When it comes to education, people have some very definite ideas about what must be possible for those who earn particular degrees. For example, when many hear that a student is pursuing a major in theatre and drama, they immediately leap to the assumption that they are interested in acting – and that the person who completes said program is destined to a hard scrabble life of auditions and inevitable disappointments.So it may surprise some to learn that Randy Brown, the executive vice-president and general manager of the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, earned his undergraduate degree at Indiana University in exactly that major. Drawn to the stage during his middle school years, Brown’s focus was behind the scenes in the areas of sound, lights, scenic design and the full spectrum of technical aspects of performance. After he completed that degree, he stayed in Bloomington to earn a master’s in public administration, putting together what he says now is the perfect educational plan for the work he has been doing in Fort Wayne for 26 years.
But he didn’t come to Fort Wayne directly from his studies at IU. Brown, a Mishawaka native, first plied his trade at IU South Bend and St. Mary’s College, also in South Bend, before accepting his current position here. In fact, he says now that he never applied for a job but rather was recruited to each position he has held in his professional career. Pulling together a resumé that makes head hunters take notice is more than just a good education. He has also demonstrated a willingness to work hard and a passion for the work which has brought hours upon hours of enjoyment to audiences across the state.
“In South Bend I was working at the Morris Civic Auditorium and the Joyce Center, and there were a lot of concerts coming through all the time with some amazing technology. When I was in Bloomington, I was a union stage hand and got to work at Assembly Hall and was working with the theater department, which is one of the top 10 programs in the country, as well as the university’s opera program, which is number one. I learned lighting from Al White, who is very talented. Being able to gain that kind of experience and reach a point where I’m being recruited for jobs is something that I may not have appreciated at the time, but now I see that not everybody has that same opportunity.”
His unique experiences also included a large scale event, namely the 1987 Special Olympics World Summer Games which were held at the University of Notre Dame and featured live performances from John Denver, Marvin Hamlisch, Barbara Mandrell and Whitney Houston. Those games helped launch him into his job at the Coliseum, which he accepted in August 1988 just as the Coliseum was adding its Expo Center.
“It was really a start-up operation when I got here. We had the arena and the old Expo Hall, but when we added the Expo Center, everything changed. At that time we were able to add to our parking also. The city was developing Kreager Park at that time. The city had the old City Utilities Park adjacent to the Coliseum, so there was a trade for that space in exchange for the 50 acres adjacent to Kreager Park.”
That sounds simple enough, but it was during those negotiations that the coliseum expansion – and Brown’s role in the city’s plans – took an unexpected turn.
“Suddenly the parking story became a baseball story. We went to a meeting and were told that the one caveat to the land trade was that the city had the opportunity for a baseball team and stadium, and if that happened, then the coliseum would build it. We did not see that coming. Suddenly we were in the baseball business.”
That would remain the case for 17 years while the Fort Wayne Wizards played ball at Memorial Stadium just outside the coliseum. When the team, renamed the TinCaps, left for downtown and Parkview Field, the area formerly devoted to a stadium became additional parking, making other recent expansions at the coliseum even more advantageous. Changes in the last several years have not only changed the exterior of the building but have altered the way the Coliseum does business and what shows and programs are now possible in Fort Wayne.
“Our rigging system has completely changed, making shows like Cirque du Soleil and even concerts like Cher and Jason Aldean possible. We have three sports teams that play at the Coliseum, with Komets here for the last 63 years, the Mad Ants winning a championship here and the Fort Wayne Derby Girls holding their events here. And the second phase of the expansion is going to bring food courts and improved rest rooms to the facility. For a 63-year-old building, it really doesn’t look like it because there’s very little left from the original.”
Among many changes under Brown’s helm is new state-of-the-art technology and an Expo Center which provides the ability to hold multiple events in the building at the same time. A second or even third arena can be made available, providing thousands of seats in each. In fact, Brown says the facility’s flexibility means they can hold up to 1,400 events each year, making it one of the most active and versatile venues in the country.
“When I mention these numbers to colleagues in other parts of the country, they can’t believe it. We’re over-achieving. And for citizens of Allen County, it’s important to note that we are completely self-sustaining, which is unheard of. A similar venue in Peoria lost $870,000 last year, while our recent fourth quarter was one of the best we’ve had in years.”
Brown also enjoys booking shows. He says country performers are the most popular, but he also seeks out shows in other genres and cites several recent alternative rock shows as well as some upcoming classic rock shows. It’s the negotiation for those and the promise of unexpected successes that keeps the job fresh and exciting for him after all these years.
“No two days are ever alike,” he says. “I do the same organizing everyday, and I have Post-it® notes around my office, but one phone call can change everything. Someone can call and ask if we have a date available, and I start working to see if I can pull the terms of the deal together. Usually only one in 10 of those actually works out, so if we have 15-20 of these shows every year, you can see how many of these calls I’m getting and how many we’re working on all the time. I enjoy doing that, and I’m excited for our staff which has been remarkably stable over the years.
“We have 500 employees and very low turnover, and we all work together to do what we can for our guests.”