Sacramento Film & Music Festival co-director speaks about changes at Crest Theatre

Special to SN&R
 
A year ago, the Arts and Business Council of Sacramento gave an award to Laura “Sid” Garcia-Heberger, General Manager of the Crest Theatre, to recognize the arts partnerships that have existed between the Crest Theatre and the various film festivals hosted there. And the key word in that dedication is “partnership.”
 
I’ve known Sid and her business partners for approximately 15 years and, as co-director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival, I’ve been one of those festival partners for more than a decade. I know I speak for several of my festival director colleagues, at more than just our event, when I say that much of the reason that we have been at the Crest for so many years has been the extraordinary sense of trust and collaboration that we have had with the entire Crest management team as well as the staff there, who are like an extended family.
 
The Crest Theatre holds a unique place in Sacramento—there’s no similarly sized venue of equal capability and versatility. There are choices that are significantly smaller and larger but as a venue it has few, if any, direct competitors. That said, it isn’t an easy operation to managethere’s no steady stream of bookings simply waiting to be fielded and many acts do, indeed, go to smaller and larger venues. The entertainment industry is complex, as evidenced by the Crest’s own move away from a steady program of first-run films, as the smaller film distributors have, in turn, moved towards video-on-demand programming and other distribution options. And film isn’t easily scheduled around other intermittent and irregular events in the single remaining theatrical space, with or without the latest equipment.
 
 
 
The Crest as we know it now hosts an eclectic sequence of arts festivals, weddings, graduation ceremonies, rock concerts, lectures, legislative events, business meetings, comedy shows, private parties, live theatrical performances, simulcast web events, and more. And it does them all well, not because it’s a uniquely proportioned and well equipped building, but because the people there know how to do all of those things exceptionally well.
 
But that knowledge and ability has been hard won and long accumulated. The Hebergers and their business partners have operated the theater for almost 30 years. Three decades in the heart of Sacramento’s urban core, while other businesses have come and gone, and the area around the building has decayed. For years, the Crest’s marquee was like a beacon of hope in a blighted wasteland of failed plans and missed opportunities. That very short stretch of K Street is lively now, especially late at night, but the crowds of people are almost as new as the cars that have returned to the streetscape.
 
Sid would be the first to tell you that she couldn’t have done what she does now 30 years agoshe simply didn’t have the requisite knowledge or skill set. But she has worked extraordinarily hard over those three decades, working long hours and more nights and weekends than she can count, figuring out every one of the hundreds of details that each different kind of event involves. The business gradually grew and so did their capabilities, so that they can now operate entirely different events, sometimes every day of a week, without dropping any of the many balls that are in the air at every moment. And Sacramento needs that skill set as we look to expand and move forward.
 
I’ve been teaching at Sacramento State for 17 years. I teach in the areas of commercial recreation administration, the marketing of leisure and service enterprises, and meeting and event planning. Many of my students aspire to be the Sid Hebergers of the world and, each year, she comes into class and talks about her business and how difficult it is in practicethe long hours, the weekends when you feel like you’ve never gone home, and the endless days and sleepless nights spent ensuring that all the balls are still airborne.
 
When you delve into the study of service and experience industries, two of the key components that present themselves are people and processput simply, who am I working with or encountering and how do they function and relate to me? In the case of the Crest, currently, the people are exceptionally capable and empathetic and their methods have been honed over decades of earlier trial and error. The line staff and floor managers care about both the clients and the business in a way that I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. And they are fiercely loyal despite many positions being paid at or near minimum wagesomething other employers would dearly love to be able to claim. At various times, I’ve volunteered alongside many of them and the staff is loyal for many of the same reasons the clients are loyalbecause they are treated with respect and they know they are cared about.
 
This is a bad time for the Crest, for K Street, and for Sacramento to try and re-invent all of these component wheelsto change the management team at the theater. My limited understanding is that the owner of the building is considering taking on the day to day operation of the venue and displacing the veteran managers, who are tenant operators of the theater.
 
Aside from the irony of displacing the people who made the building worth buying in the first place, that’s an incredibly enormous undertaking that seems, at best, to be an extreme risk. The current team, under Sid’s leadership, knows this business exceptionally well. They aren’t failing. They’ve worked with the City over the years to make renovations to the building and they have enormous goodwill and established business relationships with both clients and vendors. They are, quite simply, incredible stewards of one of Sacramento’s legacy buildings and venues.
 
I teach others how to succeed in this type of business and the Crest has been a major part of my life for 15 years, but I couldn’t begin to do what this team does. Between them, they have both the managerial and marketing skills to operate the visible aspects of the business and the practical and technological skills to maintain and constantly improve the infrastructure of the building and the theater’s extensive technical equipment, much of which they have either built or rebuilt over the years. I’ve only seen this level of symbiotic management once before and when that business changed hands, it slowly but steadily failed – largely because it was made to look so easy from a distance.
 
As a friend of the theater, as a festival director, as a patron of the arts, and as a resident of Sacramento, news of this potential change is devastating. And that’s not a word I use lightly. Neither am I alone in using it, as word has spread among the film arts community of which I am part. I obviously can’t speak for the all of the Crest’s clients and partners, but I’m sure this is not being taken well.
 
I’m interested to see how the City will support these long-time business operators in this time of growth. I can’t imagine that it would be very encouraging to new ventures to see the loss of such long time champions of the City without at least some attempt at an intervention.
 
 
Anthony G. Sheppard, PhD.
Professor, Sacramento State