the board of directors hired a succession of general managers – none of whom stayed very long.
Stability finally began to take root in 2012, when Matt Pagac became general manager and took over daily operations. Today, Stambaugh has regained its place in the city’s burgeoning entertainment scene as a place for top-level concerts, lectures, comedy and other touring acts.
The hall, which marked its 90th anniversary in 2016, was a stop for the nation’s biggest acts in its early days and right up through the post-war years.
It also saw a renaissance in the ’70s and ’80s, when many top rock and pop bands played the hall.
But by the mid-2000s, Stambaugh had been relegated to no more than a half-dozen lower-tier acts booked by Monday Musical Club, a similar number of Youngstown State University music school concerts, the rare comedy or music concert booked by a national promoter and a whole lot of wedding receptions in its ballroom.
To change its destiny, Stambaugh would have to become a promoter and start booking its own shows.
Pagac can point to the day when the turnaround began: Oct. 5, 2012. That’s when classic acoustic rock band America played the hall in a show promoted by Stambaugh.
It was a rough start.
On the surface, the concert appeared to be a success and drew a decent crowd. But behind the scenes, it was mayhem.
“We were a disaster,” said Pagac. “There were box-office issues and other problems. We laugh about it now. But we learned so much that night.”
The America concert would be the first in a string of successful country, classic rock, pop and Christian shows promoted by the Stambaugh team. These include the likes of Florida Georgia Line, Kansas, Newsboys, Fifth Harmony and REO Speedwagon.
Before becoming general manager, Pagac was the stage manager at Stambaugh. Before that, he worked at Packard Music Hall in Warren and at Chevrolet Centre (now known as Covelli Centre).
The Boardman native and Youngstown State University graduate had also owned Rising Sun Entertainment Productions, a recording studio that he has since given up.
Pagac was handed the general-manager post on an interim basis. “Six months in, I thought ‘I’m not going to hand it off.’ I told the board I wanted to stay on the job, and they were happy.”
Board president Terrence Cloonan said Pagac was a good fit. “Matt knew the business and had an interest in doing it,” he said. “He demonstrated to the board that he could do it.”
When Pagac first started, board members were running the hall in their spare time, which was not conducive to modern business practices. Because Stambaugh was structured as a nonprofit, the board had to approve all decisions.
“If someone wanted to bring a show here, the events committee had to approve it, and it could take a while,” said Pagac. “You can’t do that because promoters want an answer now.”
The board wanted to increase usage of the hall and also raise more money to keep up with maintenance expenses. Pagac convinced it that the solution was to start promoting shows on its own.
To begin the turnaround, Pagac compared how Stambaugh was run with other places where he had worked.
Because he had income from his recording studio at the time, he told the board he would take only half the salary of the previous general manager, but insisted that the other half go toward hiring more people and making other improvements.
In 2012, Stambaugh’s administrative offices had four full-time employees and two part-timers. “I just couldn’t do it with that small of a staff,” said Pagac.
Today, it has 13 full-time and 20 part-time employees.
“We also had to prove to [national promotion companies] that this was a good rental hall,” said Pagac. “The Florida Georgia Line concert in 2013 proved that. It was our first sellout in many years. After that, promoters started paying more attention.”
Pagac noted that Stambaugh concerts pull in ticket-buyers from Cleveland, Akron and Pittsburgh.
“We took advantage of the new entertainment scene, which was brought on by [Covelli Centre manager] Eric Ryan,” said Pagac.
One thing that has remained constant is the large number of wedding receptions. Stambaugh’s newly renovated ballroom still plays host to about 100 wedding ceremonies and receptions each year.
To that total, it has also added Bands at the Baugh, an outdoor party series. The summer evening concerts in the Stambaugh garden feature local bands on weekday evenings in a relaxed setting.
But the auditorium concerts promoted by the hall bring in the most money, and Stambaugh has found its niche in this market.
“It’s an exciting time,” said board president Cloonan. “The shows that we promote ourselves are the most profitable [events at the auditorium] but they are a gamble.”
One major factor in determining who to book is the seating capacity, which is about 2,500.
“Classic rock has done well,” said Pagac, citing the ZZ Top and REO Speedwagon shows this year. “So has pop. Fifth Harmony and R5 were big, but you’ve got to book those types of acts before they get too big.”
Christian rock has met with success as well, said Pagac, citing the sold-out concert by Newsboys in November 2014.
Current rock bands are not such a good fit, because they are expensive to book and require a larger venue to be profitable.
Further filling up the schedule are Opera Western Reserve and the Youngstown State University lecture series, which brought news analyst Anderson Cooper and comic socio-political observer W. Kamau Bell to the building this fall.
Looking toward the future, there has been talk of renovating the stage and backstage to accommodate touring theater productions, but the lack of a loading dock, fly loft and large dressing rooms makes that unlikely.
The auditorium already is in the process of raising the more than $2 million it needs to replace the grand steps on the Fifth Avenue entrance, said Cloonan. The steps have been roped off to foot traffic for months.
Pagac says future growth could also come in weekday events, including convention-like gatherings. Stambaugh hosted events by the American National Standards Institute and America Makes this year, which brought in people from across the globe.
“The board of directors has been open to trying new things,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how far we’ve come in the past five years.”