Herberger Theater Center 30 Years of Cultural Contribution
Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography Courtesy of the Herberger Theater Center
Mark Mettes Sr. has seen downtown Phoenix develop and grow around the Herberger Theater Center in the 30 years that the venue has graced the community.
“When I was first working here in 1992, we would all stop rehearsal as it began to get dark, run outside and move our cars closer,” says the president and CEO of the theater. “But now, downtown is a destination and an exciting urban environment. And we are really excited to be in the middle of that and to be part of the downtown community.”
For the past 30 years, the Herberger Theater Center has strived to support and foster the growth of performing arts in Phoenix as the premier performance venue, arts incubator and advocate. As a nonprofit organization, it has continuously contributed to the cultural and educational development of the Valley.
Today, the venue is home to six resident performing arts companies, an art gallery and more. The venue is busier than it has ever been before in terms of the number of performances it hosts, the number of days it is used and the number of patrons who visit it each year—about 120,000 people, including 30,000 school-aged children.
A New Day Dawning
The Herberger Theater Center’s story began in 1980, when Phoenix Mayor Margaret Hance asked Richard Mallery—an attorney who belonged to an influential group of business leaders called the Phoenix 40—to chair a committee to research and determine the need for a performing arts venue in downtown Phoenix.
The committee returned with a recommendation to build the venue as there were a number of performing arts organizations that needed a suitable performance space in the Phoenix area.
“This early morning celebration symbolizes the beginning of a new day dawning for the performing arts in Arizona,” Mallery said during the 1987 groundbreaking ceremony of what was then called the Phoenix Performing Arts Center.
During the same ceremony, G. Robert Herberger recalled a lunch meeting he had with Mallery at Phoenix’s Plaza Club during which he first learned of the initiative to build a performing arts venue in downtown Phoenix.
“Before we got through dessert, I said, ‘OK, we’ll go for it,” Herberger said.
Herberger was a philanthropist who in 1949 moved his family to Phoenix from the Midwest. He switched vocations from the owner of a department store chain to a land developer. Meanwhile, his wife Katherine—or Kax as she is more intimately known—became a major patron of and contributor to the city’s arts organizations.
With the Herbergers’ help, the performing arts venue was raised. Since the couple’s passing, their son Judd Herberger and his wife Billie Jo have continued to support the nonprofit organization.
Mettes notes that the Herberger Theater Center started with a commitment to giving performing arts organizations in the Valley a chance to grow and thrive by connecting them with the audience they so deserve. In turn, those performing arts organizations—and the Herberger Theater Center—have helped downtown Phoenix grow and thrive as well over the past 30 years.
“There is now so much going on around us,” says Mettes, noting that housing, restaurants, retail and even Arizona State University have all made themselves neighbors of the Herberger Theater Center over the years. “As the years have gone by, our focus has adjusted a little bit in order to make sure that we are remaining relevant and connected to the needs of the arts community.”
Where Audience Meets Art
Since its humble beginnings, the Herberger Theater Center has made it a point to grow alongside the downtown community. It has not only increased its number of ticketed performances but also expanded upon its offerings, adding several free events available to the community year-round.
“I think that we are the community’s gathering place for the best in the arts,” Mettes says. “We are where audience meets art and we provide a lot of different opportunities for people throughout the community to enjoy diverse ranges of art—whether it is the visual arts or, of course, the performing arts on our stages.”
Remaining relevant often requires renovations. On Oct. 1, 2010, the Herberger Theater Center reopened after extensive renovations throughout the building but especially to its lobbies and theaters.
“At that point, it had been 20 years since we opened and suddenly we had a much more interesting look and feel,” Mettes says. “We were able to really modernize the look of the lobby and the seating to make it a very comfortable and exciting place to be. We also updated the exterior to allow outdoor performances and events that are much more engaging and activate our space in downtown Phoenix.”
For many years, the Herberger Theater Center has called itself the home of Arizona Broadway Theatre, Center Dance Ensemble and iTheatre Collaborative. More recently it has added Childsplay Theatre, Arizona Opera and Arizona Theatre Company to its list of resident performing arts companies thereby increasing the number of performances and activities that are hosted in and around the venue.
“I think that was very pivotal because now on most days you can see a kids’ performances in the morning, a performance at lunchtime and, of course, evening and weekend performances as well,” Mettes says. “It is great to see so many audience members coming to the theater for all different types of productions.”
Speaking of productions, the Herberger Theater Center has been having a stellar season. Last fall, Valley Youth Theatre brought “Matilda” to life on stage, Childsplay Theatre delivered “Ella Enchanted: The Musical” to audiences and Center Dance Ensemble performed Frances Smith Cohen’s “Snow Queen” for the final time following the unexpected passing of its founder and artistic director of 31 years.
And it is only halfway through the season. Arizona Theatre Company will present “Cabaret” Jan. 4–26. Childsplay Theatre will then bring “Elephant and Piggie’s ‘We are in a Play’” to the venue Jan. 26–March 1.
Mettes is especially eager for audiences to see the Herberger Theater Center’s co-production with Arizona Broadway Theatre Company of “La Cage Aux Folles” March 6–22.
“That show is unique in that it has been revived on Broadway three times and each time it won a Tony Award for best revival,” Mettes says. “It is a show that is as relevant today as it was when it first came out so we are excited to bring that to audiences in downtown Phoenix.”
Connecting with the Community
Relevant seems to be the magic word as the Herberger Theater Center constantly considers what it needs to offer as a performing arts venue in order to remain as vital to downtown Phoenix today as it was 30 years ago.
“We are essentially trying to find more ways to connect with the community,” Mettes explains. “I think that it is so important that we engage people in different ways. People enjoy art and experience art in a lot of different ways so we want to make sure that we are thinking about that and looking at different ways to engage people—whether it is interactive events that are outside or more traditional theater inside.”
Last year saw about 800 events and performances in and around the Herberger Theater Center—a massive increase over previous years. Mettes, therefore, believes that the venue is still meeting its original goal—set more than 30 years ago—to encourage the growth of arts in Phoenix.
“I think that sometimes people from outside of the community do not realize the quality of art and performance that we have here in the Valley,” Mettes says. “Being viewed as a place where quality art can be seen is very important.”
Mettes adds that people and businesses are constantly considering moving to Phoenix from other cities across the country—just as the Herbergers did more than 70 years ago.
“Our long-term goal is to make sure that the entire country thinks of us as an arts community,” Mettes says. “We want to make sure people understand that this is a great place to raise your family, to have your business and to live.”
The Herberger Theater Center
222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix