When Aaron Bare came to work for the Carolina Theatre in 2006, it wasn't the buoyant venue the city knows today.
"The shows weren't particularly exciting. It'd be Gregory Popovich's Comedy Pet Theater or [saxophonist] Boney James or Todd Oliver's talking dogs," says Bare, who came on as the theater's director of marketing and was later promoted to chief operating officer. "Our marketing was an afterthought. We'd send out direct mail and postcards. We didn't have a Facebook page. Our website was atrocious. The whole place was just kind of antiquated."
Financially, the theater—owned by the city of Durham, which in turn pays an annual subsidy of about $600,000 to the nonprofit Carolina Theatre of Durham to operate it—was in a negative feedback loop of cutting costs to fight sagging revenues. The arrival of the Durham Performing Arts Center in 2008 exacerbated the problem. Was there still a role for the historic 1920s theater in modern Durham?
In 2009, president and CEO Connie Campanaro announced she would be stepping down. Bob Nocek was brought in to replace her. Nocek's background was in working with national concert promoters. He'd booked an eighteen-hundred-seat venue in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and later served as assistant general manager at a ten-thousand-seat arena there. The thousand-seat Carolina Theatre wasn't as big or slick, but Nocek saw an opportunity for reinvention.
"From the outside," Nocek says, "it looked like a small-minded community organization that wasn't doing much with its potential. Which is not uncommon. A lot of organizations that start grassroots get stuck in that gear. What I saw, though, was a market that was starting to grow and a city starting to turn, and I felt that there was a path forward for the theater as a more commercial venue."
"Bob came in and said, 'We're going to have growth, we're going to have big shows,'" Bare says. "We got on Ticketmaster. We built up a massive email database. We stopped announcing shows in the traditional way—all at once as a season—and instead spread them out throughout the year, more like a commercial venue."
It was slow going at first. But by 2013, things picked up.
"We had figured out the brand and the programming niche," Bare says. "It's not easy to find your niche in this business. You have to try lots of things and see what works, and it's expensive."
The niche was, roughly, mid-level artists not big enough for DPAC but too commercial for Duke Performances. There were big gets: Brian Wilson, Lauryn Hill, Morrissey. In 2014, comic Aziz Ansari did four sold-out sets over two nights. ("Our highest-grossing shows ever," Nocek says.) The theater's Film: Acoustic series brought names like Jeff Tweedy, Wayne Coyne, and Neko Case to host screenings and discussions of their favorite films.
And the theater stayed true to its mission. In 2015, it launched Series 26, a string of eclectic shows like the Dance Theater of Harlem, Chick Corea & Béla Fleck, Paco Peña's Flamencura, and the Japanese drumming act TAO: Seventeen Samurai.
The theater was doing more programming than ever before—over a hundred shows in 2015, up from just twenty-five in 2009. Revenues doubled to $5 million. In 2015, the theater cracked the Top 100 list of concert-industry trade publication Pollstar; Durham's once-sleepy community theater was now selling more tickets than all but ninety-nine theaters in the world. In February 2015, the theater announced that it had turned a profit for the second year in a row.
"There was a sense that we had made it, that we had figured it out," Bare says. "We were the little theater that could."
Everything was clicking—and then, suddenly, it wasn't.
A year later, the Carolina Theatre is a million dollars in debt and begging the city for a cash infusion to keep its doors open. Nocek is gone. Bare is gone. In April, Jared McEntire—the last person in the building with booking experience—departed. Not including the art-house films that run year-round, the upcoming calendar shows only six events between now and Labor Day.
Whether the theater will reassert itself as a venerated Durham institution or wither into nothingness is very much an open question. And the answer largely depends on Dan Berman.