Becky Colwell, the Greek Theatre's new general manager
Becky Colwell, the Greek Theatre's new general manager
Photo by Danny Liao

Can the Greek Theatre's New GM Book Great Shows and Avoid Pissing Off the Neighbors?

Becky Colwell, the new general manager of the Greek Theatre, sits on the floor of her still-unfurnished office, bathed in sunlight and surrounded by the foliage of Griffith Park. Outside, the tranquility of the Greek is broken only by the sounds of construction. Workers are busy reinforcing corroded portions of the terraced seating, giving dressing rooms a makeover and peeling layers of paint off the venue's exterior to reveal portions of the more than 80-year-old original façade.

These upgrades come at the behest of the City of L.A.'s Department of Recreation and Parks, which has taken over management of the historic Greek. Although the city has long owned the property, Nederlander Concerts had been managing and booking the 6,000-seat venue for almost 40 years. But no longer.

"You can't just keep extending a contract," says Mike Shull, general manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks. "Those contracts are old. What was good 15 years ago is not the same value today."

So in 2014, a year before Nederlander's contract was set to expire, a bidding war began. Nederlander partnered with AEG, the entertainment conglomerate behind Goldenvoice, to compete against Live Nation for control of the Greek. City Council members, Los Feliz advocacy groups and music lovers at large battled over a changing of the guard at one of L.A.'s most beloved venues.

Ultimately, however, neither Live Nation nor Nederlander landed the job.

Instead, the city decided to take over management and outsource day-to-day operations to a venue management specialist. Enter Colwell, the theater's new general manager under the international entertainment group SMG.

Nearly 40 years old, with corporate headquarters in suburban Philadelphia, SMG manages about 230 theaters, stadiums and other venues around the world, including convention centers in Long Beach, Ontario and Palm Springs. The Greek Theatre is SMG's first venue in Southern California dedicated to live music (the Long Beach Arena, part of the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, occasionally hosts concerts but is primarily a sports facility).

Colwell, 43, speaks with a subtle Carolina lilt. She's bubbly, easy with a laugh and seems energized about her takeover of the iconic Greek. "The biggest decision was, 'Do I want to move to L.A.?' It really wasn't, 'Do I want to be a part of the Greek Theatre?'?" she says. "That was the easy part."

She has worked for SMG for nearly 18 years, including 13 in her most recent role as general manager of the 7,000-seat Koka Booth Amphitheatre in North Carolina. Born in South Carolina and raised in its northern counterpart, Colwell was a social worker for Craven County when, at the age of 25, she accepted a "summer job" at Raleigh's Walnut Creek Amphitheatre. What was supposed to be a temporary gig turned into a career, as she was eventually promoted to director of sales.

Colwell, who now lives in Los Feliz with her husband, young daughter and dog, thinks she's a good fit for the job at the Greek because she knows how to operate on a "lean budget" and is well versed in working with municipalities. In fact, SMG claims that more than 92 percent of its clients are municipal agencies.

The new Greek is using an "open booking" model implemented by the city, which means anyone, not just one specific promoter, can hold a date on the calendar with an approved user agreement and a $25,000 deposit. The system seems to be off to a good start, as there are already about 40 shows booked for the 2016 season, ranging from Mexican mariachi star Pepe Aguilar to recent Grammy winners Chris Stapleton and Alabama Shakes to big names like Iggy Pop, Ringo Starr and Bonnie Raitt. (Among the promoters booking shows is a familiar name: Nederlander Concerts.)

The only things lacking from the calendar are a few genres of music, including hip-hop, EDM and metal.

There are no hard-and-fast rules prohibiting certain music types, Colwell says, but artists must be a "good fit" for the venue. In determining this, Colwell says she considers the type of show, whether the promoter has done business in L.A. before and what other types of performances it has produced. Many requirements are set in advance by the Greek's user agreement, which dictates everything from the percentage of merchandise sales allotted to the city to maximum sound levels at any performance.

"I mean, you may see some EDM on the calendar," Colwell says. "It just depends ... if they feel their band can live within those parameters."

In short, just because a promoter has the money to play the Greek doesn't mean it will be able to, Colwell and Shull agree. If there's ever a question, Colwell defers to the city for approval.

"On everything that happens there, we have veto power," Shull says.

It's been a tumultuous two years getting to this point. In 2014, the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners recommended that Live Nation take over management of the Greek, but just a few months later, the L.A. City Council rejected this decision, citing concerns from neighborhood groups. The parks board then decided the city could run the venue itself and issued a request for proposals from outside firms to manage operations.

Applicants were required to have a minimum of 20 years of experience in the field and to have managed at least 25 concert venues of 4,000 seats or more. Two competitive bids emerged, but it was SMG's proposed fees, qualifications and overall vision for the future of the Greek that compelled Shull to recommend it for the job, he says.

"When you put all that together, we thought they had the best proposal," Shull says. On his recommendation, the parks board voted to approve a one-year contract, with two additional one-year options.

Los Feliz Improvement Association president Chris Laib was skeptical of the city's takeover but feels the choice of operator was a good one. "Most of us do feel better that SMG is going to be actual manager of the venue," he says.

The Greek is an open-air theater located next to affluent residential neighborhoods, so there are a variety of noise restrictions, including an early curfew (10:30 p.m. weeknights, 11 p.m. on weekends). These rules alone, however, aren't always enough for the more than 900 households within earshot, Laib says. It was just a few years ago that Snoop Dogg played the venue and a deluge of complaints poured into then-Councilman Tom LaBonge's office from parents upset that their kids heard Snoop's profanity-laced lyrics.

SMG and the city have "expressed their sensitivity to this issue," Laib says. He's now most concerned with how a drive for profits and densely packed shows may affect traffic on the residential streets surrounding the theater. "Regardless of whether Mary Poppins music is being played ... the real issue is how many cars the neighborhood can handle."

Even with these hurdles, the city's takeover of the Greek is worth the risk, Shull says. If they can make the venue more profitable, these funds can be pumped back into the parks system to bankroll additional park rangers, new shuttle services and other improvements. A new concessions contract alone stands to earn the city at least $1 million a year in additional profit. "It's just raw money back to the department," he says.

Shull is holding himself accountable for the Greek's success and says SMG's performance will be reviewed at the end of this year, when he will provide the City Council, the mayor and the public with a progress report.

"We owe an explanation at the end of the season: 'How did it go? How did it work? Is this the right way to go?'?" Shull says. "And we'll make that decision toward the end of this year, about what the ultimate future of the Greek Theatre is."


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