By Jeff Chelesvig as told to Christine Riccelli
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
Jeff Chelesvig, President and CEO of Des Moines Performing Arts, just completed his 25th year leading the organization. Over those years, his track record has included compiling a long list of sold-out performances; bringing high-profile shows such as “Hamilton” to the city; developing a wide range of educational programming; investing nearly $40 million in the Des Moines Civic Center and Cowles Commons; and establishing a number of successful series, most notably the Broadway Series. Since the pandemic began, the Civic Center has been dark, presenting unprecedented challenges for the 62-year-old Chelesvig and resulting in show postponements and cancellations, revenue loss, and layoffs. In a conversation condensed for publication, he reflects on losing his father at a young age, taking risks, and navigating the pandemic.
Balance Work and Life
I grew up on a farm outside of Eagle Grove in Wright County, and then when I was a sophomore in high school, we moved to Belmond, when my parents purchased a furniture store. My father died of cancer in 1975, when he was 45, just before my junior year. It was hard, but I was fortunate to have surrogate father figures in the community.
In high school I worked for a family-owned business that had a grocery store, restaurant and catering operation, and one of the owners, Ed Gabrielson, became the primary surrogate father for me. He took it upon himself to advise me. He was a dear man, and I learned a lot from him. Ed had a strong work ethic and knew when work was done; he prioritized time with his family and friends. He loved to live life to the fullest, and that was a really good lesson for me.
In both Eagle Grove and Belmond, I was involved in band and choral music. I became involved in theater my sophomore year in high school, working behind the scenes. After graduating in 1976, I went to Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, then transferred to Iowa State, declaring I wanted to be an agricultural business major. That lasted for about a week; it wasn’t for me. So I studied business and theater, and I sang with the Iowa State Singers. Most importantly for my career, I think, was getting a job at Iowa State Center.
Work Your Way Up
At that time, the folks who worked at Iowa State Center, especially on the tech crew, were students. You started at the bottom, sweeping Hilton Coliseum after events. If you continued to show up for work on time and did a good job, you could move your way up.
The funny thing is that I was hired not because of my theater background, but because I could drive a tractor. When I interviewed I had prepared a resume of everything I had done in the theater in high school and college, but the hiring manager was most pleased that I grew up on a farm and could drive a tractor. On football Saturdays, rolling wagons pulled by a tractor carried people from the Scheman Building to the stadium. So I like to say that I got into show business by knowing how to drive a tractor.
I eventually worked my way up to being one of the six foremen of the tech crew. I also was given the opportunity to do something that I really love, which was to stage manage some of the touring acts at Stephens Auditorium.
Be Open to Opportunity
My boss at Hilton Coliseum had taken a job at the Peoria Civic Center, a three-building complex. He offered me a job at the then-new Performing Arts Theater, part of that complex. I decided that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up because these kinds of jobs were hard to come by. So I cut my college career short and moved to Peoria, Illinois. I started as theater operations manager and when I left seven years later, I was the director of operations for the entire complex.
I moved to Rochester, Minnesota, to take a job as director of the Mayo Civic Center. I learned a great deal, and after two years, I was recruited to run the Bayfront Center and Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The Mahaffey had the smallest seating capacity of the three performing arts centers in that market, so we had to be a bit scrappy and think outside of the box. That kind of thinking led us to create a program of presenting touring shows for children during school time, which, when I came here, served as the model for our Applause program.
My predecessor in Des Moines was Gordon Smith. At one point when I was in Peoria, he invited me to interview to become his assistant. I didn’t get the job, but when it came time for him to retire in 1994, I was on his list of people for our board to talk to. And I will always be very grateful for that.
When I started in Des Moines in 1995, things were very different. We were a much smaller organization, and we were largely a rental facility. The upside of renting the facility is that the financial risk is not on the facility but on the promoter. The downside to that is that you don’t get to choose what shows appear on your stage.
One of the great things that happened early on was meeting with David Kruidenier, the former publisher of the Des Moines Register, and perhaps the most significant driving force behind the building of the Civic Center.
I will never forget my first meeting with David. Even though his family had sold the Register to Gannett by then, he maintained an office in the Register building. Going there was daunting because I had grown up reading the Register and knew he was a very important person. He asked me a lot of questions and told me, “I do not want the Civic Center just to be a palace for Broadway shows.” He envisioned something more.
And then he said something that has stuck with me ever since. He said, “I have very high expectations.” That was a clear direction for me, and it is what I believe we have achieved over time. He was an inspiration, and I was so glad that in the later part of his life, we became good friends.
Be Willing to Take Risks
I’m very proud of the creation in 1996 of what is now the Willis Broadway Series. For the first time, we sold shows in a season ticket package instead of one show at a time, enabling us bring the biggest touring Broadway shows to Des Moines.
Our presentation of “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1997 was something that exceeded the expectations of not only the people in Des Moines, but also in New York. The fact we had 40 soldout performances was extraordinary because, up to that point, the longest run of a show had been several 16-performance runs of “Annie” in the early 1980s. But “Phantom” proved there was an appetite here for Broadway shows.
When we started the subscription series, it was a big risk, and I didn’t seek permission from our board because I believed they might not approve. So we just informed them we were starting the season ticket program, and it turned out to be a huge success. And because of its success and the support of our donors, nearly all of the shows that appear on the Civic Center stage are presented by us, with no outside promoter.
Keep Investing in the Future
With the developers of the Temple for Performing Arts downtown, we opened the Temple Theater in 2002 with an unprecedented run of the show “Triple Espresso.” We had hoped we could run the show for eight weeks, and finally closed it after 68 weeks. Today, we present all kinds of shows there.
We’ve also been careful to preserve and constantly update both the Civic Center and Cowles Commons. Over the last 20 years, we’ve invested close to $40 million in upgrading and improving them.
We began investing in Broadway shows in 2001, which has been a fascinating experience. Being an investor is not typically a good financial risk because most shows don’t break even. Still, a benefit in investing is to ensure the availability of quality touring shows. And because of those investments, we’ve presented many shows in the first year of their tours, such as “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Spamalot” and “Kinky Boots.” We’ve recouped about 80% of the money that we’ve invested over the years, which is really quite good considering the risk.
Have Faith in Your Customers
When I started this job in 1995, it took me a while to size up our audience, and I quickly recognized that they’re smart, well-traveled and well-read.
And I’ve learned that you grow an audience by challenging them in a good way. To me, art is essential to our everyday life, and it gives us different ways of looking at our lives and at our world. There’s a tendency to think that in the Midwest we should avoid presenting shows that have an edge or contain adult content. Shows like “Avenue Q” and “Spring Awakening” were shows that a lot of presenters across the country were nervous about bringing to their theaters, but I was a champion of both.
Some years ago, I was in London and met with the head of marketing for the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, and he said something that I will never forget: “Quality is your best marketing tool.” I’ve thought a lot about that over the years because the quality of the shows we present is very important to me.
Ben Brantley was the longtime co-chief theater critic for the New York Times. He recently stepped down from that position and said something that I loved: “I get paid to pay attention.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that as it is how I describe my job: I pay attention to a lot of things locally, nationally and internationally.
And I love that aspect of it. I get a kick out of being around the theater when we have a production on stage, paying attention to the experience of our guests, or watching the performance backstage. And I also get a kick out of going to New York and being a voter for the Tony Awards. Of course, my travels to New York have stopped and will not start up again anytime soon. Yet, everything I do involves paying attention.
Focus on What You Can Control
Presenting shows to live audiences at this time is not conducive to social distancing, both from an experience and a financial standpoint. So, we’ve learned a lot about patience. The entire live entertainment world is upside down.
Producers of touring shows are not sure when it will be safe to launch tours again. A touring Broadway show may have 60 to 80 people traveling with it. How do you get those people from city to city safely? What happens if there is an outbreak in the company? Does that jeopardize the rest of the tour? There are still many unanswered questions.
So, we are focusing on what we can do. Our education team learned a lot this summer by changing from in-person to virtual camps. For our Applause series, which typically brings students here from around Central Iowa, we’re developing virtual experiences for the kids and their families.
We’ve pivoted in other ways, too. Our free virtual Creative Conversations series gives people a chance to interact with actors, musicians and others who have ties to DMPA. We’re also offering free in-person tours of the Civic Center and a wedding package where couples can get married on the stage. And our education team is partnering with artists from all over the world to present virtual arts experiences for K-12 students at no charge. And, we’re livestreaming shows for audiences to enjoy from home.
Many of these ideas have come from our team; it’s a collaborative situation. We meet regularly to brainstorm opportunities and also to figure out how we will ramp up when it becomes possible to present shows in person.
I’m very proud to be associated with the people of DMPA, my talented co-workers and those who support us financially. And we are grateful to our season ticket holders who have stayed with us through this journey. We have been asking for their patience, and I am happy that almost all of them are saying, “Just tell us when the shows are coming and we’ll be there.”