Larry Payton and his wife, Kay, created Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa nearly 22 years ago, and it appears the venture has been successful. The Paytons now are producers of the national tour of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and they recently purchased the touring musical “Rock and the Rabbi,” which has drawn critical raves. The Paytons own a piece of Broadway’s “Spamalot,” “Moving Out” and “Peter Pan” starring Cathy Rigby.
Success for Larry Payton’s company in Little Rock, his wife’s hometown, has come more slowly, however.
“I envisioned it being a stronger market than it was at the beginning,” Payton admits. “It didn’t come out that way. But it’s growing.”
Season ticket sales for the company’s season of shows, he says, were up significantly last year, and this season’s sales are 8 to 10 percent above last year’s. Celebrity Attractions’ 2005-2006 season opens in November, when the colorful “Cirque Dreams,” fashioned after the Cirque du Soleil shows, arrives for three performances at Robinson Center Music Hall. Then things get hopping early in 2006 with “The Will Rogers Follies” starring Larry Gatlin, the Tony Award-winning tour of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and the pounding musical show “Blast!”
“People seem to be excited about seeing some unique shows,” he said.
Celebrity Attractions also caught an unexpected show last week when the kids’ show “Dora the Explorer Live,” scheduled for New Orleans, had to move due to Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. It will play here Oct. 18-20.
Payton, a native of Missouri, was the director of Ouachita Baptist University’s student center and the OBU men’s tennis coach in the 1970s. (During his six years at OBU, one of Payton’s students was Mike Huckabee, who worked with student programs while in the student government.) Payton’s introduction to scheduling events started there, and continued at the University of Tulsa, before he decided to start Celebrity Attractions.
“Teaching in college was the game plan. I still like working with young people, but I’m doing it a different way,” he said.
Within seven years, the company had branched into Oklahoma City. Then came Springfield, Mo., followed by Lubbock, Texas.
Gene and Marilyn Weinstein had brought Broadway tour shows to Little Rock for many years, but by the mid-1990s they were ready to get out. Payton stepped in by opening a Celebrity Attractions office here in 1997.
The most recent expansion has been into the Amarillo market, and Celebrity oversees its six cities with 16 employees in Tulsa and four in Little Rock.
As part of its contract with the city, Celebrity Attractions sells tickets for all Robinson Center Music Hall events, not just its own touring shows. It also serves as a Ticketmaster sales outlet.
Celebrity Attractions shows are, foremost, “wholesome family entertainment,” Payton said. “We’re in the Bible Belt, all our markets are in the Bible Belt. I don’t apologize for that.”
You may see “Rent” at Robinson Center, but Celebrity is not going to be the promoter, Payton said. But, Celebrity has put on shows such as “Miss Saigon” that some theater-goers might find daring, at least in some places. “The Producers,” originally scheduled for this season but shifted to 2006-07, is risqué, he notes.
“We have shows with mature audience themes and we make sure the audience knows about it,” he said.
Thus, Payton says he’s careful using the term “sophisticated” in describing a show. “Some people’s sophistication is seen a lot differently by others.”
Last year’s big hit, the highest-grossing show in Celebrity Attractions’ time here, was “Mamma Mia,” inspired by Abba music. “It was successful for everybody,” Payton said. “When a show is successful, that means hotels are successful, people who buy advertising, restaurants — all are successful. Our full week is great throughout the city.”
But Payton, who is scheduling shows up to three years in advance, still has to find the right shows and marry the dates to fit his markets. Little Rock, he said, has proven to be a better sell during the week than on weekends. Springfield is a weekend seller.
And, he adds, “the beauty in our market is that shows must cross east and west twice, and we’re in the center part of the states. We have a chance to get it one way or another, and then we have to make sure the hall is available when the show is coming through.”
Payton’s also had to learn the hard way about Little Rock that every show isn’t a “Mamma Mia,” able to support eight shows.
“We’ve had some great growth in Little Rock in the past couple of years,” he said. “Early on, I was concerned, but I think now they’ve embraced what we’re trying to bring in.”
Last year’s season also featured “1964 … The Tribute,” a Beatles cover band that nearly filled Robinson Center with an enthusiastic audience. Payton has brought the band to Tulsa for 20 years, and until this summer “1964” played back-to-back shows there. Payton moved one of the shows to Little Rock to see how the city would respond. Look for “1964” to come back, perhaps next summer, he said.
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