It was announced in September that Boston theater impresario Josiah Spaulding will step down as president and CEO of the Boch Center, the Wang Theater and the Shubert Theater, after running all of it for close to four decades. And while Joe is stepping away from his role, he's not exactly exiting stage left.
Joe Spaulding spoke with GBH News anchor and host Henry Santoro. The interview is lightly edited for clarity.
Henry Santoro: Joe, when you arrived on Boston's theater scene in 1986, it was a very different city back then. It was a city where Boston's combat zone was doing more business than the theaters were.
What were your thoughts when you walked into the theater?
Joe Spaulding: I will never forget 1986 was the second season of Great Woods [Mansfield]. And as you may remember, I was with Don Law and others that were very involved with Great Woods. I was running the educational arm there. I was interviewed on the lawn of Great Woods by the firm that was searching for a new CEO for the [Boch] center. And Loverboy was having their rehearsal. And he said, ‘Listen, we've decided that you would be the right candidate.’ And the answer was, ‘There's no way I'm going to do that.’ And then they threw out a challenge. And the challenge was exactly what you were saying, Henry. At the time all the theaters were all dark. The Opera House was dark. The Majestic was dark. The Colonial was dark. The Shubert was very little product. The then-Metropolitan Center, that later became the Wang Center, was nearly bankrupt. And yes, the combat zone was everywhere. And the question was, can we save it? And they said to me, ‘Well, would you come for a week and then give us your assessment?’
And I thought, ‘Well, gee, why not? I'm a Bostonian and I care about the arts.’ So I went and I fell for it hook, line and sinker, Henry. I jumped in with both feet.
Santoro: You very slowly and methodically reshaped that neighborhood into what it is today. That took some major decision-making on your part. For instance, it wasn't just plays and musicals that you brought to the stage;It was also comedy, concerts, dance, spoken word. You name it. You brought it. What do you look for in a show that's going to put people in the seats night after night?
Spaulding: I think the most important thing is we're into diversity. And the different kinds of shows we put on, really satisfy me. So even today, we're one of the largest Latin promoters in New England now. And I love the fact that I just had Carlos Vives there and it was sold out and there wasn't a word of English spoken by him on the stage or by the audience. There were 3,500 people jumping up and down for two and a half hours speaking in Spanish, of which I hate to admit it, Henry, I didn't understand one word they were doing. But the excitement of that was what it's all about for me. We obviously do our homework of what we think can sell that kind of stuff, but we're pleasantly surprised by lots of things. We just had Brett Goldstein, who most people didn't know who Brett Goldstein was, and for me was a very important character on Ted Lasso, and he even wrote most of the screenplay of that show. But we sold out four shows of Brett, in advance of going on public sale.
Santoro: This is more than just a business. This is a passion for you. You're a fan.
Spaulding: I'm a fan. I'm a fan. And I believe that the arts and music is the foundation of a civilized society. And I believe that gives us an opportunity and a moral obligation to do that. And so I sorta get to do God's work every single day of my life, and I'm very pleased by that.
Santoro: All right. What sort of things make you say thanks, but no thanks?.
Spaulding: When it makes no business sense. When somebody is pushy. When somebody doesn't understand that we know how to market the show. When somebody says it must be cookie cutter. You know, we are out to be the best of what we can be. And we're out to be the best cultural institution and treating our patrons and our artists in the way that they need to have that respect. And I think you've been to concerts at The Wang. You know that there's a special thing that happens between the audience and the artist in that building, and it's just a wonderful thing.
Santoro: And the Wang was the Boston Music Hall when you took over.
Spaulding: No, it was still the Wang when I took over. And before that, it was the Metropolitan Center. And before that it was the Music Hall. And I can remember going to shows and sleeping overnight under the marquee of the Music Hall to get tickets to see a show, because the only way you could do that in those days was hard tickets.
Santoro: You had to go to the box office to buy them.
Spaulding: That’s correct.
Santoro: One of your main priorities over the years was to engage young people from all walks of life. This is where the diversity side comes in, that you just mentioned. You brought them in, you expose them to the performing arts. You did this by distributing thousands of tickets, free of charge to schools, to social services groups. Groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs and the BASE. And the personal satisfaction that you must get from that has to be off the charts.
Spaulding: It is off the charts. And again, if you go back to the foundation that keeps us a civilized society, a creative person is a better person. And there's nobody like young people who are looking for that creativity. They're looking to be exposed to this and they're rarely exposed to it in their lives. And so, we take it as part of our responsibility to do that. And we were giving away 5,000 to 6000 tickets a year, and hundreds of thousands of dollars. But we also have the largest educational outreach program, almost, in the arts in the country. And we work with underprivileged kids in high schools, teenagers and provide summer job programs that use the arts to learn 21st-century skills. We've got lots of different things going on.
Santoro: What sort of things do you think about when you look at how the city and the state are handling the performing arts today?
Spaulding: I'm so disappointed and yet I'm encouraged. So, let's talk about that. I think we take the arts for granted. We don't fund it like we fund everything else and we need to. You've seen what's happened in schools. It all just gets decimated. And it's become sort of the responsibility of cultural organizations to take on that role. That's not quite fair. I think that government needs to step in. And as you know, during COVID, I worked very hard to get something called SVOG, which ended up being $16.25 billion to help 23,000 organizations across the United States stay alive. And fortunately, we got it. In fact, I think it should happen every year, and it's not going to happen every year.
Produced with assistance from thePublic Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.