Metro-East Living

10 things about The Hett on its 10th birthday

Peter Palermo, director of The Hett, has been with the performance center at McKendree University since it opened 10 years ago.
Peter Palermo, director of The Hett, has been with the performance center at McKendree University since it opened 10 years ago. snagy@bnd.com

The Hett — the affectionate name for The Russel E. and Fern M. Hettenhausen Center for the Arts at McKendree University in Lebanon — turns 10 this year.

To celebrate, its biggest fans are welcoming all fans to the 10th Anniversary Gala at 8 p.m. Friday, with entertainment by soprano Christine Brewer, The Peter Martin Quintet featuring clarinetist Anat Cohen, vocalist Brian Owens, MADCO Dance and more. Tickets are available; as are a limited number of tickets for the pre-show dinner. Go to https://www.mckendree.edu/the_hett/ for more information.

Building director Peter Palermo, 51, originally from Grand Island, Neb., has been there from the start.

He was hired when there were just “four walls” in place. That gave the former actor and production tech the ability to create everything — the view from the seats, the sound, the lighting and the general ambiance for the audience — exactly as he wanted.

He’s proud of his “state of the art” facility.

“There’s not a bad seat in the house,” he said. “It’s a cliché, but here it’s true.”

10 questions for Peter Palermo

Q: What keeps The Hett busy?

A: First, it’s a venue for McKendree’s students, for the theater students, the music department and its multiple ensembles and rehearsal needs, the show choir and dance groups. “Every club and fraternity wants to have their event here (in addition to weddings and banquets),” said Palermo, who calls himself “the keeper of the calendar.”

He then finds performers who provide both a good mix of entertainment and have the availability to perform at The Hett.

“Maybe for the 20th anniversary, we’ll build a balcony.”

Q: How many people have been to The Hett?

A: 200,000 people have seen 200 performances at The Hett in its 10 years. The Hett seats about 500.

Q: What does he considers his biggest coup?

A: The Five Browns, “a big deal” in the classical musical world. The five siblings had five Steinways on the stage at the Hett, which now joins the venues they’ve played such as Carnegie Hall and Houston Hall. Palermo said he had a good relationship with their agency to score the group, but Lebanon was “very strategically located between two shows.” That sealed the deal.

Q: Do you get to sit down and enjoy the show?

A: “Very rarely,” he said, laughing. “It’s a pleasure when I do, but I’m usually doing something else.”

Q: His favorite shows?

A: “I’m proud of some of the dance companies — Parsons Dance is coming (Tuesday, April 25, 2017). We have had Momix. We have had the Russian National Ballet — because there isn’t really any dance on this side of the river,” Palermo said.

Q: His favorite moment?

A: Driving trumpeter Doc Severinsen, who led the NBC Orchestra on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” to The Hett from his hotel (Hilton Garden Inn in O’Fallon). Palermo said weather sirens were going off when Severinsen quipped, “If a tornado comes and gets us, we’ll just swing on up to heaven.”

Q: What doesn’t go over?

A: “I’ve tried twice to do radio theater,” Palermo said. “We had two solid, interesting shows, but both occasions just did not (go over).”

Q: How often is an event canceled?

A: The Hett has about one performance a year canceled. “More often than not it’s weather related; I’ve had four hours to cancel a show,” Palermo said. This year, two shows are already canceled — “Beyond Glory,” because actor Stephen Lang is filming three sequels to “Avatar.” He has verbally promised to come the next year to perform the “emotional and heroic truc stories of eight Medal of Honor recipients” in his one-man show. The other show to cancel is The Willis Clan, a musical family of 14 that had a reality TV show.

Q: How are shows paid for?

A: Roughly 50 percent of each show is paid for by sponsors; leaving “40 to 50 percent ticket sales,” he said. “I’m happy if I can break even. The economics of a 500-seat hall are pretty tough.”

Q: What’s coming next year?

A: Negotiations for next year’s shows have already begun. Palermo was at a regional conference last week where he met with agents, saw performers, and made some offers.

“I thoroughly enjoy it — so much stuff from every genre, and everybody is giving you their best 15 minutes,” he said.

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