For many years I’ve known about the legendary old-timers and famous contemporary performers who appear at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, but for this reason or that it always seemed like something blocked making a reservation. That changed just after Christmas when perusing area events and noting that B.J. Thomas would be giving a concert there at 1 p.m. Feb. 26.
I called reservations and grabbed seats 2 and 3 in Row A of the orchestra pit for a total of $85, placing my wife and I right at the front edge of the stage. My first impression: smiles and friendly demeanors at will call, the front door and the usher.
After seating, I stood to look back at the audience and witnessed a vast sea of silver hair. Sporting a fresh crop of chemically enhanced locks, I felt like one of the younger men in the crowd. B.J. Thomas soon made his entrance in a sharp-looking jacket and tie with his four musicians more casually attired. Not appearing at all to be 71, he tirelessly belted out hit after hit with that unique voice that I swear hasn’t changed a bit in 50 years of performing and recording.
At times B.J. stood directly above us on stage, and I could practically count his nose hairs. I hoped he’d make direct eye contact with me, recognize my inner beauty and trustworthiness, and invite us backstage after the performance to say he wanted to become a BFF. It didn’t quite go that way, however, as instead B.J. took his last bow amid a standing ovation and, like every other stiff in the front row, I received a fleeting glance and a micro handshake before he ambled off the stage. Hey, it’s his loss.
There’s a backstory to this spanning more than 40 years. As a teen I met Jack Eckerd in 1970 when he ran in the Republican primary for Florida governor. Tall, mannerly and with the type of plastered smile often evident when one glad-hands a long line of people, he did his utmost to portray enthusiasm. However, my instincts told me that his heart wasn’t into it, a fact he confirmed decades later.
It’s a good bet that his wife, Ruth, didn’t want to uproot from Clearwater to Tallahassee, either and watch Jack become the target of myriad critics figuratively throwing pies in his face every day. Even lemon meringue can turn sour in the surly heat of Florida politics, especially for a successful businessman who built the Eckerd Corporation into a national drugstore chain and sold it for nine figures. He didn’t need the aggravation, and despite accepting several presidential appointments along the way that at times kept him busy, he and Ruth mainly concentrated their considerable resources on philanthropy.
In 1977, the Baumgardner family who owned the famed Kapok Tree restaurant in Clearwater donated land earmarked for a performing arts center, and the Eckerds jumped in big time. Now employing a full-time staff of 75, the 73,000-square-foot facility with 2,200 seats opened in 1983 on McMullen-Booth Road. Yes, it’s the house that Ruth built.
I asked Eric Blankenship, the chief marketing officer, what age groups seem most prevalent at the performances. “Each show is unique, so it depends on whether it’s Scooby Doo or Bob Newhart,” he replied as I laughed.
Blankenship noted that Billboard magazine declared Ruth Eckerd the “Theater of the Decade” for 2000-10 because of the fact that 90 percent of the time, 90 percent of the seats are filled.
And what about the range of what’s paid to performers? “Some play for zero or a portion of tickets sales, while others want a guarantee up to $200,000,” answered Blankenship.
While Jack died in 2004 and Ruth in 2006, the center (www.rutheckerdhall.com) keeps right on trucking for everything from classical concerts to comedians to rock stars. After finally experiencing what the hall is all about, we’ll be returning often to enjoy many of our favorite headliners.