When world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman steps onstage at Sandy Springs’ Byers Theatre Saturday night, it will be a high-water mark in the cultural life of the 14-year-old city. But his booking has also become a flash point for the north Fulton government, which recently thrust itself into the concert-promotion business.
The city-owned theater opened its doors in August as part of the $229 million City Springs project that includes city hall, a smaller studio theater, apartments and restaurants on a crest along Roswell Road. The project was a civic effort to create a real downtown area, and the 1,074-seat hall opened to positive reviews in a community that has long sought an identity as something more than just a suburb north of Atlanta.
But the way the city sold and distributed tickets to Perlman’s concert has exposed local officials to criticism that they excluded many residents and offered special treatment to sponsors and others who helped back the performance.
“It seems like a lot of the tickets were already spoken for, before they were available to the public,” said Marcia Goldstein, a Sandy Springs resident who said her husband went to the box office to get tickets but they seemed to be gone before it opened. “I was under the impression that when the tickets would be available, they would be available.”
Some tickets were available — 359, to be exact — but the majority, 703, went to sponsors in an early sale, city spokeswoman Sharon Kraun said. Another dozen tickets went to Perlman for his guests, and to Byers Theatre itself.
It’s that split that has frustrated residents, many of whom went online to vent their anger after Mayor Rusty Paul, in January, told people in his own post that they’d “better hustle” if they wanted to see the show.
Goldstein called it a “huge disappointment,” while others said it reduced their interest in going to see acts there in the future. Another resident, Jeanne Shulman, said she knew the Israeli-born Perlman would be a big draw — she was amazed the city got him to begin with — but she was bothered by what she saw as misinformation about the availability of tickets.
“Why did he even bother to send that out?” she said of Paul’s message. “Surely, he should have known.”
There is no standard for how many tickets should be sold early vs. made available to the general public, said Iain Bluett, the president of Ticket Alternative, an Atlanta-based ticket-sales company. But he questioned why the city didn’t try to add a second show, given the high demand.
Perlman’s visit is both a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Sandy Springs Society, a women’s civic club, and a part of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Kraun said. At the festival, spokesperson Leah Sitkoff said, Perlman will receive the Icon Award for Contributions to the Cinematic Arts, which honors exemplary artists who have upheld a tradition of excellence in film informed directly or indirectly by a Jewish subject or sensibility. Perlman collaborated with composer John Williams on the score for “Schindler’s List,” which won an Oscar, and other films.
Kraun said the needs of the festival as well as Perlman’s schedule dictated the single date. She said a larger site wasn’t considered because the city doesn’t have one.
“There wasn’t a thought to put him outside Sandy Springs,” she said. “This was for us.”
But the city couldn’t cover the $115,000 cost to bring him, and that’s where the sponsors came in. The Sandy Springs Society, Northside Hospital, RBM of Atlanta, the Sandy Springs Development Authority and BB&T Bank all contributed to the cost. They all got early access to tickets, too. Kraun said the Sandy Springs Society purchased 325 of the tickets, while the film festival had 300 available for its patrons. The rest of the pre-sale tickets were made available to the other sponsors.
Sue Winner, the president of the Sandy Springs Society, said she conceived of the performance to celebrate the 314-member organization last year, after watching an Atlanta Jewish Film Festival movie about Perlman. Ticket sales covered the society’s $20,000 contribution toward bringing Perlman to perform.
“I didn’t know so many people wanted to come,” Winner said. “We have no intention of hurting anybody. I don’t know how to fix it.”
Winner said she would have loved to have Perlman for the full weekend, but his schedule didn’t allow it.
“It’s pretty normal that sponsors get first crack at tickets. That’s the way that works,” said Gabriel Sterling, a former Sandy Springs councilman and the vice president of the city’s development authority. “I’m frustrated when I can’t get into a show sometimes, too, but we have an intimate venue.”
Sterling isn’t going to the show himself, but said he didn’t think the complaints were fair. After all, several hundred people were still able to get tickets to the show, and having Perlman perform in this theater’s first year will help put it on the map. He called it “an amazing showcase for an amazing location.”
“If you don’t get a ticket, I’m sure you’re pretty annoyed, but you really can’t begrudge the people who bring it to you who also raised tens of thousands of dollars for the event,” he said.
Kraun said the tickets, which ranged in price from $65 to $100, sold out in 30 minutes. She said tickets could have been sold for more and might have lasted an hour instead but the city wanted Perlman’s visit to be affordable.
Liz Coyle, the executive director of the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch, said she hoped Sandy Springs planned to create a policy regarding how ticket sales are handled in the future. She said transparency would help residents understand how things worked going forward.
“Because this is a new facility, people are looking to see what the patterns are going to be,” she said. “If they don’t have ground rules, they ought to get them in place so Sandy Springs residents know what to expect for this facility their taxes helped pay for.”
Kraun said she and the city have learned as acts have started to come in. She knows, now, to be prepared for quick ticket sales. And she said the city is still finding its footing in offering entertainment. In January, the city announced it was terminating the relationship with Spectra, the company that acted as Byers Theatre’s general manager. That contract ended earlier this month, and Sandy Springs is seeking a new operations director.
Still, the theater has gotten rave reviews, including from patrons like Shulman, who called it “wonderful” and said she’s enjoyed other shows there. Kraun said there have been a number of sell-outs, from performances by the City Springs Theatre Company to the Russian comedian Maxim Galkin to Hey Landyn Live, a touring show with a lifestyle blogger. The Atlanta Ballet is set to perform there, as is the band Three Dog Night.
Kraun said the city continues to experiment to find the right fit.
“We did everything in the best interest of the community. To get an artist of the caliber of Perlman to come here, that’s not such a bad move. That’s good for the community,” Kraun said. “It takes a couple years for any new venue to find its footing …We’re not going to get everything right, but we’re going to learn what works and what doesn’t.”
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