Beatles to Broadway
From Beatles to Broadway, DiCesare-Engler has booked it all
By Meribeth Snively
FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW
December 22, 1994
In the volatile business of entertainment, not many concert promoters can play the game well enough to win over the long haul.
But Pittsburgh concert promoter DiCesare-Engler Productions Inc. has not only been a success at concert promoting, it's managed to hang around for 20 years.
Best known as a promoter of rock and pop concerts at the Civic Arena and Duquesne University's A.J. Palumbo Center, both Uptown; the I.C. Light Amphitheater at Station Square; and Star Lake Amphitheater in Burgettstown; as well as Three Rivers Stadium, the Benedum Center and other sites (including the former Syria Mosque), DiCesare-Engler has brought to the 'Burgh musical celebrities from Judy Collins to Metallica and Aerosmith to Andy Williams.
While the partnership of Pat DiCesare and Rich Engler is celebrating its 20th anniversary, the company's history of rock promoting in Pittsburgh goes back much longer than 20 years.
In the '50s, DiCesare, president of DiCesare-Engler, began working as a record promoter. Later, he began to produce concerts. He remembers his first booking venture vividly.
"Tuesday, May 8, 1962. It was the Four Freshmen at Stambaugh Auditorium in Youngstown, Ohio. It was my first show and it lost $900. But I learned a lot from that. I had to go to a friendly loan company in Irwin to bail me out. I didn't promote anything else until a couple of years later," DiCesare recalled.
"Then what I discovered was that there was nobody in Pittsburgh who promoted rock 'n' roll music or bands. Lenny Litman used to own a place on Liberty Avenue called the Copa and he would play acts like Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald or Dinah Washington. He would also promote concerts at the Syria Mosque. He'd promote things like folk music. That was as heavy a music as he would get."
In 1964, however, the concert promoting business went through its first major change. That was the year Beatlemania swept the United States and a single band was able to fill entire auditoriums for a whole evening for the first time.
"I was able to book the Beatles in 1964," DiCesare recalled. "That really helped establish me as a promoter. We sold tickets for $6.60. I agonized over that because at the time I was selling tickets for $1.50 to $3. We sold all the tickets right away and no one even complained.
"In the '50s and '60s, promoting a concert was nothing like it is today," he continued. "I had the ability to select the artists, decide what they would play onstage and demand certain things from the artists like costuming and rehearsals. We would sometimes go out with 10 or 12 acts on one show. Until the Beatles played there was never an artist who could sell out a venue on their own."
Engler, secretary and treasurer of DiCesare-Engler, started out as a musician.
"As a musician, one thing led to another when my band couldn't find bookings," he said. "I was kind of the mother. I would have to go out and find bookings for our band. Sometimes our band would be booked and someone would call and say they'd really like us and I'd suggest another band to them. I ended up having a corral of bands under my wing and I was an agent at that time.
"By selling talent in my younger years I became interested in buying talent from national agents in New York and Los Angeles. I put my ideas to work in Erie, Johnstown, Altoona and at the Stanley Theater (now the Benedum). I began to become a promoter in 1970 or 1971."
"In 1974, we were competitors, Pat and I," said Engler. "Pat gave me a call one day and suggested we get together to form a stronger company and make it big. I said it was a great idea and that's what we did."
Although both partners had similar interests, DiCesare said he felt strongly that diversification of tasks was necessary to keep that partnership solid and its members happy.
"I decided that we (should) split our duties because I realized to be successful in the concert business you have to control the real estate. At one time I had the exclusive leases on the Civic Arena and the Syria Mosque," said DiCesare. "(Engler) became more of the concert promoter and I became more of the real estate guy."
THE COMPANY GROWS
In 1975, Ed Traversari, who later would become the third partner, was added to the staff.
"They had a position open for a runner in May of 1975," said Travesari, now vice president of the company. "My first day I had to pick up the group America in the Rolls Royce that we owned and drive them from the airport to the show and back to the airport that day. That was basically the beginning.
"I used to put up the posters. I did everything that was the low man's job," said Traversari. "I did production managing for about six or seven years, then I kind of got into booking the bands. I helped Rich for years. He would book many of the large shows at the time and I would book Stanley Theater and the clubs.
"I sort of took over booking all our shows after we made the transition from the Stanley Theater to the Syria Mosque, but my interest always came back to marketing and public relations. I have a lot more interest in dealing with all the radio stations, doing all the (advertising) time buys, writing all the spots. That's really what I like doing, so it's working well."
Soon after Traversari came on board, the company entered into what they now consider to be one of their riskiest ventures ever - acquisition of the Stanley Theater.
"I think it was one of our biggest accomplishments - buying the Stanley Theater, a dying movie house, and saving it from the wrecking ball," said Engler. "By buying and operating (it), we were selected as the No. 1 theater in the country (by Billboard magazine) . That was a very high point. Another high point was when the Variety Club of Pittsburgh gave my partner and me an award (in the early '80s) for bringing Broadway back to Pittsburgh. Prior to us buying the Stanley, Broadway shows were very few and far-between in Pittsburgh. We just had tremendous first-run plays."
"When we bought the Stanley in 1977, we realized that we could not be just rock promoters," said Traversari, who became a partner in 1984. "We thought, `There's a certain amount of Blue Oyster Cult, but we're not going to survive if we don't do Johnny Mathis and Red Skelton.' We got into a lot of things that rock promoters usually don't. I think over the years that has helped us."
DiCesare-Engler sold the Stanley to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust in 1984 and moved its offices to the Syria Mosque, which it managed until the Shriners sold it to the University of Pittsburgh, which demolished it.
Company headquarters in now in the Strip District.
NO PLAYING FAVORITES
While the three partners differ greatly in their interests within the company, their overall views on promotion are very similar. According to all three, the first rule of thumb for a successful rock promoter is not to let personal taste interfere with choosing marketable ventures.
"My taste has never really entered into any of the decisions, or at least I tried to be aware of not making it a decision from my heart," said Engler. "We do a lot of research and the decisions are based on research. We're very sensitive on the anti-Christian statements or anything that would have sacrilegious overtones. But overall, if the public wants it and the public will pay to see it ... that's where it's at. We don't judge."
"If I had to depend on the type of music I liked, I'd probably be the only person in the audience," laughed DiCesare. "When I listened to the radio or music it was always work to me. I was always looking for what the customer would pay for. The job of the concert promoter is much more difficult than any other part of the music business. A consumer may like a song and listen to it on the radio for free or may buy the record and listen to it for years, but to buy a (ticket) is the ultimate test. I had to make sure I was really right on the selection of the artist."
"We learned real quick that your personal taste is fine, but when it comes time to book a show, if we think that Engelbert Humperdinck is doing OK, we'll bring him in," added Traversari. "To me, if there is something out there for everybody, you try to go after that target demo."
But the promoters' shared philosophy places as much emphasis on diversification as it does picking the right artists to promote.
"We not only promote, but we produce events like Pepsi's Halloween Festival," Engler noted. The haunted-house-type event staged at Station Square in October also was done in 20 other cities.
"We're also into artist's management. We manage one band from Liverpool, England, and we're working on a few new attractions locally," Engler added.
Explained DiCesare, "When we did our Halloween show last year, we had over 50,000 people and it was something we did in a grand style, exactly similar to if we were promoting the Rolling Stones. We weren't afraid to spend the money that you have to to make it big. We put a lot of bucks on the line.
"I am very excited about the non-music events," he said. "I would like to do more special events - more festivals. I would like to own a festival site in Pittsburgh. I would like to have 30 acres of land along the river, not for riverboat gambling but for ethnic festivals.
"I see us going more in that direction because music limits you. You can only do a concert if the artist has a hit record. We're limited by what the radio stations will play."
Another direction DiCesare is pursuing is film. His first planned venture is a horror film that will be shown in conjunction with the Halloween festivals. The company also plans to get more involved in family entertainment, according to DiCesare.
"I have a location right now in Allegheny County that we're seeking approvals on. It would be a very large (family entertainment) facility. It would dwarf anything else that's out there," he said.
As the trio reminisces about their past and future, it becomes clear that their success is based, more than anything, on the love they share for their work.
"It's the greatest business in the world. I just enjoyed my life so much," DiCesare said. "I went all over the world and met everybody. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing. I loved it. To me it was never work. I never felt I worked a day yet."
Added Engler, "We've had a terrific partnership over the years. Never really had a major argument. I'm looking forward to the next 20. I can't believe the first 20 years went so fast."
Said Traversari: "It's worked out pretty well."