Sabel finishes ‘great run’ as Vilar director
June 2, 2016
BEAVER CREEK — Like many of us, Kris Sabel figured he'd stick around a year, maybe two.
When he took the Vilar Performing Arts Center gig, he didn't know where Beaver Creek was and didn't ski, so why would he stay?
But like many of us, he did.
Sabel ran the Vilar Center for almost 18 years before announcing this spring he was leaving his post. Before the Vilar Center, he had spent his career producing shows, not booking them.
"When I came here I thought, 'I'm not going to like this' because I had been part of putting shows on," Sabel said.
Yet, he had the same office, phone number and email address for 17 years and eight months.
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"I've had a great run at the Vilar," Sabel said.
When he announced he was taking his last curtain call, the outpouring from donors and the public was "overwhelming," he said.
Sabel spent the front half of his career on the performing arts side of the business, teaching in two colleges, working with the San Diego Opera, running a summer theater for 20 summers … the list goes on and on.
"I started on the other side, creating art," he said.
And that's why he loves the Vilar Center's donors.
"They're making it possible for us to bring the arts here, and that makes it possible for art to exist. If we don't bring it, pretty soon there's no work for artists, and then there's no need for artists," he said.
What's your favorite show?
He can't walk up the tomato aisle in the grocery store without someone asking him that question, and he seems to really enjoy it.
Allison Kraus and Union Station are in his top five. So is Lyle Lovett. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with violinist Julia Fischer still makes him smile.
Of all the intergalactic acts Sabel has seen, he said he's most proud of the educational series STARS — Support The Arts Reaching Students — and Underground Sound, the fall series featuring lesser-known but massively-talented artists.
"We make it possible for the kids who grow up here to see the performing arts," Sabel said of STARS. "We figure by the time kids get to high school, they've been to the Vilar Center 10, 12, 14 times, or more. We believe that makes a difference. They might say, 'I want to do this,' or they might say, 'I want to continue to go to the performing arts.' That's my hope, building future audiences."
Underground Sound gives someone a shot at playing for a full house in an amazing venue.
"The bigger the name, the more tickets you sell, but I love all the incredible talent that nobody knows," Sabel said.
Underground Sound is seven shows and seven drinks for $100 through October and November.
"Packaging it that way, people come to see shows they might not ordinarily see. People come up to me after seeing a brass septet and say, 'What an incredible show!' For me, that sort of performing arts discovery is so rewarding," Sabel said.
That ship has sailed
Being able to bring Broadway musicals for one night was unheard of, not so long ago.
"By the time I could get around to bringing "Hairspray," everybody had seen it. What I realized is that people who live and work in this community, they haven't seen it," Sabel said.
His first year they booked "Titanic," the Broadway musical. The cast and crew arrived the night before, took a look around and realized they couldn't get their big ship into the Vilar's small freight elevator.
Sabel was nothing if not succinct. "No ship? No show!" he said.
Because the show must go on, they arrived at 4 a.m. the morning of the show and cut through five layers of cement flooring, and through the back of the elevator, so they could pass the ship through the elevator and get it to the stage.
That became the first stage of a $125,000 remodel that made it possible to bring full-fledged Broadway shows, not only the touring companies.
The show must go on, usually
There was the female comedian who was staying in the Park Hyatt, directly above the Vilar.
Comedians don't need much, "a microphone and a light," Sabel said.
This one wasn't trying to be high maintenance, and wasn't really. She was just geographically impaired.
"Will the limo pick me up?" she asked from her Park Hyatt hotel room.
They explained, again, that all she had to do was walk out the Hyatt's back door, past the ice rink, down the escalators and she's there. With that, she left the hotel.
Time passed, as it always does, and five minutes before curtain, there was no sign of her. Sabel dashed upstairs and was running around Beaver Creek Plaza searching for her. He spotted her wandering around talking to people, and generally unperturbed.
It's rare, but sometimes the show does not go on.
Randy Newman performed the night before at Lone Tree, and took a sick day. He had a doctor's note and everything. It wasn't just us. He was supposed to perform the next night in Aspen's Wheeler Opera House, and he missed that show, too.
The Vilar books 70 shows a year, 50 in the winter. That's their window of opportunity because that's when people are here.
"I could book Vince Gill in November, but you couldn't sell tickets in November," Sabel said.
Obviously, Christmas week is their busiest time of year, and draws a special kind of audience.
Cirque Mechanics played in March and flopped. The next day, he booked it for Christmas week.
"People asked, 'Are you crazy? That show just flopped.'" Sabel said.
They sold out three performances during Christmas.
It wasn't always like this
The Vilar Performing Arts Center was built on the last plot of undeveloped land in Beaver Creek. It started as a massive hole, and in its first couple of years the running joke was that they were trying to fill that hole by throwing money into it. They had chewed up three executive directors in less than three years and their hole was filling with red ink.
"There was a time when the VPAC was not the stable, dynamic and successful performing arts venue it is today," said Mike Imhof, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Foundation. "Many years ago, the VPAC was in a tough spot both financially, but also in terms of consistently programming a diverse portfolio of highest quality arts."
When Sabel took the reins, he told them it would take three years to raise it out of the mess. He received raves in his first performance review for saving them $100,000. They've been in the black for the past 12 years.
"It's a lot like running a small business and you're the owner. You take it all very personally," Sabel said.
A year or so into his tenure, the Vail Valley Foundation took over, and that completed the turnaround, Sabel said.
"Kris joined VPAC at a very tough time and brought a tremendous amount of fiduciary responsibility to the venue," Imhoff said. "Kris was a key player in getting the VPAC back on track financially and keeping it there as well as establishing a sound recipe for programming success both winter and summer."
"The donors created some incredible relationships with people who believe there needs to be a performing arts center in this community," Sabel said.
Sabel's mantra is, "We're going to be the best."
"I've been at this long enough to know what the mission should be. There are people who believe in the vision, and that made it possible," he said.
He hears from artists and managers constantly that the Vilar Center is one of the highlights of their tour.
"The entertainment world is not accustomed to having artists and managers call to say they want to return to a venue. Usually they say they never want to be booked into a venue again," Sabel said.
You see it over and over. Performers walk in the back door, take the elevator, stroll through back stage and their jaws drop when they walk out on stage and look at the place.
Rob McCoury plays in his father Del McCoury's bluegrass band.
"They told us we were coming to a nice place, but they didn't say we were coming to the Carnegie Hall of the Rockies," Rob McCoury said.
John Hiatt walked out on stage for a sound check and had what we'll call a religious experience, invoking the name of the Lord as he exclaimed, "Look at this place!"
Still, you can't please everyone all of the time.
"One of my most disheartening moments was the second or third time we brought Stomp. Someone came up afterward to tell him how much they love Stomp.
"What else have you seen?" Sabel asked.
"Nothing," the guy answered. "But if you bring Stomp back, I'll come back."
Sabel was dumbfounded that someone would limit themselves like that.
"That was like a kick in the heart," Sabel said.
Lives in progress, a thing to behold
Sabel spent much of the shoulder season in Hawaii. He's back in town, looking tan and taking his time to decide what's next. His wife, Ruth Johnson, runs Roundup River Ranch, and Sabel is her new favorite volunteer. He has a couple grandchildren and one of his sons is getting married this summer.
"There was no reason to leave the Vilar, except if I stay in the job for another year, I'd stay in it until I retire. If I'm going to reinvent myself, I'd better do it now," he said.
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