Richard Baker, president of Fox Associates since 2001 and a member of the Fox Theatre staff in a variety of capacities since 1986, is leaving to become president and CEO of the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City on March 17.
Earlier this week, Baker sat down for a lengthy interview that looked back on his eventful 27-plus years at the Fox, the evolution of Grand Center during that time, and an unpredictable career path that took a young boy who loved theater and Broadway from dreams of becoming a doctor, to a degree in accounting, and then full circle to the Fox.
Baker also discussed the challenges facing Grand Center and the St. Louis arts community as we talked in a conference room at the Fox offices, just north of the theater.
The Muny and Sing Out Florissant Valley
“I’ve always had a love for theater,” Baker said. “When I was little, my folks took us to the Muny all the time. That’s where I first got my love of Broadway. We would go to church on Sunday, get a bucket of chicken or whatever and go to Forest Park. We’d always be in the free seats because my dad was a CPA, and money was always closely watched. Each of us kids would get one orange drink and that was it. But if my dad left for a while, my mom would buy us another and tell us to drink it really quickly before he came back.
“Then when I was a teenager, I got involved in a group called Sing Out Florissant Valley,” he said. The appeal of this local version of the Up With People group went beyond music.
“My parents didn’t realize a lot of girls were involved, so it was a great place to meet and date. As part of that group, I became the musical director, played in the band and worked on the stage crew. We built our own lighting consoles and did sound – all those things you need to do to put on a show. I had that theater bug early. That’s also where I met my wife, and we celebrate 35 years together in May.”
A three-sport athlete while staying on the honor roll, Baker had hoped to go to medical school. When that didn’t work out, he enrolled in the University of Missouri-Columbia with a major in chemistry.
Time for a “real job”
“I loved singing and performing, but when I graduated from high school, I thought now I have to get a real job,” recalls Baker. “Not getting into med school really crushed me, and eventually I figured out that chemistry was really hard and I wasn’t enjoying it. So I took the easy route. My dad was a CPA, and that came very easy to me. I transferred to UMSL and majored in accounting.”
While attending UMSL, Baker also worked full time for the Wetterau Corp., running the company’s grocery coupon business. When he got his degree, he went to work at Wetterau immediately. He passed the CPA exam, but needed to work in a CPA firm to get certified. That took him to Anders, Minkler & Diehl. Once there, he discovered the little Apple IIc computer the firm had and took up using that for some of his work.
The Fox beckons
While Baker was working as a CPA, he met David Fay, executive director of Fox Associates, who asked him to help set up an accounting package at the Fox.
“David finally hired me fulltime; and right after that he told me he hoped we both still had a job in six months because the Fox lost a million dollars the previous year,” Baker said. “And I remember at the very first partner meeting I attended when they were trying to raise money to meet the payroll, Bob Baudendistel, one of the owners, said something I’ll remember until the day I die. ‘The next check I write will be for plywood to board the place up.’ If that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what will!”
But finances began to turn around for the Fox soon after. Baker and Fay put together an innovative plan to build a corporate club area, which created a separate source of ticket sale income that went directly to the theater – rather than being split with visiting touring theater companies or musical groups.
Small margins beget creativity
“A lot of people don’t know how the theater business works, but it’s similar to the grocery business where the margins are pretty small. It’s all based on volume, and that’s especially true with touring Broadway shows. You pay a big guarantee, which covers most of their expenses, and you get your expenses back if you sell enough tickets. Then you split the overage. And that’s heavily in their favor – usually at least 60/40, sometimes even 90/10.
“That’s one of reasons we quit reporting what our gross ticket sales were. People thought we were making all this money and most of it was going right out the door.”
The added revenue stream from club seats enabled the Fox team to invest in much-needed physical improvements and restoration projects.
“It’s a tribute to the partners that from day one, if it was something for the theater to improve it – new carpeting to seat covering to a restored marquee -- they’ve never once said no,” Baker said. “The owners love this theater. They want to leave it as a treasure for St. Louis and they’ve never once balked at making really big investments in the theater. It’s made my life really enjoyable here.”
Baker has had many titles during his lengthy tenure at the Fox. Eventually he became Fay’s second in command and helped Fay set up the MetroTix online ticketing sales company. That has become another major source of ancillary income for the Fox over the years.
In 2001, Baker was named president of Fox Associates.
More from Broadway
Looking back on his years as president, Baker regards the decision to expand Broadway touring performances from one week to two as his most important change at the Fox. “It was a big step; a fearful step,” he recalls. “Once you do that, there’s no going back.”
Given that people subscribe to a series to ensure good seats, the expanded schedule allowed the Fox to move people up to better seats. Around 2007, they also mapped the audience.
“We found some seats that weren’t selling, and we found a price point where people would buy them,” Baker said. For the Fox, that price point was $99 a seat for a six-show series. And according to Baker, it worked very well.
“People bought those seats and eventually decided they wanted to move up,” he says. “That’s what we were hoping would happen.
“The third big thing we came up with was the ‘swap one’ idea – letting people change from one show in the season series. That was originally a defensive move, because Broadway shows were becoming more risqué. So with a show like ‘Avenue Q’ for example, swap one allowed us to make it a positive thing. And it’s turned out to be the number one perk that our subscribers love.”
Grand Center growth
Over his tenure at the Fox, Baker has seen many changes in Grand Center. And he sees several major challenges in finding the right strategy to make the arts district achieve its maximum potential.
“I think we’re really on the right track with our new Master Plan,” Baker said. He noted that the entities in Grand Center had long been doing their own things and that many groups had first learned what was in some previous master plans when they read about them in the newspaper. “And they wondered why we didn’t like it!
“But now I think we have a great working relationship within the entire district and that’s 90 percent of battle. And I think the future for Grand Center looks really, really good.”
Baker emphasizes major obstacles still have to be overcome in making the plan a success
“The first major challenge – at least here – is money,” he said. “Vince (Schoemehl, president and CEO of Grand Center) being a former mayor has helped immensely, because he has knowledge of public money and public funds that most of us can’t even begin to scratch. And he still has those ties at City Hall -- which doesn’t make it a slam dunk but it helps.
“We recently instituted a Community Improvement District here at Grand Center – which basically means we’re all taxing ourselves. The thing that makes it hard – especially in this area – is that not-for-profits can opt out. But early on, they voluntarily committed themselves for five years. In a similar way, we’ve collectively raised money for matches for these potential public funds, so as a group we now have a powerful goal. But you can only tax yourselves so much, and that’s what we’re running into. That’s why we’re now putting together a big fundraising campaign. And we’re going to need corporate support in addition to individual donors. And it’s probably going to start in the next year.”
Baker also sees two other critical issues for Grand Center: increasing access to Grand Center from downtown hotels, and creating a centerpiece attraction for the area that will bring people in on a daily basis.
He is a fan of the idea of a trolley coming up Lindell. “That would really help,” Baker said, “because the one thing we really don’t have in Grand Center is hotels, aside from the Ignacio. But if you have a trolley, all of a sudden that ties thousands of downtown hotel rooms to the arts district. And whether I’m sold on the trolley or not, it’s clear that buses and Metrolink aren’t the answer right now.
“And when we were doing the Master Plan, they told us to dream big. So I thought of a big Ferris wheel and calling it the Eye of St. Louis because we’re up on a bluff here, and it would be very visible.
“No one seemed to like that, but it’s clear one of the things we’re missing is an attraction that draws people here every day. Grand Center is a very active weekend place, almost every weekend have something going. But on a night when we or the Symphony or the Sheldon doesn’t have anything going, you could fire a cannon through the place.”
Baker knows he may not have the solution to the piece of the puzzle that will make Grand Center a daily destination. But he’s confident that it will eventually be found. “We have a great group of people to figure that out,” he said. “I think we’ve done a great job of trying to assemble as many of the performing arts organizations here in this area as possible.”
Although Baker will soon leave St. Louis for his new home in Kansas City, it’s clear St. Louis – and the Fox and Grand Center – will always have a place in his heart
“I’m 57 years old,” Baker said, “and I’ve been here more than 27. Who would have thought I could come back to something I loved growing up and make a career out of it?
“Nothing would make me happier than to see the Fox – and Grand Center -- do even better after I’m gone. And I say that in all sincerity. I’m only three-and-a-half hours away and we’ve got five grandkids in St. Louis, so I’m sure we’ll be back a lot!”