After hearing Brian Hoffman’s speech, “A Delicate Balance,” on Tuesday, it is tempting to start referring to The Forum and the Broome County Arena — the facilities for which Hoffman is general manager – as “the little venues that could.” As Hoffman pointed out to members of the Communications Association of the Southern Tier, “shows keep getting bigger and bigger,” but Broome’s two county-run performing arts spaces remain the same.
“We do the best we can with what we have,” Hoffman said, adding that the 1,500-seat Forum is the smallest auditorium visited by touring Broadway productions promoted by the Binghamton-based NAC Entertainment. The Forum also has limited backstage and parking areas. In fact, in order to accommodate “Mamma Mia!” – “the biggest touring show in recent memory” – The Forum needed to expand a door by six feet and install additional rigging for the stage.
In larger theaters, the tours often stay from Tuesday through Sunday, Hoffman said, typically with only one performance per day. In Binghamton, few shows are booked for more than one day, but two performances are scheduled for that single day. That, Hoffman said, leads to nearly round-the-clock work by local members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
“When we have a 3 p.m. start time, the (union) crew starts at 4 a.m.,” unloading tractor trailers full of costumes, props, sound and lighting equipment and scenery in order to set up everything for the show, Hoffman said. The reverse “load out” process usually takes until 2:30 a.m. the following day. An exception to the rule: You guessed it … “Mamma Mia!” The mega-hit had a three-day run this past December, and “load in,” which involved unpacking eight tractor trailers, was accomplished the day before the performances began.
Mind you, Hoffman is not complaining. He is happy to have three reliable major tenants for The Forum: Broadway Theatre League, the Binghamton Philharmonic and Tri-Cities Opera. The theater also regularly hosts the Binghamton Theater Organ Society, dance recitals, First Friday and First Night programs and Binghamton Mets events. Musical and comedy concerts continue to be held there, as do children’s performances such as “Sesame Street Live.”
And a new collaboration by the county, local business leaders and interested community members is helping to keep The Forum in good working order. The Friends of The Forum, which debuted with a “Mamma Mia!” gala, has started a campaign for donors to help replace the theater’s seating (and get an engraved nameplate on the armrest to acknowledge their contribution).
The Arena’s primary tenant is the Binghamton Senators: 40 home games, plus practice, preseason events and “hopefully, playoffs.” But being the primary tenant doesn’t mean you can lock out everything without a puck for the entire hockey season, so, again, skilled crews are called on to make quick transformations: covering the ice with flooring, removing the protective Plexiglas walls, even – in the case of annual late-December STOP-DWI tournament – a conversion of the scoreboard from hockey to basketball and back.
“The day of the event is the easiest part,” Hoffman said.
Promoters still bring in concerts and comedy, although the music acts aren’t as prevalent as in the Arena’s early years in the 1970s and ’80s. They’re drawn to either the new Wachovia Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., which has twice Binghamton’s 5,800 capacity, or the crop of recently opened casinos that overpay acts and make their profits elsewhere.
For Hoffman, work hours can include nights, weekends and just about any holiday except Christmas. When you’re in the entertainment business, he said, “you don’t know weekends … Friday just means two days closer to Monday,” but again he’s not complaining.
“What I love about this job,” he said, “is that no two days are alike.”