Rocker Corey Hart first discovered Rick Bartalini. It was during the 1980s when 15-year-old Bartalini became a big fan of concerts: He saw Corey Hart open for Hall & Oates at the Oakland Coliseum. Hart pulled Bartalini onstage to sing “Sunglasses at Night” in front of 15,000 people. Bartalini still has a photo that he proudly shows off from that fateful night. But the sunglasses Hart gave him are even cooler.
Today, Bartalini is director of programming for the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa. He sits behind an average-sized desk inside a small, cluttered office, which explodes with pop culture memorabilia: a signed poster of Ellen DeGeneres from her 2002 performance, a “Grease” leather jacket signed by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, framed New Kids on the Block platinum and gold albums, Hart’s sunglasses and more Olivia Newton-John memorabilia (let’s just say he’s a big fan). Despite being known for his attention to detail, he’s easily at home working in a state of chaos.
The Wells Fargo Center for the Arts has truly made a name for itself—and for Bartalini. When he began his position there in 2001 (then called Luther Burbank Center for the Arts), he brought his expertise and youthfulness (he was only 32 at the time) to the well-known establishment. Since then, he’s helped put the Center and Santa Rosa on the map, consistently booking high-profile artists such as Ringo Starr and Dolly Parton.
The youthful Bartalini lives and breathes his job. His love for music began at age 6. While growing up in Santa Rosa, he became a fan of artists like the Carpenters, John Denver and especially Newton-John. He even recalls thinking how great it would be if the Australian pop singer would perform locally at the Luther Burbank Center. Who knew he’d eventually be instrumental in making it happen?
“Being a part of bringing her here all those years later and the magical things that happened during that evening, well, it was a dream come true,” Bartalini says. “She’s exactly what you’d think—beautiful and delightful.”
Since then, the two have bonded. “Now, she’s like my long-lost Australian sister…but it’s still odd to look in the rear view mirror and see Olivia Newton-John staring back at you,” he says. The crowning moment of his Olivia admiration came when she sang “Happy Birthday” to him onstage during one of her Wells Fargo Center performances and then brought him onstage to sing “Summer Nights” with her.
His first job was at Santa Rosa’s Record Factory, but when he was 20, Bartalini moved to San Francisco and looked for work in a concert-related business. He found a job at Winterland Productions, a well-known recording artist merchandising company. He swiftly moved up the ranks and, by age 23, was working with artists like Madonna and MC Hammer, helping them license their images onto calendars, T-shirts and dolls. Working in retail and at Winterland prepared Bartalini for his career path at the Wells Fargo Center, because all share the same priority: servicing the customers’ or artists’ needs.
In 1998, he was hired by the Luther Burbank Center and steadily moved up the ladder. Three years later, he began booking concerts; his first shows, with comedian Ellen DeGeneres, were in April 2002. (DeGeneres is such a fan of the venue that she’s mentioned it on her talk show as “her favorite place to perform.”) After DeGeneres’ successful Santa Rosa debut, Bartalini booked his second artist, singer Jewel, for three sold-out shows in September.
Bartalini books the Center’s headline entertainment, but he’s quick to say his colleagues in production, finance, marketing, hospitality, administration and the box office all play integral roles in the process of presenting acts. Since the Center first opened its doors in 1981, its staff has grown steadily. Every employee contributes toward creating a great experience for artists and audiences. “Whether it’s taking out the trash in the dressing room, making dinner for the artist or directing patrons in the parking lot, it’s a group effort,” Bartalini says.
“In the six years or so that [Rick] and I have worked together in this capacity, we’ve really made a lot of friends. And that’s honestly been because Rick has made the commitment to taking good care of the artists,” says Jeremy French, the Wells Fargo Center production manager.
Bartalini tries to choose an array of artists to bring to the Center. The variety of artists who come through depends on a few factors: who’s available, who’s touring and at what price. Then it finally comes down to “how does that artist’s fee and expenses equate to the ticket price, and what will the ticket price be?”
When booking shows, Bartalini tries to bring artists he thinks Sonoma County residents will like. “It’s always risky trying to determine what people will pay their hard earned money to see,” he says. The Wells Fargo Center for the Arts can accommodate upward of 1,600 people, so he has to keep in mind that some newer or more obscure artists may not generate enough ticket sales to justify their performance fees. It’s always a balancing act.
On the other hand, he’s booked higher profile artists like Diana Ross, whose tickets sold out in one day. Ross performed at the venue for the first time in November 2007, and her top price tickets went for $150 each. But Bartalini explains, “Getting to that point didn’t just happen on its own. There are radio ads, TV ads, print ads, direct mail, emails, and Internet contests. It’s always a gamble.”
Jazz is another genre that Sonoma County residents have embraced, and Bartalini has again responded. In January 2008, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis performed two sold-out shows at the Center. The first, a morning performance for 1,500 elementary and high school students, was just as enthusiastically received as the second, evening show for the general public.
Bartalini has also begun booking some iconic Latin artists, a trend that’s pleased the local Latin community. In 2005, he brought in Juan Gabriel and Pepe Aguilar, who generally play sold-out arenas with capacities of up to 20,000. When Aguilar performed in September 2007, many attendees told Bartalini they “felt respected and honored that Aguilar came to town, and that they were recognized as being a part of the [local] community.”
Someone once asked Bartalini, “Why do you do this? You work a million hours, it’s crazy and it’s stressful.” His response was simple: “It’s for those defining moments when I was a kid that changed the trajectory of my life. It’s great to be a part of bringing memorable experiences to other people, which really means a lot to me.”
Despite the 12 to 16 hours Bartalini puts in on show days, he remains passionate about his job. “He’s not afraid to work hard,” French says. “He and I have worked some incredibly long hours—20 hour days a lot of the time. The secret to his success is his ability to know when to go the extra mile because it’s going to pay off.” That extra mile often benefits the fans, whom he might move to a front row seat if there are extras, or get an artist’s autograph, if possible.
Bartalini readily admits that he obsesses over every little detail. If it’s giving artists a bottle of wine or providing organic hand lotion in their dressing room, it all makes a difference. “Rick always makes sure every artist who comes here is so happy they can’t help but praise us. From making sure everything on their contract rider [a document specifying an artist’s requests or demands prior to his or her performance] is what they asked for, all the way to adding special touches,” says Chrissy Hall, programming assistant.
Some artists, like Lyle Lovett and Dolly Parton, keep coming back. In the case of Parton, who played the Wells Fargo Center in February 2007, Bartalini says, “She hadn’t been touring much and wanted to return to Santa Rosa; she did the show as a favor. Unfortunately, her new stage setup didn’t work with the building, but she didn’t want to cancel.” As an alternative site, the Center built an entire infrastructure inside the Grace Pavilion at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and staged the concert there.
“It took more than $40,000 to transform the Grace Pavilion into a space worthy of a Dolly Parton Valentine’s Day show and another $24,000 in labor,” Bartalini says. All these details were important because, explains Bartalini, “We wanted Parton and the audience to have an amazing experience.” This was the first time the Wells Fargo Center had done anything like this for an artist. Bartalini adds. “If we didn’t have a great relationship with Dolly, she would’ve moved on. It’s all about great relationships.”
Word of mouth helps too. “[Satisfied artists] tell other people they run into, and pretty soon other artists want to come here too,” French says.
The Wells Fargo Center wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for the community’s involvement. “It’s easy to lose track that it’s a nonprofit organization.” Bartalini states. “Even if a concert sells out, we’re lucky to make any money. The money we bring in through ticket sales doesn’t generally even cover the overhead.” Most of the money earned through ticket sales goes toward the artist’s fee, and what’s left usually covers the expenses to put on a show. The organization relies heavily on sponsors, in-kind donations and memberships to keep it functioning.
In January 2007, Hollywood came knocking when the Bravo Network came to film comedian Kathy Griffin’s act for her television special, “Kathy Griffin: Everybody Can Suck It.” This was a first for the organization—but not the last time Wells Fargo Center was used in that capacity. In February and March 2008, HBO taped two television specials at the Wells Fargo Center, one for comic icon George Carlin and another for comedian and Bay Area native Dana Carvey. HBO broadcast Carlin’s special live around the world, making it the first live performance broadcast from Sonoma County. “That’s a statement of some kind. There’s a sense of arrival,” Bartalini says.
Bartalini says he’s hoping to bring in more Latin acts, and he’d also like to see country singer Keith Urban and comedian DeGeneres return to the Center—but he has even bigger dreams that those. “It’d be great one day to do Broadway shows,” he says, “but the building doesn’t have the infrastructure for that. If there’s enough community support to build a new theater or remodel our current one, then it would be great to bring in traveling productions of, say, ‘Mama Mia!’ or the ‘Jersey Boys.’”
And the beat goes on. Among those already booked for performances this summer are Kenny Rogers, Foreigner, Motown greats the Temptations and Four Tops, the Beach Boys, Chris Isaak and comedian George Lopez—all thanks to the dedication of Rick Bartalini, whose passion for music, determination and commitment have let him live his dream. Now he wants others to experience theirs as well by joining an audience at the Wells Fargo Center.
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