Yakima venue grows into a hot spot

YAKIMA -- It was a scene from a bigger city. People arrived at the venue en masse, groups of 20-something hipsters huddled on the cold sidewalk smoking cigarettes while a vital contemporary rock band prepared to take the stage.

It was early December, and The Seasons Performance Hall, which started six years ago as a jazz and classical venue, had completed its transformation from esteemed but financially dependent niche music hall into an all-purpose music venue with financial prospects to match its cultural cachet. The critically lauded Seattle band The Cave Singers was playing, and hundreds of people paid $15 to get in. It was a stark contrast from a year ago.

"This whole year was very transitional," said Ellie Strosahl, the venue's director of operations. "In the beginning of January, I really didn't know if we were still going to be a viable organization."

The Seasons, which began under the ownership of the Strosahl family business, United Builders, had never been self-sustaining. It became a nonprofit organization in 2009 so it could qualify for Yakima County tourism funding, which it received to the tune of $333,650. Even then United Builders subsidized the venue financially, said Pat Strosahl, Ellie's father and a co-owner of the company.

But the economic downturn and United Builders' own financial challenges made that increasingly difficult, forcing The Seasons to regroup.

"A little more than a year ago, it became obvious because of the struggles of my company that we would no longer be able to give the kind of foundational support to The Seasons that we'd been giving," Pat Strosahl said.

That meant the organization would have to push harder for donations but it also meant the music programming would have to start bringing in more money. Rock'n'roll was increasingly added to the mix, as was blues, even an Elvis impersonator. It wasn't exactly what the Strosahls envisioned when they started The Seasons, but it worked.

Elvis packed them in, as did up-and-coming Selah product Cody Beebe, who sold out the place earlier this month with his band The Crooks. Meanwhile, important contemporary bands such as The Cave Singers and Portland's Blitzen Trapper, which played the venue in July, raised The Seasons' profile regionally. The county grant money helped renovate what is now the venue's back-room performance space, featuring a full kitchen and a bar.

"A lot of the success came from changes in the business model," Pat Strosahl said. "We had to seek out other types of programming that would have direct audience impact in Yakima."

To him, those sorts of shows are a financial necessity that allows The Seasons to continue what he calls its "deep commitment to classical music and jazz." Pop music isn't his thing.

But to Ellie Strosahl and younger music fans in Central Washington, the expanded programming meant opportunities to see top bands without traveling to Seattle or Portland. She and facilities manager Nick Orlando -- the only two paid staffers left after layoffs a year ago -- reached out to the sort of bands that don't typically come through towns as small as Yakima.

And they have promoted those shows relentlessly, often at the ground level.

Orlando spent the week leading up to The Cave Singers show visiting bars with stacks of tickets to sell. And Ellie Strosahl got kicked out of a Los Lobos concert at Yakama Nation Legends Casino last summer because she wouldn't stop handing out fliers for the upcoming David Hidalgo and Louie Perez concert at The Seasons.

As a result, the venue had more sellout shows this year than it had in all its previous years combined, Ellie Strosahl said.

Neither she nor Orlando is paid as a full-time 40-hour-a-week employee, but both put in more hours than that, she said.

"It's definitely worth it for me," she said. "I love my job. There is a lot of pressure, but it feels important. You get to see a lot of things taking shape, where before we had potential. It feels great to have some success."

That sort of effort -- not just from Ellie Strosahl and Orlando, but from Pat Strosahl, who has taken the lead in community fundraising efforts -- has allowed the venue to maintain its commitment to jazz and classical. There are fewer of those shows now, but there wouldn't be any if the venue hadn't transformed itself, the elder Strosahl said.

"That commitment, while it was still there, had to take a back seat to a wider range of programs that I think has been good for The Seasons," he said.

The venue's classical programming jewel, its annual Seasons Fall Festival, has survived and is thriving thanks in large part to former Yakima Symphony Orchestra conductor Brooke Creswell, who took over that weeklong event on a volunteer basis this year. The festival added a jazz component alongside the conducting and composing workshops and concerts and, according to a report Creswell sent supporters this month, hit its attendance goals for the first time ever. More importantly, it made money. All of the previous five Fall Festivals had lost money.

"Brooke Creswell is a hero to me," Ellie Strosahl said.

Her father was equally effusive in his praise for Creswell, an early booster of The Seasons. The Fall Festival manager ideally will become a paid position again; it's about a $30,000 job. That Creswell did it for free demonstrated a commitment to building something important in Yakima. The festival drew conductors and composers from across the country as well as from Mexico and Spain this year, and it could grow into a real incubator of innovative classical and jazz music, Creswell said.

"It's the one thing The Seasons does that really has potential for national importance," he said. "And it's not only about The Seasons. It's doing something that has some stature beyond county boundaries."

That is possible, he said, because the venue found a way to survive. Further, Creswell doesn't mind that the focus has shifted to include pop music. If The Seasons books good bands, that just helps increase its stature, he said.

"It's like Duke Ellington said, there are two kinds of music: the good kind and the other kind," Creswell said.

That's in keeping with the new mission of The Seasons, Ellie Strosahl said. It's not to provide outstanding classical and jazz but outstanding music.

"Change is hard, and it has taken some internal struggles," she said. "But at this point it's definitely an atmosphere of collaboration. We all feel we want to be reaching out to all the different parts of the community. ... It's a place for community to come together."