It's hard to remember the 20th century, when Omaha had only three major indoor venues and folks complained about having to leave town for big shows.
The downtown Civic Auditorium handled the “big” indoor concerts and sporting events. Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum in central Omaha took care of the medium-sized ones. And the Orpheum Theater downtown hosted the theatrical shows and the more intimate and “classical” concerts (with help from the Civic's Music Hall on the latter).
As the new millennium dawned, metro-area leaders feared the times and the great concerts were passing them by. Not so in 2014, the year the Civic is set to join the long-demolished Ak-Sar-Ben in the realm of fond memories.
Until the last 15 years, “Omaha had a very small group of entertainment choices,” said Paul Hendrickson, general manager of the newest venue, the Ralston Arena. “They have since then exponentially increased way beyond the normal nationwide.”
National touring acts and major sports events — along with the ticket-buying public — have taken note of the Omaha area's plentiful lineup of attractive, popular venues of varying capacities, said Hendrickson and two other managers of Omaha-area entertainment organizations.
Consider this: The venerable 2,600-seat Orpheum, built in 1927 and renovated in 1975 and 2002, ranked 59th among all indoor U.S. and Canadian venues — including the largest domed stadiums — in gross ticket income from October 2012 to October 2013, according to the December 2013 issue of Venues Today magazine.
The Orpheum sold $11.5 million in tickets for 106 shows during the period, ranking it 13th among venues of 2,001 to 5,000 seats, the magazine reported. Meanwhile, the eight-year-old, 2,000-seat Holland Performing Arts Center ranked 10th among venues of 2,000 or fewer seats, taking in $3.1 million in tickets sold for 85 shows.
Statistics like those remind Joan Squires, president of Omaha Performing Arts, why she took on the task of building her organization from scratch in 2002.
“I think we were known at the time as having very good performing-arts institutions, but we lacked the capacity to present high-quality touring programs or Broadway shows,” said Squires, whose organization manages both the Holland and the Orpheum. “I felt there was tremendous pent-up demand for the kinds of productions that just bypassed Omaha.”
Though CenturyLink Center Omaha didn't make the Venues Today list, the 11-year-old facility — still the largest among the area's modern performing venues — has attracted an impressive array of performers that includes U2, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift.
The risk for Omaha's entertainment industry, the managers say, has shifted to overbuilding in light of the October 2012 opening of the Ralston Arena, a shortage of arena business at Council Bluffs' 12-year-old Mid-America Center and a projected on-campus sports arena for the University of Nebraska at Omaha on the site of the former Chili Greens golf course.
“I think everyone looks at big dollar signs when they build these facilities” and expects guaranteed success, said Roger Dixon, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which manages CenturyLink and the Civic. “It will be interesting to see how these arenas operate.”
Hendrickson, who took the Ralston Arena job in February 2013, acquired an outsider's view of Omaha's pre-2000 indoor entertainment scene when he promoted figure-skating events in 1997 and 1998 at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum and in 2002 at the Civic.
The latter, built in 1954, was the home of minor-league hockey and pro basketball in its prime and hosted concerts by Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel and many others. Ak-Sar-Ben attracted Bill Cosby, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, George Burns, Liberace, Jerry Lewis, Wayne Newton and others, largely through the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation's member shows.
But by the 1990s, the technical demands of touring rock acts mushroomed beyond the old arenas' capabilities — something even the 1997 renovations at the Civic couldn't fully solve. “Older facilities weren't equipped to handle 120,000 to 135,000 pounds of sound (equipment) and lights,” Dixon said.
Meanwhile, concert dates were disappearing at both arenas. Creighton University men's basketball and the then-new UNO hockey team claimed increasing shares of the Civic's schedule. During the past quarter-century, the Omaha Lancers junior hockey team has played at Ak-Sar-Ben, the Mid-America Center, the Civic and now the Ralston Arena.
The Orpheum, renovated by the City of Omaha in the 1970s, long had tried to squeeze in touring performers and Broadway shows among busy schedules for local arts groups, notably the Omaha Symphony and Opera Omaha.
All the pressures culminated in the pivotal 2000 approval by Omaha voters of a $198 million bond issue to build CenturyLink, originally known as Qwest Center Omaha, on downtown land formerly occupied by a Union Pacific Railroad yard. Private fundraising covered the rest of the $291 million project.
Around the same time, Council Bluffs built and opened the 8,500-seat Mid-America Center, beating Omaha's much larger arena by a year and briefly capturing a share of the sports and concert market. Meanwhile, a $100 million private fund drive paid for the Orpheum's 2002 renovation and the construction of the Holland — now the symphony's home — on the site of a former Swanson frozen-food factory.
These days, Squires said, she has little trouble booking acts even if they're also playing elsewhere in the region.
“If a performer is several hours away from here, he or she will also play us,” she said. “We're really well-positioned for these tours coming across the country.”
Competition is more intense among large arenas, Dixon said, but Omaha can compete well. The CenturyLink complex has ample room for a band's production trucks, and “it helps them to know the (arena) crew is seasoned and can get them in and can get them back out,” he said.
Even so, he said, top bands visiting the region also can choose major indoor venues in Denver, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Des Moines, Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kan. Lincoln's new Pinnacle Bank Arena may become a greater rival of CenturyLink, Dixon said, if the University of Nebraska-Lincoln men's and women's basketball teams can't sell enough tickets over time.
Hendrickson keeps tabs on arenas in Sioux City, Iowa, Sioux Falls, S.D., St. Paul, Minn., Bismarck, N.D., and even Billings, Mont., in booking concerts for Ralston Arena. It opened a few months after the City of Council Bluffs hired Caesars Entertainment Corp., owners of Harrah's and Horseshoe casinos, to stem annual operating losses at the Mid-America Center.
Since its opening, Ralston Arena has hosted concerts by Kenny G, Martina McBride and Wynonna Judd and gained Omaha Beef football and Lancers hockey as sports clients. The UNO men's basketball team is playing there until the university opens its projected 7,500-seat arena at Chili Greens, likely in 2015 or 2016.
It remains to be seen, Hendrickson said, whether UNO's arena will become a rival for non-athletic entertainment acts. Based on his years of experience, he added, “the city needs to grow into what's here and participate in what's here.”
Omaha-area live entertainment venues
CenturyLink Center Omaha
455 N. 10th St.
Opened: 2003, as Qwest Center Omaha
Primary tenants: Creighton University men's basketball, University of Nebraska at Omaha hockey
1 Arena Way, Council Bluffs
Omaha Civic Auditorium
1804 Capitol Ave.
Opened: 1954; renovated 1997
Projected closure: summer 2014
7300 Q St., Ralston
Primary tenants: UNO men's basketball, Omaha Lancers hockey, Omaha Beef indoor football
Proposed UNO arena
67th and Center Streets
Projected opening: 2015 or 2016
Projected tenants: UNO hockey, volleyball, men's and women's basketball
Concert halls and theaters
409 S. 16th St.
Opened: 1927; renovated 1975 and 2002
Primary tenants: Opera Omaha, Omaha Performing Arts
1200 Douglas St.
Primary tenants: Omaha Symphony, Omaha Performing Arts
Civic Auditorium Music Hall
1804 Capitol Ave.
Opened: 1954; renovated 1997
Projected closure: uncertain