A Tribute to our Retiring Director, Patti Lockwood-Blais
delivered at Patti’s gala retirement party, March 30, 2016
by Bruce Ward, Board President
We’re here today to honor and celebrate the achievements and leadership of Patti Lockwood-Blais as she retires from the Opera House and moves into the next phase of her life.
BUT before I do that, I want to take a slight detour and also recognize the tireless contributions made by Patti’s husband Steve Blais over all these years. For about 12 years Steve has been the primary, perhaps I should say ONLY, sound technician that the Opera House has relied on exclusively for EVERY SHOW, and not only has he done a wonderful job every time and been totally reliable, he has also usually been the cook who feeds the artists for every show. All this work adds up to easily 8 hours for every show and sometimes more, and incredibly he has done all this week after week completely as a VOLUNTEER and has never taken any pay. At Steve’s request we are now making plans to provide other sound technicians so he can reduce the number of shows he does, but we are fully expecting it will take a team of 4 to 6 people to fill the schedule that Steve has done entirely by himself. We are completely in your debt Steve, and as a small token of our thanks I present you with this gift certificate to Big Apple Music, to be used for your OWN band!
Now back to Patti- I want to start by giving you a little historical context about the opera house before Patti came on board. As most of you know, our beloved opera house was saved from the wrecking ball in 1971 by a man named Joey Skaggs, who bought the property then donated it to the newly formed non-profit organization, Earlville Opera House Incorporated.
In those early years, that small group of dedicated volunteers did amazing work with very little money to begin the long process of restoring the old building, which had been completely vacant for 20 years.
Over the next 10 years small grants were secured for the restoration, and with rental income from storefront space, in-kind donations and lots of volunteer labor the building was patched up and made ready to host performances again.
The program offerings slowly grew. Starting in the 70’s with crafting workshops, a public darkroom facility, and a small gallery, soon the theater was hosting local and regional performers doing classical and theatrical productions, plus a women’s barbershop ensemble and touring productions from both Syracuse Opera and Tri-Cities Opera companies. An article from the Utica Dispatch in 1987 stated that “classical performances are $7 each, popular performances $5”.
Gradually thru the ’80’s the organization began to feature more touring professional acts, and to move away from the classical and theatrical programming and toward more folk and roots-style performers, all in the hopes of serving larger audiences. In 1990, the lineup consisted of five classical acts, two jazz performers, two theater companies, and two folk-roots acts, including Robin and Linda Williams. The balance continued to gradually shift through the 1990’s until it completely reversed, providing one classical and one theatrical act among a season of professional touring roots music performers. During this period we also saw the addition of one or two children’s programs to each season.
This major shift in programming philosophy slowly began to have the desired effect and brought more people to the shows. Still it was a struggle to make revenues match expenses, but the organization soldiered on with lots of community and foundation grant support. In 1998 the first Holiday Show and Sale began a repeating yearly source of funds.
Patti started working at the Opera House as Program Coordinator, in 1996 under then-director Lisa Reilly. During that period major fundraising efforts were preparing the way for the improvements that would transform the building into the beautiful multi-arts center we know today.
When Patti was promoted to Executive Director in late 2002, $260,000 had been raised which would cover half of the planned renovations. Patti made the decision to phase the project so the community could sooner see the fruits of their contributions, and the construction of phase 1 began in 2003, including a new lobby, offices, gallery space, the Arts Cafe, accessible toilet rooms, and an elevator.
With the newly improved facility in place, Patti wasted no time in working to grow both programming and audiences. She continued working to secure grant funding for programming and marketing, and partnered with universities and County tourism offices to further develop marketing opportunities.
Within 3 years of her installation as Director, the New York State Council on the Arts recognized EOH with “Primary Organization Status”, and as “particularly vital to the cultural life of New York State.”
Patti continually promoted the Opera House through Community Outreach in many avenues, including collaborations with the Village of Hamilton summer concert series, the Hamilton Music Mix festival, the Great Chocolate Train festival, the Peterboro Civil War Weekend, the National Abolition Hall of Fame, Madison Hall in Morrisville, the Palace Theater in Hamilton, the Oneida High School theater and the Catherine Cummings Theater in Cazenovia.
When Patti began as director, there was only one gallery and Artists were required to pay half of promotional costs. Patti was able to secure NYSCA funding and eliminate that requirement from the artists. In 2005, Patti expanded the gallery programming from one to two galleries, and later to three galleries with the inclusion of the Arts Cafe. We noted a dramatic increase in gallery attendance from about 2K per year to over 4K. With art in all types of media, Patti has struck a careful balance between attracting visitors and providing diversity in contemporary art, ensuring strong grant support. The rotating exhibits, plus the Holiday Sale plus KidsArt and TeensArt exhibits, showcases and supports over 100 artists every year and brings in busloads of students from eight school districts.
Patti has instituted multiple workshops each year including various arts and crafts workshops, writing workshops, songwriting workshops, theater workshops, and the ever-popular annual circus camp.
Any director of a non-profit organization will tell you that it is very difficult to operate programs that pay for themselves- and that all non-profits depend on government and foundation support for their lifeblood. That is also true of the Opera House, and yet for 13 of the last 14 years under Patti’s leadership, the Opera House programming has operated in the black, completely paying for itself and helping to support the organization as a whole.
Meanwhile, one of the tools Patti (and Steve) used to help control costs was to employ their shared hobby of cooking to feed the touring artists before shows (by the way did you know Patti formerly was a partner in a restaurant?). On at least one occasion, Steven made a full-blown authentic Cajun meal for a New Orleans band who had been on the road for months and were really missing home-town “real food.” With this homey hospitality and their warm welcoming personalities, plus the charm of our historic theater, Patti and Steve created a performing venue where the performers are always happy to come back and perform again, often for less money than they might accept elsewhere.
Patti also has a knack for making audiences and volunteers comfortable- as our frequent volunteer Norm VonWettberg once said: “A t every performance, before the show, Patti ‘floats’ among staff, volunteers, patrons, and band members, checking in on everyone, solving problems on the fly, taking care of a hundred different details from all directions, and makes it look effortless. She never gets rattled, and the few times there was a problem, you’d never know it.”
While carefully managing the organization’s finances, Patti has significantly increased our impact and service to the community and the region. In 1999, Lisa Reilly reported that about 7,500 people attended theater performances and the gallery. With our galleries, workshops, and shows we now serve nearly 13,000 people every year!
It is obvious that Patti has done a wonderful job in her 14 years as head of our organization, and it is with deep heartfelt thanks we honor her today as she passes the baton. Thanks Patti!