Transforming the Wang Center from pauper to Prince Charming

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Some theatergoers hope it will be Boston's palace of the arts. Others call it a white elephant. With the help of Walter Pierce, the recently named executive director, the Wang Center for the Performing Arts may finally live up to its first reputation. But even with his help, it won't be easy.

The big marble-and-gilt theater on Tremont Street - which started as a deco movie palace in the 1920s, became the Music Hall in the '50s, converted to a legit house in 1980 (the Metropolitan Center), and last year acquired its current name when computer magnate An Wang gave a $4 million gift - has been doing poorly. Last year it was lit only 14 weeks.

Mr. Pierce, former managing director of the Boston University Celebrity Series since 1965, has had a positive track record in bringing the best in classical music and dance to Boston. He's brought Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Itzhak Perlman, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, opera singer Leontyne Price, and many other performers, orchestras, and acts to the Wang Center, as well as to midsize houses such as Jordan Hall and Symphony Hall. As managing director of the Boston Opera Association, Pierce has supervised the Boston engagements of the Metropolitan Opera for more that 10 years.

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Can someone with his contacts finally fill the Wang Center?

Yes, says Wang Center president Joseph Hobbs. ''He's made all the difference. His reputation has preceded him.'' Pierce is bringing the Celebrity Series with him - now called the Wang Celebrity Series. And the 1984-85 season, at least for the smaller halls, promises a lineup of 49 perennial favorites (Leontyne Price, violinist Isaac Stern, pianist Claudio Arrau) and intriguing first-timers (soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in her Boston debut).

Pierce says he plans to bring ''opera, dance, popular entertainment, and Broadway musical comedy'' to the Wang Center. But so far the only thing nailed down for the 1984-85 season is dance: A subscription series is set for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Bejart Ballet of the 20th Century, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and, tentatively, the American Ballet Theatre. The Boston Ballet signed a three-year contract last week to play 8 to 10 weeks a year.

With the Wang Center, Pierce is climbing atop an elephant just beginning to find its footing. In 1976, a group of citizens concerned about the Boston art scene organized to incorporate the rundown Music Hall into the nonprofit Metropolitan Center Inc., designed to put Boston back on the map as a major attraction town.

In fixing up the backstage area, construction costs nearly doubled to $7.7 million, sending them to the bank. The interest rates became prohibitive. A scantly attended dance season in 1982 cost them close to $1 million. Major structural problems with the roof were discovered in November of that year, forcing Luciano Pavarotti and the Boston Ballet's ''Nutcracker'' to go to the Hynes Auditorium, and the remainder of Boston Ballet's season and Alvin Ailey to use the Colonial Theatre. Other problems included a bad sound system, small orchestra pit, poor sightlines, and too few bathrooms.

An angel was needed. Then, last June, in stepped An Wang and his family, who gave the center a $4 million gift ($1 million outright and a $3 million challenge grant to be matched by June 1985).

In addition, Dr. Wang and the theater's board of directors persuaded a consortium of four Boston banks to reduce the theater's $4.9 million debt by almost half and to renegotiate the payment schedule for the remainder. The New England Medical Center, which owns the building, has rewritten their long-term lease with more favorable terms.

Today, the financial picture looks secure. In less than a year, $2.2 million of the challenge grant have been matched and the Wang family money is arriving in installments, reports Mildred Farrell, Wang Center director of development. Restrooms have been enlarged and improved; new speakers have been installed under the balcony.

The Wang Center, at 4,200 seats, is an enormous house - and that's the biggest problem. It needs big draws: the Lizas, the Pavarottis, and big Broadway musicals. But where are they?

The economic crunch and skyrocketing costs of touring shows (doubling in the last five years, Pierce estimates) have turned the flood of national touring companies that once poured through Boston into a drought. Now many producers find it less expensive to preview their shows right in New York.

A 26-week booking contract signed in 1982 with the New York-based Nederlander organization, a major theatrical company with theaters in New York and around the country, appeared promising, but the company has had trouble filling its own houses. The Wang Center's Mr. Hobbs says: ''They had 15 out of 27 theaters dark around the country. It's an industrywide problem.'' The Wang Center and Nederlander are negotiating a new contract.

Pierce is also considering booking rock groups. ''There are attractions out there that the public looks for that make sense for the Wang Center to be involved with. We want to make the Wang user-friendly for outside attractions.''

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