- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Back in college during the 1970s, Duff Stewart caught the rollicking road version of the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” at Austin’s recently resurrected Paramount Theatre.
There was no way that the Dallas-born student could know that this Texas-staged production of the Tommy Tune-directed show would launch Pace Theatrical, the Houston-based touring group that evolved into Broadway Across America, today the country’s dominant promoter of musical theater tours, including those that stop regularly at Bass Concert Hall.
Or that he would end up, almost 40 years later, as chairman of the Austin Theatre Alliance board of directors, overseeing the thriving seasons at the populist palaces known as the Paramount and State theaters.
Neither venue produces or promotes large-scale musicals these days — the Alliance’s president, CEO Jim Ritts, and the team leave that responsibility to the University of Texas, as well as Zach Theatre, the Long Center, Zilker Productions and area universities — but they have carved out a smart entertainment niche that includes movies, comedy, music and storytelling acts that honor the Paramount’s roots as a vaudeville theater.
Together, too, they have helped engineer a collaborative project with architects and planners Nelson Partners — along with Congress Avenue Development Partners — that will bring a no-car residential tower to the corner of Congress Avenue and East Eighth Street (next door) and will allow the Alliance to renovate the State and Paramount, while providing offices for the theatrical group in the new tower.
When Stewart came on board eight years ago, the Alliance’s financial status was still a bit shaky and the State was still shuttered because of a devastating flood.
“Today we have seasons running at both theaters, 250-plus live performances, 200-plus screened films,” says Stewart, 56, by day the CEO of the GSD&M advertising agency. “We launched Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival six years ago. Now we get into the marketplace in a different spot with a younger audience who can grow up with us.”
Stewart and Ritts are so much in sync, their rat-a-tat patter is sometimes hard to distinguish.
“Duff is passionate. Supportive. Massive heart. Intelligent. Cares deeply about the mission,” say Ritts, who recently quarterbacked the Paramount’s 100th anniversary. “He provides wise counsel but leaves the day-to-day management to the staff. Duff was a significant reason I accepted this role almost seven years ago, and our partnership is a major reason that I get so much joy from what I am doing.”
From economics to the arts
Stewart came to Austin from Dallas to study at the University of Texas. After college, he went to work for a real estate company, Cornerstone Development, a firm that included Bill Gurasich, a founder of GSD&M.
“That’s how I met the advertising side,” Stewart says. “I went over there in 1990. I had never really thought much about advertising before.”
Plus the Austin real estate market had not yet recovered from the late-’80s slump.
The founders sold the agency, which continued to operate pretty independently, in 1990, and that buyer was acquired by Omnicom in 1997. By 2007, Stewart became president of GSD&M, and by 2009 he was CEO, less visible on the civic scene than, say, founders such as Roy Spence and Tim McClure, but ready to move beyond the company’s postmodern walls on West Sixth Street.
He’s been married to Liz Mann Stewart for 28 years. They have three children: Adam Walker Stewart, 25, who works for the Killers rock band; Noah Stewart, 23, who is employed by HomeAway; and Grace Elizabeth Stewart, 20, a junior at the University of Southern California.
Stewart came to the Theatre Alliance with a ready background as a fairly frequent audience member when he was growing up in Dallas.
But it was Alliance board member Frances Bennett, an estate lawyer, who brought him on board, back when she held the title of president. He took over that leadership role from her the next year.
“We had $500,000 left in debt,” he recalls. “We were working on getting the State back open. But we were also in committees figuring out how to tell our story, to survey the community. People didn’t understand that we were in much better shape at that point. We also were creating some lifestyle programming, rather than just importing the usual entertainment genres.”
While other Austin theaters got better at legitimate theater, the Alliance found alternative ways to compete for arts dollars.
“Finding a niche in your programming is critical,” he says. “Tours pop up in shorter cycles; the nature of seasons is changing; and the seasons themselves are shorter. So we are able to give people a better look at what’s coming up in the next few weeks or months. We try to give consumers as much flexibility as possible, too, offering music like Gladys Knight, or storytelling from the country’s best, or occasional theatrical performances from someone like Jaston Williams.”
So what’s the task of the board of directors in this kind of operation?
“Our job is to bring our skill sets to help the theater’s team out,” he says. “Our budget is now about $7.8 million. No debt. And we’ve made a complicated deal for a new building on corner. It will allow us to do so many things, like opening up hidden space in Paramount that hasn’t been used as a public venue for a long time.”
The basic building blocks for the two theaters are sounder than they have been for 50 years.
“We worked hard to put money in the bank, and we’ve got an investment committee for our endowment,” he says. “That’s a long way to come from when board members wrote checks to help pay the staff. The teams there are wonderful people. They now know how to grow and expand, using big data stuff to learn more about audiences.”
They’ve remodeled the bars and improved the quality of the products offered. “The average guest now pays $9 for alcohol,” he says. “Concessions are huge.”
The Alliance also works closely with other nonprofits, such as singer-songwriter Darden Smith’s Songwriting With Soldiers, to improve the city beyond its home on Congress Avenue.
“We have to be more than just a building,” Stewart says. “We must make an impact on our community.”