When Milt Russos was first hired as an American history professor at what is now Florida State College at Jacksonville in 1966, he was asked to help with the student activities program. With an empty theater and a $15,000 budget, Russos took the reins and put together what is now the leading source of professional touring productions in Northeast Florida — Artist Series.
Artist Series begins its 48th season this year, marking a long journey from its humble beginnings.
The lineup for the 2012-’13 season offered 35 unique public productions and nine unique school productions, for a total of 96 stage performances, according to Artist Series.
Mark Andersen, a season-ticket holder of three years, said he started attending with his parents, and now even his 16-year-old son Tyler joins him for the shows. He enjoys the shows so much, he sometimes will attend more than once.
“I went to see ‘Rock of Ages’ on Wednesday night, and I’m going back Sunday night again,” Andersen said last season. “I’ve been very pleased with the shows they’ve brought in.”
Sarah Roy, publicist for the series, said that its seasons run like a typical school year. The shows are chosen based on which ones are doing well on Broadway, then they are brought here, where they’re typically staged at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown Jacksonville.
But how did the program get to where it is today? Born and raised in the tropics of South Florida, Russos said he wasn’t really involved in anything theater-related throughout his school years, mostly just the school band.
Russos moved to Jacksonville in 1966 after graduating from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education. With not too many responsibilities and a brand-new job, he admits he was willing to take on a lot.
Regardless of his lack of involvement in theater growing up, he said what went on behind the lights and the curtains is what really fascinated him.
“The director of the play — or the musical — does a great job of working with those actors and the direction that they go,” Russos said. “But it’s the entire back-end business operation that … I’ve always found intriguing.”
Russos took his curiosity and some prior experience from college and put together the original ideas regarding content and pricing for the series. He said they could do a lot with the $15,000 budget back then.
“We did some classical artists, some chamber groups, I think we had a film series …,” Russos said. “Students could attend free, and they could buy a day ticket for $1 [for multiple shows].”
The 1970s was a time of change, not only for Russos, but for the music industry as a whole. He recalled the difficulty of entering the rock business and the departure of one of his colleagues, who decided to pursue his own dreams, separate from the series.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the series had its first Broadway show. The series was looking for different ways to bring in a more stable revenue right around the time that the Broadway traveling industry was just beginning.
“Grease” was the first Broadway production here, and it sold out. He described the production as having music then that appealed to all audiences, as it does even now. The following year, they ran “Godspell,” which also did quite well.
Russos and his team continued to look at ways that they could bring in more money. They noticed a growing trend in season tickets. Following in the footsteps of classical music and performing arts organizations, theaters across the country began offering the same amenities.
In 1977, the series hosted its first full season of Broadway shows, two of which were “Bubbling Brown Sugar” and “Same Time, Next Year.” Russos admits that they were surprised with the amount of season tickets they sold in the first year, and over the next decade, they made small changes to accommodate their audiences.
The next big shift occurred in 1986, when the wildly popular Broadway show “Cats” was brought to Jacksonville. Russos recalled the risks of bringing such a huge show to a city not known for its cultural diversity.
“But we sold 25,000 tickets,” Russos said. “Completely sold the show out … but it was a big wake-up call, you know, to us it was like, ‘Oh my God … this is what we can do.’ “
Although not every show was a success after that, “Cats” returned five years in a row. Each time, it was hugely successful. “Today, it’s really become a great introduction to theater,” Russos said. “It’s just good entertainment.”
Over the years, Russos had to deal with a lot of criticism and doubt coming from the Jacksonville community. He remembered wanting to run the “Phantom of the Opera” show for four weeks and how he received negative reactions.
“The doubting Thomases come out in force. Four weeks … are you crazy?” Russos said. “Sometimes Jacksonville doesn’t have a good feeling about itself.”
Show after show, the series continued to prove everyone wrong. They started selling Broadway tickets in the $30 range, and today, Russos said it’s not unusual to sell Broadway tickets for $80, and concert tickets for more than $100.
Ultimately, the programming of all of the shows is up to Russos, but his staff does surveys, attends national and regional conferences and keeps up with literature and reviews of shows when they go through other cities.
Scheduling is based on the routes of the shows and the availability of venues.
Russos said he’s had to adapt to the area’s changing tastes, adding that the community has become much more sophisticated.
Beginning in the Civic Auditorium, the series now stages productions at two primary venues: the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts and the Wilson Center for the Arts. The series has also used the Jacksonville Coliseum, which has since been demolished, The Florida Theatre and the Veterans Memorial Arena.
The original $15,000 budget seems miniscule compared to today’s budget of about $10 million.
As Russos explained, the revenue to operate the series comes primarily from ticket sales, service charges, advertising, sponsorships and contributions. The proceeds support the series’ educational endeavors, which include multiple summer programs. Proceeds also benefit the FSCJ Foundation, a nonprofit organization administering scholarships; it’s been the sponsor of Artist Series since 1985.
Of the many shows throughout the years, three have stood out to Russos — “Walking with Dinosaurs,” “Les Miserables” and “Jersey Boys.” Though “Les Miserables” is his all-time favorite, he enjoyed the universal appeal of “Jersey Boys.”
“I have … friends that have gone to see it,” Russos said, “and they say, ‘I just can’t get those songs out of my head!’ “
After nearly 50 years of being a part of the series, Russos still resides in Jacksonville with his wife. His two children are grown and have moved to other places across the country.
He said he still loves the satisfaction he feels after a successful show.
“It’s always a challenge … and if I had anything that drives me, that’s probably it,” Russos said. “I’ve done it for so long, it has to be something other than, oh, you really like doing this.”
On a Sunday night last season, as the sun set in Downtown Jacksonville, play-lovers of all ages gathered in the roomy lobby of the Times-Union Center. The smell of cinnamon-glazed nuts and the faint sound of 1980s rock music played in the background. The final performance of “Rock of Ages” was about to begin.
The show could return in a few years, as others have, or Russos might have to find something more appropriate for coming generations.
“I’ve seen so many changes in this community since I’ve been here,” Russos said. “In some respect we have to … mirror those changes.”