Industry Profile: Steve Kirsner
— By Jane Cohen and Bob Grossweiner
As Director of Booking & Events at the 20,000-capacity Compaq Center at San Jose, Steve Kirsner manages events from A to Z, from the first phone call to putting a date on hold to negotiating terms to contracting to coordinating to setup and breakdown to settlement and to creating the profit and loss statement.
Steve got started in the entertainment business in third grade in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he also gained experience in multi-tasking - a necessary skill for anyone these days. Not only did he play in the school orchestra, he also set up the chairs and music stands and fixed any broken instruments. On to junior and senior high school, and Steve received early training in sound and lights as part of the Audio Visual Squad. He also happened to live across the street from NBC Studios in Brooklyn, "one of the largest sound stages East of the Mississippi," he notes, so his environment had all trappings of luring him into the entertainment field.
During his one-year stint at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Steve worked as an usher at the Tucson Community Center, essentially the city's "arena." He followed his family to Los Angeles where his stepfather, a stagehand in the IATSE, felt there was more opportunity.
"While getting settled in Los Angeles, my father was approached by a friend of his who needed someone to work on a very special television project starring a young magician, Doug Henning," says Steve. "Since my stepfather was in the union they couldn't afford him so he recommended me since I had worked with him on a few shows while still in New York. I worked for eight weeks on the magic show that aired live with no commercials. We worked 16 hours a day getting everything ready. It all had to be perfect, and I learned more in those eight weeks than most guys would learn in a lifetime.
"After the show Henning took a year off, so I went and did other things," Steve continues. "They called me a year later to work on the next show, and I declined because I was involved in another job and couldn't leave. They called again after the show aired and offered me a full time position to manage their new facility and to be part of the touring crew. The facility was a 10,000 square foot warehouse in Van Nuys and later in Santa Monica, which housed his magic collection, posters, videos, design studio, shop, rehearsal space and storage, and where we built and repaired many of our illusions. Magic is unique because it requires a lot of space and special requirements such as a high ceiling.
"I worked through the years building a business and a staff of loyal people and worked my way up to being the vice president and general manager of the company, Doug Henning Magic, Inc. We later partnered on a business that focused on corporate productions called Illusion Team, Inc."
During his 10 years with Henning, 1978-1988, Steve took the show to just about every major theater in the U.S. and Canada, appeared on all the major talk shows including the "Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," "The Mike Douglas Show," and "The Merv Griffin Show," to name a few. There were two runs on Broadway, five television network shows and concert runs in Lake Tahoe, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. There was a movie of the Broadway musical, The Magic Show, and corporate shows. Henning also became a spokesperson for the Plymouth Voyager and made numerous guest appearances on other celebrity television shows. After 10 years, Henning decided to retire and work on a project, "that was more personal to him," Steve says.
Steve then freelanced in special effects doing rock and roll and corporate shows, designing the special effects for Earth, Wind and Fire's Touch The World Tour, some pyrotechnic effects for the Scorpions and pyrotechnics for corporate shows such as Ramada Hotels and Johnson Controls.
He also worked with David Snyder and some other agents in Snyder's division at Triad Artists as a "pseudo-consultant," regarding production elements of shows and special events that could be produced for arenas in secondary markets. ("I created a Halloween event for Dana Warg at Ogden, that he never produced, but Chip Davis, founder and composer of Mannheim Steamroller, later produced it in Omaha and it was a huge success").
"David and I visited China with people from a company who wanted to bring Chinese entertainment to the U.S.; I produced a new age music concert for Clint Mitchell at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles; and also worked for a company called Hystar, which was a flying saucer that could be used as a bit of entertainment at corporate events. David and I worked on creating a Star Trek Live show using the flying saucer as an element of the show."
After a couple of years of independence, Steve went to work for Mannheim Steamroller, 1990 to mid-1996. He gave up Los Angeles and moved to Omaha, Neb., where the group was based and had their own record label and recording studios. There, he spent 61/2 years producing tours, music videos and special events.
"Omaha was nice, but I was looking to make a change when one of my contacts told me of an opportunity in San Jose. I phoned the COO, Frank Jirik, and made an appointment to interview with him. The process took about six months and I landed the position I currently hold which is Director of Booking & Events at the Compaq Center at San Jose. I just started my sixth year here and I love it."
Among some of the Compaq Center's upcoming events are Michael Flatley's "Feet of Flames;" "Girls Night Out" (Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Jamie O'Neal, Carolyn Dawn Jones); "Extreme Steel Tour" (Pantera, Slayer, Morbid Angel, Static-X, Skrape, "Aftershock"(Luther Vandross, Marc Anthony); Backstreet Boys; Shaggy; Juan Gabriel; Janet Jackson. Compaq Center is also home to the San Jose Sharks NHL team and the San Jose SabreCats, Arena Football's 2000 Western Division champs.
Do you ever get the itch to get back on the road?
I miss meeting all of the great people you get to meet in each city. I remember visiting a theater in Des Moines, Iowa with Mannheim Steamroller and talking with the guys backstage about playing the theater with Doug Henning. Many of them were there then, and they pulled out books with the old riders and information about Doug's show. When I first went to the Orpheum Theater in Omaha with Mannheim Steamroller and I saw Doug's poster in the stage manager's office, I got all choked up. The road can be fun, but it is also very hard on you and your relationships. I really like what I am doing now, and I like the area I live in as well.
Has promoter consolidation affected your business?
Promoter consolidation has not affected our business that much. We are an open building and invite anyone who has a show to do business with us. I have a good relationship with the people at BGP/SFX, and they are the primary promoter in this market. They are very smart and good at what they do. They own the amphitheater in the market and were one of the first promoters to build one. The amphitheater was here way before the arena and we recognize they need to operate their business in the summer. To that extent, I look for alternative events in the summer such as religious conferences and family shows. There are more events than just concerts to fill the building.
How competitive is your market?
Our market is extremely competitive. There is an arena up the road in Oakland, there is the amphitheater that is 15 miles away, there is a 7,500-seat venue at the college, a 3,000-seat theater in Cupertino, another theater in Downtown San Jose, one in Oakland and a few in San Francisco.
In the summer there are numerous outdoor venues such as the Mountain Winery and Villa Montalvo. There are numerous festivals in the area that offer good quality free entertainment and the County Fairs are more competition.
Fortunately, this is a great market with big per capita income and people love to visit Compaq Center at San Jose. We have preached for years - and BGP/SFX has helped - there are two markets in the Bay area. We advocate every act play both markets. I don't consider the other venues my enemy, on the contrary they are my allies and I hope they feel the same. Working together we can maximize the entertainment dollars that come out of the market.
What other promoters have used the building?
HOB/Hewitt/Silva, Concerts West, The Radio Events Group, MarquezBrothers, Ralph Hauser, Pacific Concerts, Varnell Enterprises and TNA/SFX.
How has your past experience in the entertainment business prepared you for your current job?
My 25 years of past experience has helped in many ways. All the things I do now I have done in one form or another in the past positions I have held in the entertainment business.
Having been on the road, I know what the experience is like. I hope that when a touring show visits my venue, they find what they need when they want it. I work hard to make sure the catering is good, the phone lines are in and working, and the show staff is comfortable.
I met and worked with a lot of industry people while working for Doug Henning and Mannheim Steamroller, from agents to building managers. Many of these relationships have helped me in this role. I have a good appreciation for the quality operation of the building.
You impose no ticket surcharge. How have you managed that?
[COO] Frank Jirik and others, when negotiating with the City and State governments, were very smart when they negotiated no surcharge on tickets. The City receives income in the form of rent. Jim Goddard, the [arena's] current Executive Vice President and General Manager, is very sensitive to the surcharge situation and believes we are more competitive in the marketplace by not imposing a tax/surcharge. I believe we manage our business smart.
First industry job
I was an usher at Tucson Community Center.
Meeting Barbara Mandrell.
Doug Henning's retirement.
Turning a black horse and a white horse into a zebra.
Best business decision
All of my decisions are the best, because I am making a decision and will benefit from that decision some way or another.
Worst business decision
There is no decision worse than another as long as you learn from your actions.
Best business advice you received
"It's all about relationships."
Most memorable event
Producing the welcome home celebration for the Gulf War Veterans in Omaha.
What would people be surprised to learn about you
That I am married to Leslee Stewart, formerly of Feld Entertainment and current general manager of the Paramount Theater in Oakland, Calif.
Pictures of me with various artists that come to the arena because I didn't get pictures during my past life when working with some of the greatest artists in show business.
Industry pet peeve
Making the consumer pay in the form of high ticket prices, for extravagances like excessive catering.