New Moves From Nederlander

Word that Joseph Entertainment, the company that ran the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin, was in bankruptcy court was good news to anyone who’s ever been trapped in the nightmare that was the Alpine Valley concert-going experience. The only fitting end to the whole affair, thought Hitsville, would be to raze the place and sow the ground with salt. Unfortunately, Sony was given a one-year lease to reopen the place last year, and now comes the Nederlander organization, the well-muscled booking company that handles Poplar Creek, to take it over. Two aspects of the affair slightly ameliorate the news: First, it’ll be fun to watch the competition between Jam Productions–which dominates midwest concert booking and runs the World Music Theatre in south-suburban Tinley Park–and the Nederlanders, who have publicly stated their intentions of moving in on Jam territory. Second, Wisconsin’s Walworth County now has a set of safety guidelines in place that may curtail the venue’s facility for making people miserable.

The theater itself is a 40,000-capacity accident-waiting-to-happen tucked away in the chainsaw massacre country of southern Wisconsin.

Nederlander says the facility is 60 miles from Chicago; my maps make it 70 as the crow flies. Humans driving cars travel nearly go about a third of the distance on two-lane state highways. That and the unholy traffic jams that clog the area on show nights make the Chicago-to-Alpine trip a good three- to four-hour excursion. Parking lots are undifferentiated fields, with little in the way of lights or signs. Inside you have a 7,000-something seating area and lawn space for an intimate gathering of 33,000 on a precipitously scaled embankment. These features combine to give Alpine a wild, out-of-control feel. I’ve been there twice: for the Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses. The former, at which the security essentially lost control of the facility, was unquestionably the worst time I’d ever had at a concert and one of, say, my top five most unpleasant personal experiences of any sort. (And this, I might add, was with free tickets, reserved seats, and access to a nicely catered press trailer backstage.) The Guns N’ Roses show was somewhat less wholly chaotic, but still frenzied: the intermission was devoted to a grass throwing fight. I was amazed to hear from Frank Dobbs, the no-nonsense planning director of Walworth County, that the Guns N’ Roses show was considered one of the more controlled events at the theater.

Dobbs has been watching the facility for some time. Since 1984 the theater’s been legally protected against county interference by a zoning clause grandfathered in when Walworth County took over jurisdiction from the nearby town of Lafayette. But conditions finally got so bad that in 1990 the county actually got a state statute changed to allow it to use its police powers over the site. “I would say that the facility was essentially uncontrolled for years,” says Dobbs. Among the county’s restrictions: a limit Of 28,300 people until the owners come up with a comprehensive security plan. This isn’t as tough as it sounds: the facility’s free to put on smaller shows without restrictions, and Dobbs is not ruling out zoos of 40,000 in the future. But the new owners are on notice that the old days are gone.

Sony finagled a one-year lease on Alpine last year: Nederlander steamed, but now controls the site until “past the year 2000,” booker Mark Campana says. The deal’s so new the company hasn’t given the county its security plan, Campana says, but it’s high on the agenda. “Our business approach is a lot different from the previous tenants’,” he says. “We’re going to do everything in our power to, let’s say, bring Alpine Valley into the 90s.”

Booker of the Year

Jam talent buyer Nick Miller was just named nightclub talent buyer of the year in Pollstar magazine. The 30-year-old Miller grew up in Prospect Heights and went to school in Carbondale (he’s part of the SIU mafia in the local music industry), where he played guitar in rock bands. He joined Jam as an ad salesperson for its heavy metal show on ‘VVX six and a half years ago; he’s been head of the company’s nightclub operation–which books about 200 shows a year at ten different venues in Chicago and Minneapolis–for five years. A magazine named committee makes the nominations, which are then voted on by subscribers. What are the considerations? “Quality, that sort of stuff,” sez a Pollstar employee. Did Miller know the award was coming? “I was shocked,” he says….The Sun-Times keeps looking up: Last Sunday Jim DeRogatis’s Arts & Show Grammy spread was a pretty comprehensive wipeout of the institution, both in general and in specific.

The New York Times ran an embarrassingly respectful tribute to expected sweeper Eric Clapton the same day, the Trib a rather more skeptical career overview. DeRogatis accompanied his Grammy coverage with a front-page reaming titled “The Ultimate Grammy Geezer.” Included in the article were the Top Ten Reasons Eric Clapton Is Overrated. Among them: “9. Cream, “7. The ‘Cop Killer’ double standard” (i.e. Clapton got no grief for “I Shot the Sheriff’), and “6. Credibility for sale” (referring to the ex-junkie and alcoholic’s Michelob commercials)….Hitsville’s predictions for the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop critics’ poll, out soon: Arrested Development wins. Filling out the top ten, in roughly descending order, are Kiko, R.E.M., Pavement, PJ Harvey, Dirty, Disposable Heroes, Neneh Cherry, Lou Reed, and possibly even Ministry.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.