Peter Palermo was already nervous about driving Doc Severinsen to his performance at The Hett in Lebanon five years ago. Then came severe thunderstorms and tornado warnings that threatened to cancel the show.
But Severinsen — a legendary jazz trumpeter who led the band on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” for 25 years — remained upbeat.
“He said, ‘Well, if a tornado gets us, we’re going to just swing our way up to heaven,’” Palermo recalls. “He was 86 years old at that point, but he still wanted to get here two hours early to warm up. He was such a pro.”
Meeting Severinsen was one of many highlights from Palermo’s 12 1/2 years as director of The Russel E. and Fern M. Hettenhausen Center for the Arts at McKendree University in Lebanon. He opened its doors in 2006 and helped turn it into one of region’s most important entertainment venues.
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But Palermo’s own run is coming to an end. He’s leaving next month to become executive director of The Sheldon Concert Hall & Art Galleries in St. Louis.
“At my age, I probably have one more big thing left in my career that I can tackle,” said Palermo, 53, of Edwardsville. “I’ve been here for almost 13 years, and I felt like I’ve taken it as far as I could and maybe it was time for someone new. And at the same time, I was ready for a new challenge.”
Palermo’s departure won’t affect any programming at The Hett for the 2018-2019 season.
Fulfilling a McKendree dream
Palermo is responsible for everything from supervising operations to booking talent, raising money and welcoming thousands of people each year who only step foot on campus to see concerts, lectures and dance and theater performances.
Senior Vice President Victoria Dowling said McKendree administrators were thrilled about his promotion but sad to see him go.
“He really breathed life into a dream of the university and Fern Hettenhausen,” she said. “Peter was the founding director, and he exceeded everybody’s expectations in terms of the breadth and quality of the program.”
Hettenhausen was a Belleville pianist who donated more than $5 million to build The Hett in honor of her late husband, Russel, a businessman in real estate and insurance. She died in 2012.
McKendree has launched a national search for Palermo’s replacement. The deadline for application materials is Nov. 9. Officials hope to have someone on the job by early January.
“It will be our goal to find someone to build on the foundation that Peter has laid,” Dowling said.
That foundation benefited from Palermo’s theater background, but also his courage to invite acts that challenged the production crew, said Technical Director Doug Magnussen, who has been with him since The Hett’s beginning.
“I’ve cursed him a few times,” said Magnussen, 48, of Lebanon. “I would be like, ‘Why did you pick this show? It’s way too difficult.’ But in the end, they were worth it. They were qualify performances.”
Sheldon leader to retire
The Sheldon also conducted a national search before hiring Palermo. He will replace Paul Reuter, who is retiring next spring after nearly 25 years as executive director of the non-profit organization.
“We love Paul,” said board Chairman Anne Bannister. “He has gotten us where we are today. He’s our infrastructure at this point. He’s done phenomenal things for us.”
The Hett and The Sheldon have similar cultural missions, but several key differences. One is age. The Hett is turning 12 in November. The Sheldon’s auditorium dates back to 1912, when it served as headquarters for the Ethical Society of St. Louis.
The Hett sits on a quiet college campus in a small town surrounded by farm fields. The Sheldon’s bustling urban neighborhood, known as Grand Center Arts District, includes The Fabulous Fox Theatre, Powell Symphony Hall and other theaters, galleries and music venues.
The Sheldon has 712 seats — compared to The Hett’s 479 — but the stage is smaller, so it can’t accommodate large orchestras, dance troupes or elaborate plays. The Sheldon hosts 150 more events, about 350 a year, including jazz, folk, classical and bluegrass concerts, as well as art exhibits.
The board’s decision to hire Palermo “boiled down to two things,” Bannister said.
“One was experience, capability, skill set, background. But equally important was the fact that Peter was a good cultural fit for us. We’re in the Midwest. We tend to be humble. And his leadership style was what we thought would work well with our patrons, our donors and our partners in the community.”
Joining the circus at 25
Palermo divided his time between Grand Island, Nebraska, and Jefferson City, Missouri, as a child. After a stint at University of Nebraska, he headed to San Francisco at 25 to pursue a career in theater. But he quickly learned that becoming an actor was harder than getting a job with the production crew.
For five summers, Palermo traveled with a musical circus.
“I got to see all of California,” he said. “I got to sing. I got to dance. I did not learn how to juggle, but I did acrobatic stuff. There’s always room for a guy like me at the bottom of the pyramid.”
Palermo remembers the exact moment he decided to look for a more stable way to make a living. He was 40 years old, loading equipment late at night in the rain after a particularly difficult production.
“I said to myself, ‘This is the last truck I’m going to load,’” he said.
The Hett was a blank canvas
Palermo applied for the McKendree job partly because his mother lived in Chesterfield, Missouri, partly because the cost of living in San Francisco was skyrocketing and partly because he loved his Midwestern childhood and wanted to give his children a similar upbringing.
By then, Palermo was married to wife Sarah, a non-profit fundraiser and trained chef. The couple now have two children, daughter Tessa, 11, and son Charlie, 13.
When Palermo joined the university staff in early 2006, the 35,000-square-foot building that houses The Hett auditorium, classrooms and rehearsal space was still under construction.
“It was four walls and a ceiling,” he said. “None of the interior work had been done. So it was kind of scary. I had all kinds of questions about the technical specifications. I wanted to know what kind of theater it was going to be.”
In the end, the timing turned out to be a blessing.
“It gave us a lot of freedom,” Magnussen said. “We got to make our own rules. We weren’t taking over for someone who had become established.”
Guitarist and Beatles fan
Palermo has produced an estimated 600 major shows at The Hett, which hosts the McKendree Presents Series, George E. McCammon Memorial Distinguished Speaker Series, Film Art Series and Arts Education Series. That figure more than doubles when you include dance recitals, student performances and other events.
Palermo is a recognizable figure on campus, standing at 6 feet tall with curly hair and a salt-and-pepper goatee. On a recent weekday, he wore toucan-themed socks.
“Peter has great style,” Magnussen said. “I give him a hard time about it. He knows how to dress. He’s a huge Beatles fan, and he’s a closet electric guitar player. He loves his guitar.”
The colleagues-turned-friends have made a good team at The Hett, Magnussen said. They’ve enjoyed successes, but also managed to overcome a few potential disasters.
In the late 2000s, power went out in the auditorium during an afternoon classical music concert. The orchestra finished its performance in the window-lined lobby, and the audience loved it.
Then there was the time when the axle broke on a truck carrying instruments and other equipment for a Beatles tribute band in central Illinois. They arrived at 6:45 instead of their 3 p.m. target for a 7:30 show. A packed crowd waited 10 minutes for the doors to open as musicians and crew furiously unloaded.
“The only sound check was the first song of the concert,” Magnussen said.
Brewer was rooting for him
Palermo has hobnobbed with many famous people, including actors, singers, musicians, dancers, politicians, scientists, authors and activists. But he rarely poses for photos with them and never asks for autographs, feeling he should stay professional instead of behaving like a groupie.
That doesn’t mean Palermo is shy. After getting The Hett job, one of the first people he called was Christine Brewer, a world-renowned soprano who graduated from McKendree in 1976 and still lives in Lebanon.
“He said, ‘I want to take you to lunch,’” said Brewer, 62. “And that speaks volumes about who he is. He’s very proactive.”
Brewer and Palermo became fast friends, and he began playing guitar at her annual backyard hootenannies. He’s also part of a hard-to-beat trivia team with her husband, Ross.
Brewer has sung at The Hett more than a half-dozen times, including its opening concert and 10th anniversary concert. She praises the way Palermo has nurtured the venue, and she repeatedly uses the word “genuine” to describe his concern for its programs, patrons and performers.
But Brewer also was rooting for Palermo to get the Sheldon job. She has performed in its auditorium more than a dozen times and used it as a recording studio.
“I love Paul, and I can’t think of a better person to fill his shoes than Peter,” she said.
Looking back on the past 12 years, it’s hard for Palermo to pick a favorite production at The Hett. One that’s high on his list is actor John Lithgow’s one-man show, “Stories by Heart,” in 2015.
“He was so good at telling stories that his father had read to him when he was young,” Palermo said. “He started out reading from a chair, but by the time he was done, he was standing up and acting out all the roles. It was a brilliant performance. I brought my kids, and they still talk about it.”