Performing arts center breaks ground, looks to the future

May 27, 2009
To the odd duet of a bell's chime and a tractor's rumble, construction for the Smith Center for the Performing Arts was christened at a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday on the site at Bonneville Avenue and Grand Central Parkway.

"This is being built to be here for the next couple of hundred years and that's significant in a town that has a tendency to blow things up after 30 or 40 years," Don Snyder, the center's chairman, told approximately 150 invited guests, including Fred W. Smith and wife Mary -- for whom the center is named.

Mayor Oscar Goodman, Rep. Shelley Berkley, members of the Las Vegas City Council, Clark County School Board and the center's board, and entertainers Susan Anton and Clint Holmes were among the guests.

"Most of us wait for the future to come to us," Goodman told the crowd gathered under a huge white tent, the floor carpeted in royal red, in the spot that will be the center's lobby by its projected opening in early 2012. "We celebrate those who took hold of the future and brought it to the present. They had a vision, they had a plan and today is the beginning of making it happen."

The Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre will be permanent residents of the center. David Itkin, music director/conductor of the Philharmonic, and James Canfield, the ballet theatre's artistic director, also were in attendance.

Anchored by a 2,050-seat main theater, the center also will include an education facility, a cabaret theater and space for children's and community events.

Smith, a former Las Vegas Review-Journal executive, is chairman of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which provided $150 million for construction.

Greeted by school-age ballerinas from the Nevada Ballet Theatre Academy and serenaded with Vivaldi and Mozart by a string quartet from the Las Vegas Youth Orchestra, attendees found that the morning of ceremony was sprinkled with humor, some of it surprisingly salty.

Center President Myron Martin, recalling a fact-finding trip to West Palm Beach, Fla., quoted Goodman's reaction on seeing that city's facility. "He said, 'Holy (expletive), we've got to have one of those!' " Martin said to the roar of the crowd, before adding, "I just realized that my 6-year-old daughter is in the audience."

Short speeches by Martin, Snyder, Goodman and Smith were punctuated by symbolic gestures, including the presentation to Mary Smith of a bouquet of blue iris, her favorite flower that, Martin said, would be represented in the center's design. Then the Smiths' grandchildren, Katie and Jeffrey Magnes, were summoned to ring the bell created by the Verdin Co., which was cast and molded in public ceremonies Sunday and Monday, and inscribed with a quote by President Barack Obama: "The arts embody the human spirit."

Referring to his grandchildren, Fred Smith said "their generation will be the true beneficiary of the hard work everyone has put into this project." He then quipped: "We're looking forward to being back here around this same time 30 months from now. ... I'm sure if I'm alive, I'll be here."

In a poetic proclamation, Goodman told the audience that with the center, Las Vegas is "ascending to the next level" and the groundbreaking "sends a clarion call from the desert that a center of cultural excellence has been born."

Asked afterward about those skeptical of the money spent on the $485 million center and its cultural mission in a city that struggles to get past its "Sin City" reputation, Goodman had some choice words:

"To those people I say, we have a lake out there, they can jump in it. And I'd put the cement on their feet. ... This is the equivalent of getting an NFL franchise. ... We still want to have great entertainment and hotels and food and bring in tourists, but for people who live here, these are things that make a world-class city."

Over the weekend, while presiding over the bell ceremonies, Martin noted the challenge of plowing ahead with the project in the midst of a severe recession.

"I'm glad we're finishing our capital campaign in this environment, rather than starting it," he said. "It would be tough to start something this big and important in this economic environment. I'm thrilled to be where we are. Having said that, there's still money to raise, we're not done."

Anton, who arrived with her husband, actor/producer Jeff Lester, quoted George Bernard Shaw in describing the center's importance. "He said, 'Don't die with your music still in you,' and we're here to create together, and the performing arts center will do that for millions," she said, also noting other benefits. "It's going to open up a whole new perception of Las Vegas and I think attract a great many more people to want to build homes here."

After similarly praising the potential of the center, Holmes, when asked whether he'd like to perform there, joked: "I tried to get (Martin) to name one of the rooms after me, but he needed a couple million dollars, so that didn't work out. But I hope to be involved every step of the way. Maybe there's something in the opening I can be involved in."

As guests crowded together for a massive group photo, a power shovel took a bite out of the dirt. Where music, dance and appreciative applause eventually will be, there is now only the dissonant roar of construction machinery.

To those gathered to mark this start, it was clearly a symphony of satisfaction.

Performing arts center breaks ground, looks to the future
By Steve Bornfield - Las Vegas Review-Journal