For a long time, I didn't patronize the Marquee Theatre in Tempe. Hadn't been there until I was preparing to write this column, and then it was at the insistence of my editor.
At first it was simply coincidence that I didn't visit the former Red River Opry, renamed and remodeled once concert promoters Nobody in Particular Presents bought the venue.
Then the complaints began pouring in -- about service charges, parking fees and, worst of all, overpriced beer -- and I skipped the Marquee as a matter of principle.
My resolve was tested recently, when Death Cab for Cutie rolled through town with Ben Kweller. Death Cab is one of my favorite bands to see live; when the Seattle-based indie rawkers came to town last November and played at Nita's Hideaway -- not long before the venue's demise -- the band let me sit on stage, hidden by a stack of amps, to watch the boys rock out up close. They were brilliant, but even the prospect of seeing them perform in late April at the Marquee couldn't tempt me inside the venue.
Now I wish I had gone to the damn show.
I still believe that the complaints I received about the venue are valid. There's a $5 charge to park at every show. Like Ticketmaster, the Marquee tacks on convenience surcharges and facility fees to tickets you purchase in advance at its box office. Security can be surly and overbearing.
"They seem to just want to get every penny out of their patrons they can; it seems like the only thing that matters to them," says Jim McLennan, who runs the online film and music 'zine www.trashcity.org with his wife, Chris. Jim and I talked after he wrote me a lengthy letter detailing the McLennans' complaints about the venue. Jim and Chris are vocal critics of Ticketmaster as well; their Web site includes a damning article outlining the evils of "Ticketbastard." And they don't have a much higher opinion of the Marquee.
"It looks like they have been taking lessons in gouging from the masters, Ticketbastard," Jim wrote to me back in March.
He also complained about the $1 extra per ticket that you pay if you use your credit card for the purchase. "Now, we run a small business and know the commission charged on such things is no more than 2.5 percent, and probably less for a large company such as the Marquee. I doubt very much the average ticket there costs $40, so they're profiteering from your plastic," he added.
"It just cuts down on the number of concerts we go to these days. It's getting too expensive; it's beyond a joke, really," Jim says. "There are no real other venues of that size in town; the Marquee has a monopoly on the situation."
Jim's exactly right. There are no other venues in town, since Nita's Hideaway's untimely demise, that can hold a 1,000-person show. The Marquee bridges the gap between 300-person venues like the Mason Jar and a near 3,000-capacity venue like the Celebrity Theatre.
That's the state of our music scene here in the Valley, and at present there's little we can do about it.
But it's not the Marquee that's to blame.
What sucks about the Marquee, essentially, is that it's not a nightclub, it's a theater, as owner Tom Lapenna explained to me recently. In that context, the Marquee's parking charges and advance ticket purchasing fees are not much different than if you go to the Celebrity Theatre, Gammage Auditorium or the Dodge Theatre.
"Obviously, we're in major debt," Lapenna explains. "We're here to recoup our investment over the last year, we're trying to get to the point where this could actually be a money-making enterprise for us. In the long run, we have put a lot of time, energy and capital investment into this place."
Those investments include a half-million-dollar sound system, drapery to dampen the sound, and recurring repairs to the facility's air-conditioning system.
The end result is a fantastic venue, with a sloping floor that provides great sight lines from anywhere in the place, and a generous stage outfitted with top-of-the-line sound equipment.
"This is a capitalist economy; we are here to make money. I would never say that we're not, but right now we're not making money," Lapenna says.
"Yes, there are issues with parking sometimes. Air conditioning. Kids who come here for a punk rock show and they think we're making all this money 'cause we're charging two or three dollars more. Unfortunately, we're trying to provide a service, but there is a cost associated with that service."
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In my opinion, those extra charges would be less suspect if they were tacked on to the face value of the ticket. It would be a more honest system of charging the patrons.
But the real issue here is that the live music scene in the Valley couldn't support two venues of that size, and so we're left with only the Marquee. That's the sorry state of music in our metropolis. Without the Marquee, even more bands would skip Phoenix for Tucson, and we'd be left with nothing.
So, in a couple weeks when Cursive comes to the Marquee as part of the Plea for Peace tour, I'll grit my teeth and pay the parking fee, go inside, and just be happy that the show came to the Valley at all.