I’m perched 75 feet above a Kauffman Center stage on thin yellow slats, with two-inch gaps between them — no heels, folks, and mind you don’t turn an ankle.
The gaps are there for several reasons, including, of course, dropping fake snow on any winter-set proceedings below in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.
It’s perfectly safe, but I couldn’t help thinking if you fell from that height, it’d take a couple of seconds to splat — long enough to say a prayer but too short for anyone to answer it. It’s a definite knee-buckler.
I had to remind myself: I asked for this.
Acrophobia be damned, I talked Kauffman Center President and CEO Paul J. Schofer into giving me a basement-to-rafters tour. I was looking for a full picture of how the venue at 16th and Broadway is coming along now that it’s been open five years, as of next weekend.
Schofer couldn’t seem like a nicer guy. Almost Mr. Rogers nice. On our tour he related a story about losing his way around the Kauffman Center not too long ago.
He said he opened a door he didn’t immediately recognize and walked across the room, only to see a sign that read: “Wet paint — do not walk!”
“Fortunately, I wasn’t sticking,” he said. “That was very typical of something I would do. I still get lost in here.”
When the Kauffman Center opened on Sept. 16, 2011 — a years-in-the-making dream of philanthropist Julia Irene Kauffman — it became an almost instant icon of Kansas City. The rippled, shelled exterior, designed by Moshe Safdie, looks great on T-shirts and postcards; its skyline profile pops up from time to time during commercial breaks on national sports broadcasts.
And what’s occurred on the inside is significant.
Jeffrey J. Bentley, executive director of the Kansas City Ballet, said the last five years have been a boon not just for his company, but the Kauffman’s other two resident artist groups, the Lyric Opera and the Kansas City Symphony.
“Our ticket revenue has moved from $1.5 million to over $4 million a year in single-ticket sales,” Bentley said. “It’s made us much more competitive on the international scale in terms of drawing talented dancers, talented ballet masters and choreographers into the city.”
Frank Byrne, executive director of the Symphony, also said the venue has lived up to its promise.
“When we moved in we had a mountain of hopes and dreams on how it would work out,” Byrne said. “And I can honestly say it has exceeded our expectations.”
Some of the credit for their happiness can come back to Schofer. The former Kauffman Center CFO took over for Jane Chu, who was drafted by President Barack Obama to head the National Endowment for the Arts. Schofer not only has to juggle the demands of the resident arts organizations, he has to keep the Kauffman Center financially sound.
“We’re very strong right now and operating in the black each of our five years,” he said.
Not an especially easy task when you don’t know all the costs of a new space. Kauffman Center’s utilities in the first year, for example, topped $1.1 million. Schofer said by being creative, they have the utilities down around $450,000 a year because they’ve stopped trying to heat or cool some spaces all hours of the day.
“We’ve never compromised comfort — we’re not telling people, ‘Wear your winter coats’ or ‘Bring your own mister,’ ” he said. “The temperature can adjust in a matter of minutes.”
Now the Kauffman moves into a new phase: Replacing worn items and rejiggering others. Some areas needed new carpet. A dining area and more seating have been added in the Brandmeyer Great Hall.
Friday afternoon, as the Symphony rehearsed its “Music of Led Zeppelin” concert in Helzberg Hall, workers in hardhats put some final touches on the new chairs in the choral loft — which doubles as behind-the-stage seating for many concerts.
“People really like that view of the Symphony, but they didn’t like the comfort level (of the benched seating),” Schofer said. “So that has been adjusted.”
Schofer grew up in Columbia, Mo. His father founded and chaired the department of special education at the University of Missouri, and his mother was a homemaker who also worked in a coffee shop.
Schofer graduated from Mizzou, and once worked for Marion Laboratories, where he was able to observe Ewing Marion Kauffman in action.
Schofer said it was Kauffman who inspired him to go into nonprofit work and later come to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
“He meets everything good you ever heard about him and then some,” Schofer said. “He was an amazing individual. Every interaction was a life lesson.”
Schofer admits to being more of a numbers guy than one would expect from the head of a performing arts center, but he says that can be a good thing. There have been times when he’s had to say no. A 1,500-seat venue isn’t going to support an act or group that requires a seven-figure fee.
“There are scenarios that play out like that all the time — that’s the part of my job that’s the most important but probably the hardest,” he said. “We are a not-for-profit, but as I remind everybody, we are also a not-for-loss. In Julia Kauffman’s words, this is a building not just for today but for generations to come.”
David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese