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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

If you’re a data geek like I am, you can have a lot of fun with Pollstar magazine’s annual list of the Top 200 theater venues in the world.

For example: The Coachella Valley’s McCallum Theatre—considered a small- to medium-sized venue—in 2018 came in at No. 70 in the entire world, with well more than 100,000 tickets sold. No theater in Southern California sold more tickets than the McCallum did, even though the venue is only open for half the year.

That’s right: The McCallum had more butts in its seats in 2018 than any theater in Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the country.

Mitch Gershenfeld, the McCallum’s president, CEO and show-booker, said 2019 has been even stronger—and that he has high hopes for the 2019-2020 season. Tickets for all shows in the upcoming season go on sale online today (April 11) at 6 p.m., with box-office and phone sales beginning tomorrow morning at 9 a.m.

The 2019-2020 season includes the big names—Melissa Etheridge (Nov. 14), anyone?—that people have come to expect to be on the McCallum schedule, along with valley favorites like the Ten Tenors (Feb. 19-23, 2020) and Pink Martini (March 4-8). However, Gershenfeld said he’s particularly thrilled about the Broadway shows he’s booked; five of them have never been to the McCallum before, kicking off with the musical adaptation of A Christmas Story (Nov. 26 and 27).

“It has all of the key things that are in the movie,” Gershenfeld said. “There’s a whole number with dancing leg lamps.”

That will be followed by Waitress (Dec. 6-8) and The Play That Goes Wrong (Jan. 21 and 22), a critical darling that just closed on Broadway earlier this year—and is still going strong on London’s West End.

“It’s the quintessential British farce,” Gershenfeld said.

Escape to Margaritaville (Jan. 30-Feb. 1)—a musical featuring the songs of Jimmy Buffett, but you probably figured that out already—will be followed by Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Feb. 7-9), which has become a Broadway fixture, recently celebrating its fifth anniversary there.

“It’s really nice to get another musical that’s still on Broadway,” Gershenfeld said.

Those new-to-the-McCallum shows will be joined by returnees Chicago (March 13-15) and The Illusionists (April 7 and 8).

Mitch’s Picks—a series of a shows by unheralded performers that Gershenfeld personally recommends—are back, starting off on Nov. 22 with a double-bill of performers who perform traditional Latin music with a twist: the all-women Mariachi Flor de Toloache and The Villalobos Brothers. They’ll be followed by a Christmas show on Dec. 16 by YouTube a cappella sensation Voctave.

“They’re an amazing group who primarily performs at Disneyworld,” Gershenfeld said. “The core members have beautiful voices, and the arrangements are extraordinary.”

Other Mitch’s Picks include the Derina Harvey Band, a Celtic-rock group (Jan. 14); Wicked alum-turned-soul singer Shoshana Bean (Feb. 4); and Mnozil Brass (March 24), a brass septet that melds original tunes, classics and a lot of humor.

The National Geographic Live series will be back at the McCallum for a second year with three shows. Gershenfeld admits he was concerned about how a science series would do—and he was pleasantly surprised by the reaction of McCallum audiences this year.

“They love it, and they point out that it’s so different,” Gershenfeld said. “It’s also a program that attracts children, which is great. During the Q&A sessions, the kids are always asking questions.”

This year’s shows are On the Trail of Big Cats (Jan. 6), Photography Without Borders (March 2) and View From Above (April 5) with astronaut Terry Virts.

Gershenfeld said the new season’s highlights include some tribute shows that are quite special. First and foremost is A Toast to Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé (April 4). The two were most successful act to regularly appear at the McCallum before the Ten Tenors came along, Gershenfeld said.

“Frank Sinatra would show up to hang out backstage,” he added.

Gormé passed away in 2013, and Lawrence has retired from performing; this show will feature their son, David Lawrence, and Tony Award-winner Debbie Gravitte, along with a 32-piece orchestra and vintage video clips.

“We have all of their original music charts,” Gershenfeld said. “… This is the first place this show is going to play. There’s no place (Steve Lawrence) would want to do the first show other than (here).”

Speaking of Frank Sinatra … he’ll be returning to the McCallum, sort of, thanks to the talents of Bob Anderson, on Feb. 14 and 15. Gershenfeld explained that the Sinatra impressionist sounds exactly like Ol’ Blue Eyes, and to add to the impression, he has a prosthetic mask of Sinatra’s face. When you add in a 32-piece orchestra playing Sinatra’s original arrangements … the likeness is eerie and amazing.

The other big names coming to the McCallum zigzag across genres—Mandy Patinkin (Nov. 16), The Beach Boys (Dec. 1), Itzhak Perlman (Jan. 20), Ricky Skaggs (March 12), the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (March 15), and so on.

“Last season (2017-2018) was the most successful in our history,” Gershenfeld said. “This year (the just-concluding 2018-2019) surpassed it.” And 2019-2020 has a great chance of continuing that trend.

Tickets for the McCallum Theatre’s 2019-2020 season go on sale online at mccallumtheatre.com at 6 p.m., Thursday, April 11; and at 9 a.m., Friday, April 12, at the box office, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, and by phone, at 760-340-2787. For the complete schedule, visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Published in Local Fun

Itzhak Perlman has captivated classical-music audiences as a violinist, conductor and teacher for more than five decades. He’s easily one of the world’s most-recognizable classical musicians, and easily sells out venues around the world. In fact, he did just that here in the Coachella Valley: He’ll be performing a sold-out show at the McCallum Theatre on Tuesday, Jan. 20.

Born in Tel Aviv, in the British Mandate of Palestine (now Israel) to Polish immigrants in 1945, he showed an interest in music as early as the age of 3.

“I just remember a specific violinist who inspired me—Jascha Heifetz,” Perlman said during a recent phone interview. “The sound just drove me to say, ‘I want to do this!’ but I don’t remember the specific piece.”

He said an oft-told story—about how he was supposedly rejected by the Shulamit Conservatory at the age of 3 because he was too small to hold a violin, and then went on to teach himself how to play—is untrue.

“I didn’t teach myself,” he said. “When they decided that I was a little too young, we stopped it. I entered the conservatory when I was about 4. I had teachers from the very beginning.”

At the age of 4, he contracted polio, but recovered, albeit with the diminished use of his legs. Later in his childhood, he immigrated to the United States and entered the Juilliard School. He was introduced to American audiences by performing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958; he played on the show a second time, in 1964, appearing on the same episode as the Rolling Stones.

“At the time, I didn’t know anything about the Rolling Stones,” he said. “On The Ed Sullivan Show, I had my own dressing room, and I didn’t really mix with anybody until it was time for me to make the appearance. Now, I’m quite amazed that I was on the same show. At that time, I was just concerned about doing the best I could on the program.”

Since then, Perlman has performed in just about every important classical music venue in the world. He’s played with renowned orchestras and other classical musicians, appeared at the White House, and even performed at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

“I’m going to be 70 soon, I’ve been playing music for almost 50 years, and I’m still loving it,” he said. “If there’s anything you ask me that I want to do, I want to stay connected with what I’m doing, and so far, I’m still connected. For me, that’s a goal I always think about, and the minute I think that’s enough for me, and I don’t want to do anything, I’ll stop. I play concerts; I conduct; and I teach. I’m having a great time, and I’m very happy with that.”

When asked about the difference between playing and conducting, he spoke passionately about the experience of conducting.

“It’s different when I play, because I’m in control of what’s going on,” he said. “When I conduct, I’m in control of what goes on musically, but I actually can’t make the people who play an instrument play a certain way. I can just coax them to play a certain way. In some ways, there’s a little bit less control, but I love conducting, because it gives me the opportunity to be exposed to a different repertoire. I play the Tchaikovsky violin concerto; I play the Beethoven violin concerto; and (I play the) Brahms violin concerto many times. When I conduct, I can do Brahms symphonies, Tchaikovsky symphonies—and it’s a different repertoire. It’s a great experience for me.”

Perlman said teaching is also a big part of his life.

“Teaching is very rewarding, and second of all, it’s very important for any performing artist, in my view, to have some experience teaching. I keep repeating the answer to this question with, ‘If you teach others, you teach yourself.’ I feel that one of the most important reasons I’m playing a certain way is because of my experience in teaching others, and I’m very lucky, because the level of my students is pretty high. To teach students who are very talented is more challenging, because you really have to dig deep in what you want to tell them to help them perform better, and so on. It’s extremely rewarding, and I love it.”

The cuts to public schools have affected music programs across the country—especially since the Great Recession. Perlman sees these cuts as a dangerous thing.

“I think we need more awareness as to how important the arts are to our society,” he said. “Without art, it will just not be as good. So we need to make sure politicians and people who are in charge of funding are aware of the importance of the arts. I think the fact that the arts is on public television is extremely important, because you want to bring this to everybody. You want to make sure that everyone is aware that the arts are there for us. Why bother to have schools if the schools are only going to be partly educating the kids? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

The advances in technology have brought young people more ways with which to get involved in music. Perlman offered some fine advice to anyone who wants to pursue a musical instrument.

“First, you have to do what you like. The other thing is you need to study what happened before electronic music or other kinds of music,” he said. “What about composers like Bartok? What about Shostakovich? We’re talking about 20th-century composers. In order for people to be aware of what people like or don’t like, they have to be aware of what came first, which is basically like studying history—music history, and music history can go way, way back. It’s very important not to have blinders on and just see what’s going on today. You have to see what went on before. That’s part of the reason why today is what today is. It’s all evolved.”

Itzhak Perlman will perform at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 20, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are sold out. For more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Published in Previews

The McCallum Theatre will, as always, bring in big names and big shows during the 2014-2015 season (and subscription tickets that include many of those big names are going on sale at 8 a.m., Tuesday, April 8).

Comedy legend Bob Newhart. Grammy Hall of Famer Neil Sedaka. Violin icon Itzhak Perlman. The legendary musical Anything Goes.

But if you’re looking for some hidden gems on the just-announced schedule, McCallum director of communications and public affairs Jeffrey Norman encourages you to check out Mitch’s Picks.

“Mitch” is Mitch Gershenfeld, the president and CEO of the McCallum, who has been booking shows at the venerable theater—the top-selling venue in California in the spring, according to Pollstar—for about 14 years now. His “Picks” are five shows by performers who may not be household names, but are immensely talented nonetheless.

“He’s kinda saying, ‘I’ve been booking shows for a long time, and I can personally recommend these,’” Norman said.

Those picks by Mitch include a show by Cheyenne Jackson (below), who will be performing Shaken Not Stirred: The Music of the Movies. The performer is best known for acting roles on 30 Rock and Glee, but he’s one hell of a singer, too. (He’s also gorgeous, and proudly out.) He’ll be performing on Saturday, Nov. 1; tickets are $25 to $75.

Mitch’s other picks include the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (yes, I really did just write “Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain”) on Thursday, Jan. 29; Rodney Mack Philadelphia Big Brass performing Brothers on the Battlefield, a multimedia show honoring the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, on Monday, Feb. 16; Mona Golabek’s one-woman show about a young Jewish musician in 1938 Vienna, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, on Wednesday, Feb. 25; and 2Cellos on Friday, March 6.

Norman encouraged me to look for clips of 2Cellos—which consists of Croatian cellists Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser—online. I now encourage you to do the same. (Scroll down to the bottom to see one.) They’re simply amazing (and, like Cheyenne Jackson, they’re simply gorgeous.)

“Elton John called them the most amazing thing since Jimi Hendrix. They play the heck out of those cellos,” Norman said.

Of course, Norman—a veteran of the theater-venue world himself—also has his own opinions, so I asked him for one of Jeffrey’s Picks for the 2014-2015 season.

“It would have to be Dame Edna,” Norman said, referring to the alter ego of Australian comedian/performer Barry Humphries, who recently turned 80. “She had reportedly retired—or perhaps I should say he had reportedly retired. Apparently, he decided to do one last farewell tour, and he specifically remembered the McCallum Theatre, and wanted to return.”

Dame Edna—who was a semi-regular on Ally McBeal, fans may recall—will perform on Monday and Tuesday, March 30 and 31; and Wednesday, April 1. Tickets are $35 to $95, possums.

And now for my pick: I was intrigued to see that John Waters, the uniquely Baltimore “pope of trash” known for Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, will be doing his one-man Christmas show, A John Waters Christmas, at the McCallum on Tuesday, Dec. 2; tickets are $25 to $55.

I’ve seen Waters do a one-man show before; he’s hilarious and even charming (though certainly graphic and, um, profane).

“We were very explicit in the brochure: This is for diehard John Waters fans. He is definitely putting the ‘x’ back in Xmas,” Norman said.

All in all, 2014-2015 looks like yet another diverse and busy year for the McCallum—and Norman said up to a dozen more shows may be added before all is said and done.

“I am really excited about it,” Norman said. “It’s a really fun, interesting, eclectic season that has a little bit of everything.”

A lot of really fun and interesting things are going on behind the scenes at the McCallum, too. While the theater is best known for its great shows, the McCallum Theatre Institute spends a lot of time, money and effort promoting arts around the community, especially to local students; Norman notes that the institute puts on 1,700 workshops at 28 schools throughout the valley each year.

In September 2014, the McCallum will be expanding its community-arts mission even further: Thanks to a $600,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, the McCallum will launch a new effort. The Crisálida Project: Transforming Ourselves, Transforming Our Communities is “an initiative to give voice to the cultural traditions and aspirations of the largely Hispanic and economically disadvantaged communities” in Indio, Coachella, Thermal and Mecca.

The project, funded by the grant for two years, will be led by master storyteller David Gonzalez. He will hold a series of meetings, classes, workshops, story circles and performances in the East Valley to promote community art-making, gather stories and preserve traditions.

Norman said that the products of The Crisálida Project could lead to community-wide performances, and perhaps even shows on the McCallum stage, although there are no prescribed expectations for the project.

“As the valley’s leading performing-arts venue, we have a responsibility to promote broader access to the arts,” Norman said.

Hear, hear. Looks like 2014-2015 is going to be a great year for the McCallum, both inside the theater itself and beyond.

For subscription sales or more information, visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Published in Local Fun