The Arts are Reawakened at the Schwartz in Dover
We caught up with Sydney Arzt in mid-April as the former restaurateur and jazz festival founder focuses her energy and expertise toward reestablishing the Schwartz Center for the Arts as a cultural anchor in Dover and central Delaware.
DT: You sold Sydney’s restaurant in 2006. What have you been up to since then?
SA: I volunteered myself to another nonprofit in Kent County, Del., called Delaware Charitable Music whose purpose it was to produce a jazz event that would help to support young musicians in Kent County. That was a three-year commitment. Additionally, I went back to substitute teaching. My previous career as an educator was for 20 years. So I thought it would be great to return to being with young people because they are the ones who point to the new world. I like to remain relevant and that was a great way to do it and also to utilize my educational background. And during that time, I also had a stint as a restaurant manager at the Atlantic Sands motel and also worked as a manager for the Chris Peterson Show, which was a two-summer experience, which was also presented at the Atlantic Sands motel. I had a variety of opportunities presented to me in that period of time.
DT: It doesn’t surprise me that you would stay busy. Didn’t you also work at Bethany Blues?
SA: Yes. I developed their entertainment program. I worked with them for three years and mostly booked all the talent that they were doing at the time and guided them toward proper presentation in sound, lighting and staging. That ended just at the time that my opportunity at the Schwartz arrived. So the timing was just perfect.
DT: Congratulations on that. The Schwartz seems like a great opportunity.
SA: It is a great opportunity. The opportunity is not only in having a slightly larger budget in which to present great entertainment, but also the ability at this point to begin to alter in a positive way people’s perceptions about the Schwartz Theater. It’s had a long, up and down history and remains a most beautiful venue with incredible sight and sound experiences. I can’t think of another theater that is as well designed for patrons.
DT: You held a “rebirth” kickoff event with a parade and concert in March. How did that go?
SA: That was the most fun. It went extremely well. I think that it was surprising to folks here that we were able to generate so much enthusiasm and excitement. We got the mayor out on the street, and we got the director of economic development out on the street. And we just got people who wanted to be part of the experience. As you know, being in media yourself, it takes a long time for people to quote, get it. Because you and I understand what’s happening here does not always translate to the community at-large, who have preconceived ideas and notions about many things, in this case the theater. That we were demonstrating our enthusiastic point of view so publicly was, I think, a surprise to rather staid Dover—and with more to come, really. It always surprises me … you know, the buildings are so beautiful here. There’s so much history here. There are so many people who work here. And then between 4 and 5 o’clock, they all disappear. I want people to consider that the Schwartz is some place where they might want to spend part of an evening. I also believe that that will begin to develop as downtown redevelops. We need restaurants. We need places for people to go while they wait for theater stuff to happen. We have purposely produced our events at 7 o’clock so that people could stay in the area, grab a bite to eat and then come to the theater for some magical performance. And now we’ve just begun to do a couple of daytime things to address retired folks who don’t like being out at night but, like in the big cities, would love to be out for matinee performances. So we are doing two of those in our rebirth campaign.
DT: It looks like you have some great shows lined up for children as well.
SA: Yes. The Schwartz has always done children’s performances. We work with the Ballet Theater of Dover, who yearly produces “The Nutcracker.” We work with the Children’s Theater here, and they produce a variety of performances. They are coming up with one in May called “Beauty is a Beast.” They did “Charlotte’s Web” earlier in March. And we’ve worked with St. Thomas More Academy, a private school … a most interesting school because I think they only have a little over 250 students. So, in doing that, about 70 of them participate in the theater portion of their program. And they do an incredible job. They’re producing “Cinderella” here over Dover Days weekend (May 1-3). So we’ve always—the theater prior to me and in its history—has always supported the cultural children’s programs as well as things like the Delaware Chorale Society, which is a much more serious chorale presentation. So it’s always been that way. And attendance for those kinds of things is usually very good. You know—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, little kids, big kids … what has lagged here is the performances directed to the public because the public has yet to consider that we are really an important part of any community. They are an important part of this community. And if you do research on what makes a small community viable, there is always an inclusion that a cultural arts center is one of the most important anchors in a thriving community. That’s what we want to be again. We want to be the cultural anchor for central Delaware. Actually, we are. People just don’t know it yet.
DT: You mentioned that folks in the community have preconceived notions about the theater. What do you have to do to change that? I mean, they know the Schwartz is there.
SA: Some do. Some don’t. There was a gentleman in the theater on Saturday night for The Persuasions. He had never heard of [the theater] before. It was his first time here. He said it was a lot of fun. So no, not everyone does know about it. We are fighting on several fronts. We fight with the conversation called, “You all don’t have a private parking lot.” Well, neither does downtown Rehoboth. Neither does New York City … that one can afford, anyway. They do have private lots, but they’re not affordable. That’s not a unique problem. But we do have parking a block away. We just have to be able to communicate to people that we do have parking, not right at the door, but within a block. There is a perception that downtown Dover is totally crime-ridden. That’s what the news picks up. It’s not the case. As a matter of fact, crime incidents have dropped considerably in downtown Dover, and they are really not located in downtown Dover. They are located close to downtown Dover, but not in the part of downtown Dover that invites people to shop, get a bite to eat and come to the theater. We are working to provide more visible security, not because we need it, but because people have a perception that it’s not safe. So rather than try to convince people that it is safe, we’re simply going to provide more visible security.
DT: I’ve heard about the cadets that will be patrolling and the addition of more security cameras.
SA: And I am on a campaign for lighting. There is some money flowing into downtown now. And with that money involves a lot of capital improvements. I am trying to convince people that lighting is part of capital improvements. The Schwartz theater is already beautiful. It doesn’t need any improvement in that category. We want to light the way. We’re already up and ready to go. So, come to our door around the corner and enjoy a little bit of downtown, as it used to be anyway. It was like this when I first got to Rehoboth. The problems are similar because at the time, it was thought that the influence of West Rehoboth would bring crime to downtown Rehoboth. Not true. There were a few issues, but nothing significant. Now people are saying that the west side of Dover produces crime for the rest of downtown. Not true. So those are some of the larger perceptions that we have to get over. I talked about parking as a stated problem for clients and the safety issue—a stated problem from clients. Thirdly, some of the younger people have the point of view that the theater is only for older people. The kind of music that has been programmed prior to this has primarily addressed people who would remember, for example, who The Persuasions were. And it tends to be an older population. However, that’s not all we do. And also I have a real strong feeling that young people that dismiss those acts and performances of a couple of decades ago are missing something extraordinary. And to deny history is to not be able to understand the future. Those are our little mountains to climb. The theater has been asked to be more friendly. So now we’re smiling and being more friendly. We are here to take care of this community whatever way we can. And that’s the thing that I share with the staff, and that’s the point of view that we hold in every conversation we have.
DT: You seem to be well qualified for all of this, considering your background with the restaurant and as co-founder of the Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival. You’re looking at Rehoboth 30 some years ago and comparing it to Dover now.
SA: I can’t wait to be on solid enough footing here, with all of our little pieces in place, to bring a festival here. We actually have quite a few venues. There’s a venue at DelState that’s usable. There’s a venue down the street that’s usable. We are usable. There are enough places to get started with a really nice festival. It doesn’t have to be jazz, of course. One of the interesting things that I’ve been told is that Wilmington is wanting to move away from jazz and the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival. Jazz is a very difficult art form right now to support. But Rehoboth doesn’t seem to have any problems. They grow all the time.
DT: Why is jazz difficult to support?
SA: The masses are going to more pop music … pop and current R&B. The Drakes and the Jay-Zs and that music style. That’s what is selling. Rihanna is selling. And country is selling. Again, it has kind of an overtone of a disrespect of history, which truly bothers me. So we have to find that fine line between history and what’s current. And we will do both.
DT: What have you been doing since you started in November?
SA: Learning the community. That’s really what I’ve been doing primarily is meeting people, learning the community, talking about what they’d like to see and hear and what kind of support exists for the continuation of this theater. Here’s the thing, if this theater goes away, or if any theater goes away, they will not be replaced. It’s not the direction the country appears to be moving in. I mean, look at what you can do now on your phone. Are people really wanting to invest in building a structure like this? It’s been really interesting for me to watch the folks at The Freeman Stage. They have taken their time, in six or seven years, and all they’ve been doing is producing outdoor summer events. What they’re doing is building their customer base so that if they choose to invest in a permanent structure, they have an ongoing base of clientele. Very smart. This theater has had an ongoing base, and then it lost it. And then it had it again, and then it lost it. It’s been like a rollercoaster. So people have a hard time believing that we’re serious. We want to be here. We want to be part of this community. And to the degree that I can assist that effort, I’m all in. I didn’t really expect this at this part of my life. I didn’t expect to be working full time. I didn’t expect to have something like this overtake my life again. I thought I was over with all of that.
DT: I was going to ask you about that because while it’s a great opportunity, it’s also a ton of work.
SA: Yeah. That’s what it is. It’s all of that. It has now become my life. And so I’m trying to figure that part out. I don’t want it to be my entire life. When I left teaching full time and when I finally sold the restaurant I went, OK, now I’m in charge of my time and what I do. And here I am.
DT: Where are you living?
SA: In Rehoboth.
DT: How many days a week are you in Dover?
SA: Five or six. It depends on whether we have shows. Right now my job is gigantic P.R. Obviously, there’s programming and the financial side of it for sure. I don’t mean to diminish that. But my job is a lot about P.R. And so it’s important for me to be here and to let people know that there is something constant here and that they matter as well. They matter because they bought that ticket and showed up.
DT: Kent County can be a tough nut to crack. You had inroads there before, but have you found it tough?
SA: It’s tough in terms of marketing. Like, who do we market to? The legislators are here, and then they disappear. They really don’t contribute much to the community at large, as I have observed it. The Air Force base is here. I swear I never see any of those folks out on the street. I know they have everything they need on base. I never see any of those folks out. So there’s a little separate community all by itself. And the legislators are another separate community. And then there are people living here, but I don’t yet know a lot about those folks. Those are the ones I’m meeting. So in terms of marketing, it’s a very difficult area. A very positive thing, though, is in the people that I am meeting, I have found a great welcoming attitude. The people who have stepped up and been around the theater are so wanting this to be successful. And I have felt included, invited and welcome. I didn’t have any expectation. I didn’t expect that people would go out of their way to make contact with me and say, “We’re glad you’re here. It can be done. You can do it.” Well, I don’t know if it can be done, but I’ll try. I don’t have the magic answers and I don’t have anything at all if people don’t show up and support our efforts. People have great intentions, but I need them to buy a ticket. That’s the bottom line to it all. I can be nice and kind, but if people aren’t buying tickets, then we won’t be here.
DT: Can you talk about how you came to this job?
SA: I was a renter here for Delaware Charitable Music [her organization was renting space in the theater]. Because that gave me a personal experience of the theater, I had the thought then that it could be so much more than it was at the time I was a renter. I had a few conversations about it with people just out of my experience, I guess. Off and on I would chat about it. And when the last executive director decided to leave, I had more conversations with people in positions to replace her, reminding them of what could be possible. And then they turned that around and asked me if I would do it. Basically. I am a person who always has a vision and I talked about those visions. And I guess I talked about it to the right people. It had nothing to do with the way that it was, it was just the vision about what it really could be.
DT: So it seems the biggest challenge right now is to change people’s perceptions.
SA: Right. We are here for the long haul. If people have ideas or things they’d like to share, my phone line is way open. I want to hear from people. The city is well aware of the chatter out there, and there are several organizations working together to change people’s perception, and we’re one of them.
DT: Considering all of the great things that have been accomplished in Kent County in recent years, with all of the new events, the wineries, breweries and restaurants, I would say you’ve got a fighting chance of succeeding.
SA: I really believe we have a fighting chance. We have some younger, entrepreneurial type folks in the area who are really stepping up, not only with good ideas, but their own money. During Dover Days, there is the History, Heritage and Hops brew fest, where they’re putting Mike Hines and The Look outside on The Green, and they’ve invited all of the brewers from all over the state to be there, hoping to promote the current trends. They want to bring that same enthusiasm into the theater.
DT: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you would like to?
SA: Just to continue to check out our website and to notice our daytime programming. And also coming this summer, at least twice a month, we’re going to bring in some dance bands on Saturday night. The tickets prices will be minimal. And we’re going to invite people in to have just a really good time. We’ve taken out some seats in the theater to create a dance floor. These are bands that I have worked with before. There is a country band, a Latin band, a smooth jazz band and a classic R&B band. So we’ll have a variety of genres, a place to dance, have a cocktail and enjoy downtown Dover.