Maura In The News

Seeking a patron of the arts
Owner of the Opera House aims to sell naming rights

By Sasha Talcott, Globe Correspondent, 1/9/2004

It could be Citizens Bank Opera House. Or Fidelity Investments Opera House. Or even Novartis AG Opera House.

With the newly restored gilded theater set to reopen in July, its owners are quietly shopping around for a corporate sponsor to pony up millions of dollars for naming rights. The building's owner, Clear Channel Entertainment, has approached several Boston-area companies over the last few weeks, asking for about $8.5 million over the next decade.

One company approached in late December was Citizens Bank, but other names being tossed around as a good fit are Fidelity Investments and Merrill Lynch.

The winning bidder would not only get its name atop the Washington Street theater, but also would get frequent mentions in newspapers, on television, and in advertisements.

"This makes a statement," said Diane Brickley, a partner in Moulter/Brickley Associates, a sports and entertainment consulting firm. "You legitimize your brand. There's a point in which the name of a building stops sounding like a corporation and becomes absorbed into the natural lexicon."

After more than $35 million in rehabilitation work, the 75-year-old theater is finally approaching completion. The new interior boasts 14,000 square feet of bronze leaf, burgundy silk wall fabric, and brown and gold carpeting.

In six months, the Opera House is slated to reopen with the "The Lion King," and Clear Channel says ticket sales have already been brisk. Though named the Opera House now, the new venue will play an assortment of Broadway shows, said Ann Sheehan, the director of public relations for Broadway in Boston/Clear Channel Entertainment.

"We're really excited," she said. "It's the beginning of the revitalization of Washington Street. It's going to be a great thing for the city."

She confirmed that the building's naming rights are for sale but said it is too early to talk about price.

But in Boston, where top sports venues are named after a bank and a shaving company, word of the sale caused little surprise. In 1995, Fleet Financial Group Inc. paid $30 million to name the FleetCenter, while in 2000 CMGI pledged $114 million for what is now Gillette Stadium.

But with the planned merger of FleetBoston and Bank of America, the future of the FleetCenter's name is in question. The original contract says the name can only be changed once, which happened when Fleet bought Shawmut National Corp., but its owner has indicated that it would be open to negotiations.

In entertainment, Boston already has the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, named after a software company founder, the FleetBoston Pavilion and the Tweeter Center for the Performing Arts. And nationally, there's the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, the home of the Academy Awards, and the Wells Fargo Pavilion, which replaced the Music Circus in Sacramento.

Clear Channel has aggressively looked to sell the naming rights for many of its properties, including the FleetBoston Pavilion and the Tweeter Center. Its annual report calls the sponsorships a "unique promotional vehicle" that will help corporations target specific audiences.

In the corporate naming game, there are only a couple of Boston-area venues left to be bought, said Brickley, the marketing specialist. One of those is the Bayside Expo & Executive Conference Center, which she said also is shopping around for a corporate sponsor.

But a few were unhappy with the prospect of another corporate logo on institutions around town.

"You'd think there are some venues that society would hold onto for tradition purposes," said Patti Lynn, campaign director for Infact, a corporate watchdog group based in Boston. "These are symbols."

Built in 1928, the lavish Opera House -- then called the Keith Memorial -- once hosted some of the best vaudeville shows of the century. Its founders imported French doors, hand-blown chandeliers and Italian marble fireplaces.

But the theater fell into disrepair, and in the mid-1990s it was sold to Theater Management Group, which was later bought by Clear Channel Entertainment. After a protracted battle with neighbors of the theater, Clear Channel began renovations in November 2002.

With the cost for renovations weighing heavily, some lauded Clear Channel's bid to sell naming rights. Councilor at Large Maura A. Hennigan of Jamaica Plain, one of the body's most liberal members, said she would support any corporate move to provide funding for the arts.

Even Enron Opera House? "Well, now that would not be a good idea," she said.

Sasha Talcott can be reached at [email protected]

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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