Dr. Milton Russos was there for the first curtain call in 1966. Fifty years later, the founder of FSCJ’s Artist Series still doesn’t miss a show. As executive director, Russos and his team bring the best of Broadway to Jacksonville each season. On the cusp of his 50th year at the helm, Russos reflects on his time at FSCJ Artist Series and the organization’s impact on the River City – and Downtown – over the decades.
Congrats on 50 years of The Artist Series! How does it feel?
Hard to believe it’s been 50 years. The years have flown by so quickly. I just see it as a personal sense of accomplishment.
How did the idea come about?
The Florida State College at Jacksonville (then known as Florida Junior College) opened in 1966 and the first president of the college called me to his office one day for a meeting. He had arrived about eight months before most of the staff, and he told me that there was a new theater (Civic Auditorium) by the river in Downtown Jacksonville. He did not feel it was getting much use. He said, “Put something together.”
At the time, I thought he was talking about putting together a program for students. In addition to my teaching responsibilities, I had also volunteered to help develop the college student activities program. Looking back, that meeting was in reality the start of the Artist Series.
The Series initially was very small and consisted of a few contemporary concert artists such as The Lettermen, Ramsey Lewis Trio, and Jay and the Americans. We had a classical chamber program and a line-up of celebrity speakers such as Vance Packard, Dr. Joyce Brothers and Vincent Price. It didn’t take long to figure out the Series had the potential to meet many of the community’s cultural needs.
By the mid-’70s, I was looking for programs that could help stabilize the Series, and the decision was made to begin a Broadway component. Our first Broadway presentation was Grease. The Broadway series began with just single-night performances, graduating to two performances, then split week (three to five show engagements) and eventually to full-week engagements.
Did you think it would last as long as it has?
In 1966, I was young, single and just out of graduate school. Fifty years was a long ways away and the furthest thing from my mind. Over the years, it became evident that the Series had staying power.
One of the first indicators was our first week-long engagement in 1986 of Cats. We learned a lot, as we sold 25,000 tickets, and those were the days before we had computerized ticketing. Needless to say, we invested in ticketing software the following season.
The renovation of the Civic Auditorium into the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts in 1996-97 was critical, as it allowed us to schedule The Phantom of the Opera for a four-week engagement in 1999. There were a number of doubters, but I felt confident that Jacksonville would respond – just as many other cities across the country had responded. The 2007 presentation of Disney’s The Lion King, a six-week engagement, was a huge success and gave us confidence to not only continue with Broadway but to expand our other offerings. In 2009, Wicked arrived for a multiple-week engagement, followed by the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in 2010. In 2012, Wicked returned for an encore and was joined by a three-week engagement of Jersey Boys. Last season, we presented one of Broadway’s major and current hits, The Book of Mormon.
Looking back, any favorite shows? Explain why.
Les Miserables is a personal favorite. In this business, I learned a long time ago that you don’t have to like a show or a performer to present them. The important thing is will those who attend enjoy the performance? Nothing pleases me more than to see the audience leaving the performance smiling.
Can you share your fondest memory of the last 50 years? Any neat stories to tell?
There are probably too many memories to pick just one, but a memorable one was our first presentation of Hal Holbrook in his portrayal of Mark Twain in Mark Twain Tonight. I recall seeing him on stage for the first time. He was riveting in his portrayal of Twain. One of the unique things about Holbrook is that you had to financially settle the show with him personally. Seeing him backstage to settle the show, he never got out of character. I felt I was finalizing his payment with Mark Twain. After his performance, he would always want to go to dinner. Sometimes, those dinners would last for hours, which provided memories for the restaurant owners as well.
Why is supporting performing arts in Jacksonville so important?
The standard line is that the arts improve the quality of life. People attend because they enjoy seeing a specific artist or show. But the arts also stimulate creativity, help preserve our cultural heritage and expose audiences to other cultures.
What many may not realize is the arts also stimulate the local economy. The economic impact is substantial when a company of 75 performers and support staff arrive in Jacksonville for a week-long engagement. Hundreds of local individuals comprising of stagehands, ushers, ticket sellers and takers, parking attendants, security, janitorial staff and concession staff among many others are required to successfully present a show. Local businesses provide supplies and equipment, and hotels benefit from lodging they provide to visiting artists, support staff and out-of-town patrons. Restaurants and other business also benefit.
How do you think The Artist Series has impacted the community over the years?
I have seen the community change and grow over the last 50 years. I want to believe that the Artist Series contributed in Jacksonville becoming a much more tolerant community (although from time-to-time, we may have instances where some may think it is not – but I suspect that all communities may have similar instances). The economic impact over 50 years has been substantial. Many members of the community count on the Artist Series for their livelihood.
How do you think it’s impacted Downtown, specifically?
The Artist Series brings thousands into the Downtown area. I see the Artist Series as well as other presenters and venues in the Downtown area as catalysts.
For someone who’s never experienced an Artist Series performance Downtown, why would you recommend it?
The emphasis is on “quality.” The quality of touring Broadway and other shows has risen dramatically over the last 15 years. Today we are presenting shows that are produced at a very high level for the “Road.” The Moran Theater at the Times-Union Center has one of the largest stages in the Southeast. We can fit the full production on that stage and with over 2,800 seats we can attract shows such as The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Wicked and The Book of Mormon. You can only see those shows and many other similar major productions in Downtown Jacksonville.
What’s next for The Artist Series, i.e what are you most excited about this season and/or future seasons?
This is an exciting season for the Artist Series. It’s our 50th year of presenting and, while we have many new shows, we also have some favorites returning. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera arrives in a new production. While the story is the same, new technology has been incorporated that provides for many new dramatic moments. Audiences will see some changes to the set, including a new chandelier. Some even say there is a different aspect of Christine’s relationship to the Phantom. Is that reason enough to come Downtown in February?
There are so many new challenges in the presenting world these days. The Series has to stay ahead of the curve. There are many new shows arriving each season in New York, and our task is to determine those that will be successful in our market. The use of social media has dramatically changed the way we reach audiences.
2015-2016 Artist Series Shows*
- Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, October 9 – 11
- Alvin and the Chipmunks Live on Stage, October 17
- So You Think You Can Dance Tour 2015, October 21
- Veggie Tales Live!, November 20
- Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, December 1 – 6
- An Irish Christmas, December 21
- A Christmas Carol, December 22
- Tchaikovsky Spectacular Ballet, January 8
- 42nd Street, January 12 – 17
- Hooking Up with the Second City, January 23
- Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage, January 23
- Yanni, February 3
- The Phantom of the Opera, February 10 – 21
- Disney’s Fantasia Live in Concert, March 11
- Blue Man Group, March 12 – 13
- Old Jews Telling Jokes, April 2
- Chicago City Limits, April 16
- Motown the Musical, April 19 – 24
- David Sedaris, April 20
- Mamma Mia!, May 6 – 7
*Only shows taking place Downtown listed.
For information on special promotions and ticket packages for the upcoming season, visit FSCJ Artist Series’ website: artistseriesjax.com. You can also follow FSCJ Artist Series on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and #BroadwayJax.