Ten years ago, when Craig Sumberg first joined the staff of the Fox Tucson Theatre Foundation, the theatre had recently undergone a beautiful and expensive renovation, but the revitalization of downtown Tucson had barely begun.
Sumberg is proud of helping to make the Fox “a place Tucsonans are proud of again, and feel that it’s living up to its historic name of ‘the crown jewel of downtown.’” He’s proud of the role the Fox played in bringing downtown back to life.
“You needed the Fox restoration to get people to believe that the resurgence of downtown was possible,” he says, but it still took “some years before downtown was ready for a venue like the Fox. That’s all come together in the last five years.”
That only makes leaving harder.
Sumberg is stepping down as executive director of the Fox. He’s moving to New York to be near his son, Jordan, during Jordan’s last two years of high school. Despite the obvious pull of that paternal tie, the decision was the hardest Sumberg has ever made, he says.
“I loved my time in Tucson,” says Sumberg, who is staying on at the Fox three-quarters time through October and the Fox’s 2019 Chasing Rainbows Gala, though he’ll be spending two weeks per month in New York. The gala performer will be LeAnn Rimes, and the honorees will be Sumberg himself and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. “We’re both stepping down from our positions,” says Sumberg.
Sumberg can point with pride to many artists who have played the Fox in the last decade. “Having Gregg Allman at the Fox Theatre the year before he died; along those lines B.B. King was here right within the year he passed away; Merle Haggard was here. So getting some of those legends of the last 50 years on our stage was an amazing experience,” he says.
Besides iconic names and personal favorites such as EmmyLou Harris, Sumberg cites “the breadth of programming we’ve been able to bring. Not all of those shows sell as well as others, but we’re really trying to provide entertainment for the broadest possible sweep of Tucsonans and Southern Arizonans. We tend to focus on classic rock, singer-songwriters, country, jazz and blues, comedy and family, but we’ve done a decent amount of world music, trying to expose people to stuff they wouldn’t see otherwise.”
He says the Fox is a great venue for acts that won’t necessarily sell out. Even though it has close to 1,200 seats, “you can do a show for 400-500 people in there and it feels good and exciting and energized.”
“We’re getting a better sense, learning every year, what Tucsonans will respond to and what they may not be as interested in. And we mostly try and bring things that will sell a good number of tickets, but we will book shows that will only sell 400 tickets as long as the price is right,” he explains.
The aim is to bring in enough shows that make money, “so that at the end of the year we’ve made more than we’ve spent, including the fundraising,” says Sumberg.
The Fox is financially healthier than it was 10 years ago. The 2018 annual report notes that the annual budget approaches $5 million, a seven-fold increase in 10 years. Since 2012, earned income (ticket sales, rental fees and concessions) rose from $1,437,000 to $3,800,000, and donations grew from $379,000 to $991,000. However, a newly required loan repayment of $89,000 to the Rio Nuevo downtown redevelopment district and more than $100,000 in expenses related to the restoration and installation of the “Mighty Wurlitzer Organ” mean the Fox ended 2018 with a net loss. A message in 2018 report from Sumberg and Board President Michael Heisler says they are “taking specific actions to mitigate the impact of the loan payback on our profitability and expect to raise more money for the organ installation this year.”
Sumberg says part of his role in the Fox’s resurgence was “bringing the right people in on the board and the staff,” along with figuring out the right program mix.
The search committee for Sumberg’s replacement, which includes board members and Rio Nuevo leaders like Fletcher McCusker and Mark Irvin, has hired a search firm “that’s active in the historic theatre world, Sumberg says, adding that they expect to have somebody on board no later than Jan. 1.
“And as much as possible, I will do everything I can to help train that person,” he says.
Sumberg, who lived in New York for part of the 1990s, says he’s looking for a position in either the performing arts world or the Jewish communal world.
Although Sumberg originally came to Tucson to work at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, where he was a vice president for resource development for almost two years, his last Jewish community job on the East Coast was, in fact, a great preparation for the Fox.
“I was executive director of the Sixth and I Synagogue” in Washington, D.C., he says, explaining that Sixth and I “is not an operating synagogue, it operates like a community center. We did concerts and lectures and other sorts of programming, much like the Fox theatre. Actually I call it a cross between the Fox theatre and [Tucson’s] Jewish History Museum.”
That experience led Sumberg to seek Jewish and Israeli performers for the Fox. He’s partnered with the Federation, synagogues, and other Jewish organizations on many of those shows, with performers such as Idan Raichel, Neshama Carlebach, and the Klezmatics.
David Broza, another of Sumberg’s favorites who has been at the Fox several times, is on the Fox’s calendar for Dec. 21. That show is a partnership with the Federation.
“This is actually the first time he’ll be on the Fox stage with a band. He’s always only performed solo, so I’m very excited about that show,” says Sumberg, “and I hope to be here for it, even though by that time I hope to be employed in the New York area.”