This past September, international Chinese artist Ai Weiwei came to the Washington University in St. Louis campus as part of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum’s grand re-opening and exhibition of his work. One of the events was a Q&A with the artist, which sold out Edison Theatre on the Danforth Campus in two minutes, said Bill Larson, business manager of the theater and of the 560 Music Center in the nearby Delmar Loop.
Larson and his team sprang into action. They moved the event to the 560 Music Center, which also sold out. They then opened Edison Theatre and arranged for Steinberg Hall Auditorium to serve as remote viewing locations.
“I’ve not had anything quite that popular come here before,” said Larson, who has been with Washington University for 16 years. “It was great to see so much interest in an event about the arts and have that many people attending in locations all around campus.”
Ai sold out the 1,100-seat 560 Music Center, the 650-seat Edison Theatre and had a significant amount of seats filled at Steinberg Auditorium. Because both the Kemper and Edison staff worked together for this event, the team could easily expand seating as demand grew.
It was just another day for the business manager, a position Larson has held for the past five years. On any given day, he can be found booking future shows, selling tickets at the box office, supervising a team of 12 student workers, or even mopping the stage or loading in a set for an upcoming show.
Serving the campus community first
Larson, along with the Department of Music and Performing Arts Department, both in Arts & Sciences, programs the events in Edison and the 560 Music Center. While he has created relationships with many fine arts organizations in the St. Louis area, he said he prioritizes students’ needs.
“Our main goal is to serve the campus community first,” he said. “Everything else I book depends on the availability of the spaces.”
In addition to hosting performances of the Performing Arts Department, Edison Theatre hosts other events, such as presentations during first-year orientation and cultural shows such as Diwali, Black Anthology, Carnaval and the Lunar New Year Festival. To fill out the calendar, Larson has created strong connections with St. Louis-area performing arts organizations such as The Black Rep, the Center of Creative Arts, The Big Muddy Dance Company and Dance St. Louis.
“I want to make sure we have something every weekend during the academic year,” Larson said. “I want students to have as many opportunities as possible to come to the Edison or 560 to see a show.”
But it’s not just scheduling that keeps him busy. He makes sure the venues stay in top physical condition. A $100,000 project to update hardware in the 560 Music Center, for example, turned into a $1.2 million total renovation — the largest renovation he has overseen in his 16 years at the university.
“The university has been great in seeing the value in having good concert and performing spaces,” he said. “The renovation at the 560 Music Center was a huge change for the space. We can now bring in international artists and feel proud about the space and the acoustics.“
The renovation took several years of planning and closed the 560 Music Center for the entire summer in 2017. It included new acoustics, lighting, projection and audio equipment that preserve the aesthetics of the space.
“Not only is the new equipment beneficial for bringing world-renowned musical groups to WashU, but it’s also for the students when they perform,” he said. “I want the performers to be proud of the space when they take the stage.”
The biggest draw: students
When he first came to Washington University 16 years ago, the biggest draw for Larson was the opportunity to interact with students and impact their college experience. Before working for the university, Larson, a native of St. Louis, worked for his family business, which sold school supplies.
“I loved serving educational institutions and knew I wanted to continue that work in some capacity,” he said. “Higher education and the arts was the most appealing option for me. When I saw the Edison Theatre operations manager position open, I knew I had a chance to use both my background in business and experience as a singer in the St. Louis arts scene. So I jumped at the chance.”
When he accepted his current position, Larson asked to retain supervision of the student staff at the theater so he could continue to interact with his student workers. He oversees their schedules and, for some, guides them through their first experience in a workplace.
“Working with them and watching them get excited about the arts makes me excited, too,” he said. “I want to get them excited enough so that after they graduate they want to, in some way, continue being involved or pursuing some work in the arts.”
Larson builds this personal connection with his staff at an annual holiday party, which he hosts at his home in St. Louis’ historic Shaw neighborhood, one he rehabbed himself — with no previous rehabbing experience.
“I bought a house in the Shaw neighborhood 30 years ago, and it was in really rough shape,” he said. “I had never done any home remodeling before, but I was young and didn’t think it would be that hard.”
For about 10 years, he said everything he owned was covered in a fine layer of drywall dust. “I had only a toilet and bathroom sink, so I showered at the YMCA for four months. My appliances were in the backyard yet I kept the refrigerator plugged in with an extension cord through the window. When I have people over for the party, though, it’s such an incredible feeling to see them in the space I worked so hard to finish.”
Great arts culture
When not selling out shows at the Edison and 560 Music Center, Larson performs with various musical groups around St. Louis such as American Kantorei, the St. Louis Chamber Chorus, Pro Arte, and the Cathedral Basilica Choir. His musical journey began at St. Louis University High School, where he participated in choir and musicals.
“I didn’t get serious about classical music until I attended Indiana University and decided to pursue a double major in music and business,” he said. “When I returned to St. Louis after college, I sang with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus for 17 years. Being involved in these groups has allowed me to travel to Europe and sing in some of the most amazing cathedrals and venues in the world.
“For example, I’ve had the privilege of singing for both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict when the Cathedral Basilica Choir took a couple choir trips to Rome,” Larson said. “So, you could say there’s been some great opportunities for my singing.”
Larson takes pride in the vibrant arts culture in his hometown.
“The music and theater culture in St. Louis is really strong,” he said. “We’ve got some great opportunities to see great shows at places all over the St. Louis area. I’d say we are definitely a top contender in the country for having a great arts culture.”
Making the Edison a destination
While the theater and fine arts culture at Washington University is already more prominent than at other institutions, Larson hopes to expand the influence of the arts and the theater on the students.
“At WashU, cultural shows have more demand than some of the other events on campus, which says a lot about the community here,” he said. “I love that the students here are so supportive of the arts.”
Still, Larson wants performances at the Edison and 560 Music Building to be accessible to all students.
“I would like to see every student inside the theater at some point in their time here, and make sure that the arts are part of their experience at WashU,” he said. “I want them to have that theater experience so they can talk about it with their friends and family.”
To do that, Larson champions ensuring that tickets are accessible to all students.
“We offer free tickets to all WashU students, which removes any financial barrier to attend a show at the Edison or 560,” he said. “We made this choice because we felt that all students should be able to come into the theater and be excited about what they are seeing.
“Really, I want to make the 560 and Edison a destination for everybody on campus.”
And when the seats in Edison or the 560 are filled, Larson feels most proud when the performance is seamless.
“It’s gratifying to see what ends up on stage and realizing that we had a lot to do with the end product,” he said. “When I’m in the lobby after a show, listening to audience feedback and hearing that the audience was impressed with the venue and the production, I feel extremely proud knowing that we had a lot to do with the success of the show.”