This Small But Mighty Crew Keeps Delivering Hits to the Emerald Coast

In Brief:

  • The Mattie Kelly Arts Center in Niceville brings Broadway-level performances to a small town, thanks to the efforts of Jeannette Shires and her team.
  • The center relies on a dedicated crew and a platoon of green-jacketed volunteers to manage and execute performances seamlessly.
  • Revenue from rentals and diverse bookings helps sustain the center, allowing it to provide a variety of cultural and entertainment events to the community.

Like black ink, darkness drenched the crowd in its cool embrace as the house lights faded.

As quickly as the darkness visited the thousands of theater-goers, it evaporated as an eye-burningly bright gold sequin-like backdrop fell to the stage.

Behind the dancers – a full brass band belted out the opening notes to Chicago.

The musical was on.

Roaring laughter accented the band and voices as Cell Block Tango explained the ‘accidental’ killings caused by the murderers on death row in Cook County, Illinois.

The show reached the finale, and the crowd enthusiastically applauded the 25 or so cast members and their instrumental backup.

All the while, the small crew that makes it happen and brings Broadway’s biggest shows to little Niceville smiles with the sense of accomplishment they’ve earned.

They’ve pulled off the impossible – again.

A woman smiles as she shows her planner
Jeannette Shires, the director of the Mattie Kelly Performing Arts Center, shows the center's planner - which shows the center's upcoming engagements.

Where?

Niceville is not a dream destination for many large touring companies for one reason – population. After all, the companies make a lot more money (reduced cost, increased incomes) when they squat in a city for a few nights where more people can buy tickets. Plus, they can reduce their logistics costs with a multi-night showing.

 

That means Jeannette Shires, the woman behind the magic at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center, must be equal parts dreamer and practical.

 

She’s perfect for it. An accountant by trade, she fell in love with the theater, music, and the Mattie Kelly Arts Center at Northwest Florida State College in particular and has led the enterprise for more than a decade. She took the job after reading a newspaper advertisement for the position. “I’m in my twenty-third year,” she said with a smile. I came over, and I was just enthralled. I loved it.”

 

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At the beginning of every year, she travels to New York and logs on to countless Zoom meetings to hustle her way to five or six shows to come through on their way to somewhere else. After all – those immense sets have to go by truck right by here, right?

 

In a way, she is like the Manager of Oakland Athletic’s Billy Beane, the main character of the movie Moneyball, who scraps his way to the World Series of Baseball by finding shows that need a place to be and have great potential for success in a venue like a small town market like Niceville. “I don’t get the royal treatment, like a big city would,” Shires said, “But they do the one-nighters [a single show in a city] because I am not alone out there. There’s plenty of small venues or small towns.”

 

She lives by the Marine Corps’ unofficial motto, Semper Gumby—Always Flexible. “Things shift all of the time,” Shires said. When you get back [from conferences], things start to settle in place around February or March. That’s when we have things established.” Shires said, “Things aren’t ever set in stone.”

a man speaks at the far end of a round table. There is a statue of people dancing in the foreground.
Marine Corps Vet and Mattie Kelly Technical Director Chris Nida talks about his profession. His only goal - to get everyone home safe at the end of the day.

 

Getting the Shows on Stage

Speaking of the Marines – it takes one to run the back of the house at the MKAC. That’s why Jeanette has Chris Nida as her technical director.

 

The one thing he looks for in a crew member? “Bug bites on their legs,” Nida said, “that tells me they don’t sit on the couch all the time. I need people who can move. I need people who don’t sit on their hands, I need people that don’t walk over trash, who take initiative, even if their judgment is wrong – not for me to constantly go behind and say, ‘I need you to do this, this and this.'”

 

After a career in the United States Marines, Nida retired to Okaloosa County – and earned the job after working at Northwest Florida State College in other capacities.

 

He runs a tight ship, and a small crew that makes everything from dance recitals for four-year-olds to Chicago run smoothly in the center. “I still get a rise out of the chaos that happens at 7 AM. And then, somehow, the house opens at 630 PM, and we’re ready for a show.”

a man pulls a rope for a set piece at a local theater.
Charles Wagner pulls on a rope that lowers a set piece. His job presents many safety hazards he must keep a constant eye on.

Mark Holton and Charles Wagner serve on the crew that ensures the shows run well and safely. A lighting engineer, Mark came to NWFSC to earn an acting degree. He fell in love with the technical portion of show business and has been behind the curtains since. “I get to meet a lot of new and interesting people,” Holton said, “and I just enjoy theater, and I enjoy creating things.”

 

His partner backstage is Charles Wagner. Wagner is agile and robust – perfect for the man on the ropes. He spends the show pulling ropes to move sets in and out from the theater’s top onto the stage. Remembering what sets go when is essential as well. Some of the set pieces can weigh as much as 8,000 pounds – and Charles has to make sure not to drop them on the actors. “My job is really easy during the shows, for the most part,” Wagner said, “80 to 90 percent of the show, I get to sit here and watch and enjoy. Then, for 30 seconds, I’m looking at the ropes and watching as [the sets and actors] come in.

 

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Still, it can include moments of sheer terror. “I’ve had a friend of mine grab somebody from the side of the stage, pull them away from where it’s coming in,” Wagner said, “So it’s very intense for 10 to 30 seconds at a time.”

 

But – the intense labor is worth it in the end. “I get to enjoy theater from the side and see all of the backstage and everything happening on the stage like a clockmaker. It’s fantastic, I love it.”

a woman smiles and points while surrounded by green jackets.
Suzanne Flood, the house manager at the Mattie Kelly, smiles and points at the camera while showing the volunteer's green jacket closet.

The Green Jacketed Volunteers

Because the crew is small, the MKAC must rely on a platoon of volunteers to help run the little things when one of the big shows comes to town.

 

You know them by their green jackets.

 

Inside a closet off one side of the theater, under the stairs, live 200 or so of the forest green blazers ushers wear to work at the Mattie Kelly.

 

On one side of the closet, 100 tags with volunteers’ names adorn a part of the wall.

 

On top of a ledge on the opposite wall sits a fish bowl-style glass with more name tags inside. On the side, the bowl says, “Gone, but not forgotten, retired ushers.”

 

Many ushers are senior citizens passionate about the arts, which means many come off the volunteer rolls every year and must be replaced to keep the show going. Suzanne Flood leads them. “I think sometimes when people get to the point where it’s a lot of standing for them, and they’re like, ‘You know what, I think I’ll just buy a ticket,'” she said.

 

Her favorite part of the experience – when the kids’ shows come into town. They are often chaotic and wonderful. “You have to come to see a children’s show,” she notes with a wry grin on the side of her mouth, “You have to come back when we’ve got 1,700 five-year-olds.” After one show – she was just stunned. “I can’t even remember what it was. They walked on stage, and the kids just went nuts because it was like their Beatlemania.”

 

Making Ends Meet – Rentals

While Shires’ and the rest of the team’s jobs center around the grand shows that roll into town, much of the MKAC’s revenue comes from bookings and rentals, which they don’t have a direct hand in planning, though Center employees still manage and operate the stage.

 

Every type of performance or use—from Wheel of Fortune to little kids’ dance recitals and more traipse through the curtains and onto the stage for their time under the lights—it’s these performances that keep the lights on.

 

Without the rentals, the team couldn’t make ends meet and provide the entertainment it does to the community. Good news: rentals have picked up in the last several years as a wider variety of groups decide to use the facility for their own performances. This also removes the performance risk for the center. If a separate group brings in something that flops, it doesn’t present a financial risk to the non-profit organization.

 

Rentals don’t mean lower quality for the patron, either. In late June, an outside group called Substantial Music will bring in the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Orleans for a night of various hit musical earworms. Another company will bring Comedian Tom Papa of Netflix fame in July 2024.

 

The Dream

Ultimately, the MKAC has one goal – sharing the arts with people and enriching their lives through them.

 

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The team at the Mattie Kelly has several more opportunities to do so through the rest of this season, which ends in July – you can check those out here:

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