THE ACOUSTIC design of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall does not address itself to the needs or demands of electric music, so it's little wonder that rock, pop and to a lesser extent, jazz, have had a generally disastrous history in the hall. Then again, the center has traditionally shown little interest in these areas, as if the word "culture" is devalued when the word "popular" is attached to it. Although it remains a prestigious venue that many artists like to add to their credits, the fact remains that pop music faces a series of major obstacles at the Kennedy Center:
First and foremost, "they've priced themselves out of the market," as one major promoter says of the Kennedy Center. The costs of presenting a concert there (reflected in ticket prices) are prohibitive, not so much in strict rental terms, but in varied surcharges. The most serious one involves the stagehand's union, one of the highest paid in the country at $20 an hour with a minimum six-man call for four to eight hours (double time after midnight, plus 36 percent on the top for health, welfare and pension benefits). When comedian Richard Pryor performed there, the show's promoters had to pay for a full crew, even though Pryor uses only a microphone. Most pop acts travel with their own crews, but union rules prohibit their touching or moving anything on stage; they can only direct the union stagehands.
There are other extremely high costs, including $600 per performance for the box office (as well as a per-ticket charge), $675 for ticket takers and ushers and high-priced security. The Concert Hall insists on promoters using their phone-charge system at 10 percent of the ticket price.
All these costs would be acceptable if the Concert Hall was an easy sell, but it has not proven to be. Shelly Gross, whose Music Fair company presented Cher, Bob Hope and Johnny Mathis in two unsuccessful seasons at the Concert Hall, says, "It was difficult to merchandize tickets there."
The reasons are built into the hall, whose interior is intimidating to many pop audiences. Other problems include a lack of adequate parking facilities, the remote location of the center, mediocre sightlines, the starkness of the room and its generally horrible acoustics for anything amplified.
Pop concerts are held at the Concert Hall, but several promoters complain that many potentially profitable concerts are turned down because they are not in keeping with the center's image. Although Pryor, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed and Pat Benatar have performed there in the past, the Concert Hall is generally home to middle-of-the-road pop, soul and country acts whose audiences are not likely to vandalize the center (cigarette burns and other acts of vandalism brought on a $10,000 cash bond against damages, further discouragement to many potential promoters).
The Kennedy Center's apparent lack of involvement or interest in pop music is common to "cultural centers" across the country, though with Lisner, DAR and the Capital Centre, the music is not lacking for a home. And the problem of expenses certainly extends to all manner of Kennedy Center productions. Still, it's a shame that this "cultural heart of Washington" so seldom connects with music and culture that reaches and pleases the masses.