BY Bill O’Bolye, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — Back in 1986, could anyone have ever have envisioned that the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts would become the crown jewel in downtown Wilkes-Barre?
Well, it has. In fact, I would dare say it has become the top venue for entertainment in the region. Yes, there are bigger places with more seats — and they all do great work — but far less shows. The Kirby just plugs away week after week, bringing some of the top names in the entertainment industry to our front door.
And the Kirby Center also provides outstanding children’s programming, educational programming, movies and much more for audiences of all ages and taste.
Will Beekman has been the director at the Kirby Center since 2013 and in that time the Kirby has seen a transformation. It has become a much sought-after place for big name entertainers to perform.
Beekman, 40, told me that everybody has known all along that the Kirby Center is a beautiful building with great acoustics and very comfortable seats. What has become known is that the Kirby is a great place to see a concert and to perform on stage as well.
Beekman will tell you that he and his staff have become much more aggressive on scheduling more performers and always climbing the ladder of quality performers as well — those who are well-known, even iconic.
“We’ve found that booking one big artist often leads to another,” Beekman told me.
Beekman said he and his staff have developed a formula that seems to be working. He said when entertainers come to town, they are treated well and their agents and representatives then talk to other clients and on and on.
Add to that the customers are willing to come out and pay a little more and see a big name because the Kirby provides a more intimate atmosphere and the sound is awesome.
But the formula is not perfect. Beekman said he has learned as much from the shows that don’t fare well as the ones that do. He said a lot goes into deciding on who to pursue and who to book, considerations like what day of the week and what time of year to book particular acts.
No matter what, Beekman said there is always a risk, but he has honed it to be an educated risk. And of late, there have been many more successes than failures.
Here are some of the big names that have graced the Kirby’s stage: Ringo Starr, John Mellencamp, Jerry Seinfeld, Frankie Valli, Norah Jones, Alice Cooper, Steve Martin, Donny and Marie Osmond, Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame, Jay Leno, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Martina McBride, ZZ Top, Peter Frampton, Elvis Costello, John Legend, David Byrne of Talking Heads fame, Sebastian Maniscalco (four sellouts), Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Kevin James, Steve Miller Band, The Avett Brothers, Jennifer Nettles, Merle Haggard and Alison Krauss (27 Grammy Awards).
This is not a complete list. There have been many more. And many more will come.
Beekman says many artists are reaching out to him before he reaches out to them — proof that word of mouth is working. He said before this rise in popularity, he would have to reach out and convince artists and agents to come to Wilkes-Barre.
With New York City and Philadelphia not far away, artists like to look for a place on the way to book.
This is a story of success. When the late Al Boscov took the reins of the campaign to restore and renovate the old Paramount Theater in 1986, nobody could have ever expected the result. It truly is remarkable. Wilkes-Barre and Northeastern Pennsylvania had long been the target of unjustified ridicule for decades. Even our residents were almost apologetic when having to reveal where they were from because of those unfair labels.
The Kirby has been a major force in transforming the area into a popular destination for big-name entertainers. That speaks well not only to our community, but to the outside world as well.
We all should be proud of where we live. This area has always stood tall when it comes to being a good place to raise a family. We have quality educational facilities, residents with an exceptional work ethic, beautiful natural resources, a major indoor arena with the Pittsburgh Penguins minor league affiliate and just up the road, a Triple A baseball franchise where the New York Yankees farm club plays.
We have a lot to be proud of here. Just look around.