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The Celebrity Theatre Grapples With Heritage and Relevancy

"I want to close The Van Buren," says Celebrity Theatre owner Rich Hazelwood.
"I want to close The Van Buren," says Celebrity Theatre owner Rich Hazelwood.
Jim Louvau

There’s so much history in the Celebrity Theatre.

In the venue’s 55-plus years, everyone from Nat King Cole and David Bowie to Diana Ross and Smashing Pumpkins have headlined the rotating stage. That sense of legacy makes it less like you’re stepping into a club and more like a living museum. And in a city where music venues struggle with permanence, from the Star System and The Works to the Mason Jar, this theater maintains a deep cultural lineage.

Despite appearances by musical loyalty spanning rock and R&B, there’s another group centr al to the theater’s sense of prestige: the Valley’s local Latin/Hispanic community. Blu Parr, the theater’s director of operations, says the venue’s been central to furthering a specific kind of cultural tradition.

“We’re located in a historic part of Phoenix,” she says. “If you go down into traditional Mexico, you have the round theaters and the setup with the cockfighting and then the mariachi bands and the stuff that comes out after [the] traditional fights. You have the same setup in the [Celebrity].” Over the years, the likes of Yuridia, Pimpinela, Mariachi Vargas De Tecalitlán, and Marisela all have performed there.

Parr admits that it hasn’t always been a purposeful decision to play up this connection, but rather that “the community gravitates to [the] very traditional.” Parr adds that many people use the theater to continue certain cultural traditions from stories told by family and friends in Mexico.

Owner Rich Hazelwood recognizes the value of this dynamic community, having spent his childhood riding bikes nearby and “washing dishes at the Flamingo.” He says they’ve always tried to book concerts to “benefit the community” and not just “if they’d make money.”

Hazelwood adds, “When we have Hispanic shows here, they know where it’s at. They’re comfortable with the neighborhood. They’re comfortable with the theater.”

Lupita Galaviz, CEO of Gala Entertainment, has booked multiple concerts over the last six years, including Amanda Miguel and Diego Verdaguer. She says Celebrity’s a “perfect venue,” proving both “comfortable” and close for members of the local Hispanic population. She adds the venue “has a history” with the community, and these events are an important cultural exchange.

Yet at the same time that the management celebrates the community, there’s a clear struggle taking place within. Hazelwood himself recognizes they’re “not in exactly the best neighborhood in America.” That understanding begs the question: How do they honor the past and the people perpetually uplifting the Celebrity and show that they’re more inviting in an ever-competitive model? The answer might be more healthy competition.

“I want to close The Van Buren,” he says with a hearty laugh. He then compares concert promotion to a reporter wanting to be the only one to break an important story.

When asked what might happen if Celebrity no longer booked Hispanic-centric events, Galaviz noted they “only rent the Celebrity,” and that there’s still other outfits and promoters to work alongside.

While Hazelwood recognizes shared experiences, he’s quick to admit the theatre’s part of an ongoing war.

“We’re fighting our ass off to get groups, especially good ones that will bring up all-age groups,” he says. “We want to get the breakouts; that’s what [Tom] LaPenna [of Lucky Man and Marquee Theatre] gets. He gets baby bands that are playing at his place that owe him and will be back as they’re getting into their 20s.”

The Gin Blossoms perform at Celebrity Theatre in August 2017.EXPAND
The Gin Blossoms perform at Celebrity Theatre in August 2017.
Jim Louvau

Hazelwood also recognizes that a place like The Van Buren is a “non-loser” because it’s central to downtown and the nearby ASU campus. All of these factors have created an uptick in what Hazelwood agrees is a deeply bifurcated market, one split between hardcore fans and more casual fun-seekers.“When you look at the number of people that are in that business in this town now, I don’t think you’d want to be in this business,” Hazelwood says.

Location is clearly at the heart of a lot of the theater’s identity issues. Hazelwood says the city “did us a lot of favors,” thanks to the nearby 202 and 51 freeways. Even still, he adds that “if we were further north or further east or something like that ... it would give us a much leg better leg up than we have currently.”

So that means relying on other methods to attract folks from across the Valley, which is something Hazelwood says is a conscious decision in their planning and operations. There was that time when the theater leaned heavily on hip-hop acts (the venue won Best Place to See a Rap Show in 2019’s Best of Phoenix). But they’ve also further expanded their offerings, adding in everything from comedy to “midget wrestling.”The venue’s also made certain upgrades in the 20-plus years Hazelwood has served as owner, including a new sound system.

They’re even attempting to get the theater accredited as “a national landmark in the theater business for Arizona as well as Phoenix and the U.S.” That distinction, Hazelwood adds, could be useful in attracting folks driving on those nearby freeways.

He’s especially keen on a new VA outpatient clinic being built nearby, which means an insurgence of workers eventually in need of ample entertainment options.

“It’s going to be probably 5,000 employees over there, and they’re going to have to live somewhere,” Hazelwood says. “So there’s probably going to be some condos and apartments going in around here that they can live in.
So, a lot of the old trailer parks and those places are going to go away.”

But the biggest method of remaining competitive has seen the venue double down on what makes it unique. Hazelwood says the theater’s setup means concertgoers are never more than “10 or 11” rows away from the stage. Meanwhile, the spinning stage allows the performers and crowd to interact in novel ways. The venue is also one of the few “modern,” non-arena entities with ample seats. Hazelwood says, “You’re not going to get people over 40 going to stand for two hours.”

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Scene from a local lucha libre match at the Celebrity Theatre in 2015.EXPAND
Scene from a local lucha libre match at the Celebrity Theatre in 2015.
Benjamin Leatherman

That last point is essential. For all its desire to attract a younger, hipper crowd, the venue relies on older crowds looking for a specific kind of experience. It’s one that Parr says harks back to the days when “people planned months in advance” and made an “experience” out of a concert. That means booking a rather specific kind of act, Hazelwood adds.

“I used to say when people asked me what was Celebrity, I said, ‘It’s a place that has acts that are going up, and acts that are coming down,’” he says. “And as they’re coming down, we’re booking them into the theater. We can’t do the arena people. We don’t try. But when those people don’t want to do arenas anymore, they start to drop down to theaters. We’re a prime example of that.”

Building on that, Parr hopes the retro-centered approach will appeal to the younger crowds, adding, “I’m seeing that the younger audiences [are] growing up with their parents and their grandparents part of their lives, and they’re growing up with that appreciation in music.”

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