Arts & Culture

Roger Krupa’s Raleigh, from cow town to concert town

Roger Krupa, holds his 8-month-old granddaughter Maezy Lee Krupa while receiving a greeting from Sharon Banks during his retirement reception Monday, December 14, 2015 in Raleigh, N.C.
Roger Krupa, holds his 8-month-old granddaughter Maezy Lee Krupa while receiving a greeting from Sharon Banks during his retirement reception Monday, December 14, 2015 in Raleigh, N.C.

In January 1980, Roger Krupa had just arrived in Raleigh, hired as director of the Civic Center (remember the Civic Center?). And at his first meeting with the county commissioners, they went out of their way to let him know the local pecking order.

“One of the commissioners stood up and said, ‘For all the talk about growth, I don’t want anybody to forget that agriculture is what moves Wake County’s economy,’ ” Krupa recalled. “In 1980, there was some truth to that. Tobacco was still king, and agriculture really was what ran this county.”

Since then, Raleigh’s population has almost tripled and plenty of other industries have eclipsed agriculture economically. And the arts have become a much more integral part of the city’s fabric, in large part through Krupa’s efforts.

The Civic Center is long gone, replaced by a shiny new convention center Krupa helped build. From his corner director’s office, Krupa can look out the window and see another venue he helped build, Red Hat Amphitheater. Between Red Hat and Walnut Creek Amphitheatre (which he also helped to get built), more than 400,000 people came to concerts at the city’s big outdoor venues this past summer. Throw in Meymandi Concert Hall and Fletcher Opera Theatre (yes, those too), and Krupa’s fingerprints are all over downtown Raleigh.

But Krupa, who turns 68 next month, retires at the end of 2015 – literally.

“As soon as the fireworks go off, I’m done,” Krupa said, referring to First Night’s stroke-of-midnight New Year’s Eve finale.

A replacement has not yet been named. (Assistant City Manager Jim Green will be interim director during the search.) Whoever gets the job will try to maintain and expand the venue infrastructure that makes Hopscotch Music Festival, World of Bluegrass and dozens of other large and small events possible.

“Even when agriculture was what ran this county, there was always a youthful vibe to this city, which is better than ever now,” Krupa said. “I’m lucky to have been here through these times. Other cities would have been fun to work in, but I did eight big construction projects here, all for the future.”

Turning the lights off

A native of Ohio, Krupa began his career in 1972 running convention centers in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. That was long before the days of thousand-dollar VIP tickets, when the concert industry operated at a far more modest scale.

“My indoctrination into the music business was a meeting where promoters got together in Cleveland to figure out how to push the ticket price from $5 to $5.50,” Krupa said. “This was probably 1973, and everybody was kind of choking on what an outrage $5.50 was. How times have changed.”

Krupa became intimately familiar with big-city power plays and arm-twisting over political fundraising, and he wanted to escape it. So he came to Raleigh in 1980 to run the Civic Center – which had opened in 1977 as centerpiece of the city’s conversion of Fayetteville Street into a pedestrian mall to spur downtown redevelopment.

But the Civic Center was off to a rocky start, going through three directors in less than three years. About all it and Memorial Auditorium had for events were the occasional concert and Shaw, Campbell and St. Augustine’s basketball games.

Krupa started working in other events – “home shows, car shows, boat, Christmas, women’s, men’s, outdoor shows” – not all of which went as planned. They started up a festival called “Light Up Raleigh” that involved shooting fireworks down the mall; one year, it set the Hudson-Belk department store’s canopy on fire.

Concerts tended to go better, although there were some odd happenings there, too.

“When we had Bob Dylan, somebody came in and said he needed to do a soundcheck,” Krupa said. “So the guy was onstage playing the piano when the band arrived and asked who he was. ‘Your piano player.’ ‘No it’s not,’ they said. ‘He’s on the bus.’ Turned out to be some homeless guy who’d wandered in, wanting to play piano.”

Then there were the Pretenders, booked into Memorial Auditorium. Krupa made the mistake of venturing in during the band’s soundcheck to make sure some broken seats had been repaired, incurring the wrath of Chrissie Hynde.

“She stopped and yelled for me to get out,” Krupa said. “I told her I was the manager and she screamed, ‘I don’t give a (expletive) who the (expletive) you are, get the (expletive) out!’ So I told the stagehands, ‘Turn the lights out and don’t turn them on again until we hear from someone else in her organization.’ Left her in the dark.”

Soon enough, Krupa’s phone rang with a call from New York: “How do we get the lights back on?”

Mover and shaker

Although business was good, Raleigh needed larger venues to get the bigger acts who were bypassing the Triangle for Greensboro. By 1985, Greensboro Coliseum’s biggest concert-ticket outlet was the Civic Center box office in Raleigh.

So the city set about trying to build a new downtown arena – which was ultimately built out by the fairgrounds instead, hosting concerts along with pro hockey and college basketball games. But the city did get Walnut Creek, a 20,000-capacity amphitheater that opened in 1991 on 100 acres in Southeast Raleigh. Walnut Creek has been a solid commercial success over the past quarter-century, especially with Toby Keith, Tim McGraw and other arena-country acts (a genre that has accounted for the bulk of its attendance in recent years).

“And it’s paid for,” Krupa noted, pointing to the retirement of Walnut Creek’s debt service this past May.

Meanwhile, the old Civic Center was deemed not just inadequate but a blight on downtown (and also a reminder that the pedestrian mall had never worked). That inspired a sweeping makeover in which Fayetteville Street was reopened to traffic and the Civic Center razed, replaced by a $225 million convention center that opened in 2008.

By then, the large outdoor-concert industry was contracting. With fewer acts capable of filling Walnut Creek on the road, there was a need for a smaller outdoor venue. The block just west of the convention center, which the city had acquired for its eventual expansion, was the perfect spot for a no-frills 6,000-capacity venue. The Red Hat Amphitheater has stayed busy since opening in 2010.

With Fayetteville Street reopened plus a walkable grid of nightclubs in place, Raleigh had a festival district perfect for outdoor live-music events like Hopscotch and World of Bluegrass – even when driven indoors by the elements. During this fall’s World of Bluegrass, bad weather forced the outdoor shows inside the convention center. Krupa’s staff worked almost round-the-clock to make it happen on a tight overnight deadline.

“Roger and his team put in a lot of hours to make it happen,” said William Lewis, who leads the World of Bluegrass local organizing committee. “It’s been incredible to see how much has changed for the better in the arts under Roger’s direction. He’s definitely been a mover and a shaker, even though a lot of people don’t know who he is or how much he does.”

Question marks ahead

Admittedly, not everything has gone off without a hitch. One of the city’s biggest setbacks was losing many of the touring Broadway shows that used to fill Memorial Auditorium to the Durham Performing Arts Center after it opened in 2008.

Nederlander, a New York-based company that has a veritable monopoly on the most popular Broadway shows, runs DPAC – which also seats about 400 more people than Memorial. So while Raleigh still has North Carolina Theatre putting on shows in Memorial, the biggest touring blockbusters like “Wicked” and “The Book of Mormon” wind up playing DPAC.

“I was not nervous when DPAC was being built because I just never thought the traffic would go there,” Krupa admitted. “But the lesson learned is that people will go where the blockbuster is. I never saw it coming. They’ve got a monopoly and we can’t get back in. I think that will change eventually, but I don’t know what that will be exactly.”

Maybe the biggest loose end Krupa will leave behind is the eventual fate of Red Hat Amphitheater. It’s been a big success, but the convention center will eventually need to expand and that block is where it’s supposed to go.

Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean Red Hat will disappear. There are plans to incorporate a live-performance space into the convention-center expansion – a similarly sized venue with a retractable roof to make it useable year-round, not just during the warm-weather months.

Serving as consultant for the convention center’s expansion a few years down the road might be Krupa’s unofficial, final curtain call. But first, he really is retiring.

“Friends accuse me of having Midwestern values, never spending extravagantly,” Krupa said, laughing. “Well, my wife and I have never really traveled and now we’re going to. I owe that to her.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi