BY KATHY MATTER
PHOTO BY CHRISTINE PETKOV
John Hughey could sense a hint of nervousness in his interviewer’s voice as the conversation took an unexpected turn away from the Long Center for the Performing Arts – where Hughey was seeking the position of executive director — to another performing space a block away called the Lafayette Theater.
It was 2019 and Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski wanted the city to buy the deteriorating theater space. It would also be run by the person chosen for the executive director’s job.
“Would you still be interested?” he remembers being asked.
Would he? Feeling an adrenalin rush of enthusiasm, Hughey immediately responded in the positive. “I think I’m more interested. Not less.”
Running the Long Center with attention-grabbing national acts such as country artist Scottie McCreary and Master Chef Junior Live, overseeing a five-year renovation at the Lafayette Theater while booking small local shows there, and having sellouts at the first two shows at Loeb Stadium, Hughey seems to be in the right place at the right time.
Before Hughey, who was a resident of Fort Wayne and involved with the leadership of the Embassy Theater there when he was hired, the executive directors of the Long Center had all come from Tippecanoe County. But the job, which expanded to the Lafayette Theater in 2019 and to Loeb Stadium in 2022, was tailor-made for Hughey’s skill set.
“I’m not a performer but I’ve always been involved in live theater,” he recalls. The “seeds” of interest in booking and managing shows were planted during his high school days when he booked a Canadian acrobatic troupe and later an illusionist for benefit performances at Indiana Academy in Cicero. Dealing with agents led to handling hospitality, recruiting ushers and all the things the shows required.
There was no magic leap to theater management, however. Hughey majored in journalism at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, which led him to newspaper jobs in Bedford and Bloomington, Indiana. Going for a master’s in journalism at Indiana University (with a concentration in arts administration), he started freelancing for the Indianapolis Star. He was covering the creation of the Palladium Theater in Carmel when the employment bubble burst at the Star and he got caught up in newsroom staff reductions.
It was then the magic happened.
His dealings with the Palladium management led to Hughey being hired as an arts marketer for Carmel’s grand new performance hall.
“The Palladium gave me a chance to thrive. I never thought I’d be on the same stage as Willy Nelson and Yo Yo Ma.” But he was. And he made things happen. When Yo Yo Ma expressed an interest in recording a digital single on the spot in the hall’s perfect acoustics, Hughey happily facilitated it.
His next stop as a marketer was the older and larger Embassy in Fort Wayne, where his charge was to up the already healthy show sales. And he did. The itch to take the next step – executive director — and oversee everything, including the always challenging job of fundraising, led him to the Long Center position.
With the pandemic on his tail as he moved to Lafayette, Hughey says, “I was so impressed with how we managed that.” One inventive use of the Long Center was to hold jury selection there because it offered the space for potential jurors to be socially distant and a stage for interviews.
“Giving back the quality that Mayor Roswarski wants to build here,” is Hughey’s mandate. “We want people to get excited about new ventures.” Everything, including the weather, went perfectly for the new concert ventures at Loeb Stadium in 2022. “My takeaway is how many complaints I get after a show. There were zero formal complaints, which I took as a compliment that people really enjoyed the shows.
“And we pulled in 1,000 people who had never bought a ticket from us before.”
The key to making the Long Center financially stable is a mix of three things: the 12 shows that Hughey recommends for the Long Center Presents series; rental clients; and resident performing groups such as the Lafayette Symphony. “We’ve done really well with comedy shows with Netflix driving that (popularity of individual comedians),” he says. The stage will likely see more country music shows in the future as well.
Local musicians who had used the Lafayette Theater stage in the past were worried about being homeless with Hughey’s arrival. It turned out to be a false worry. When Mayor Roswarski came up with money for badly needed new entrance doors for the Lafayette Theater, Hughey created the “New Doors Series” offering six performances in the fall, and again in the spring, where local musicians – think Sheeza, Graciously Departed, The Distance — and standup comedians are paid to put on a show.
“There is no list of people who can or can’t play in our facilities,” Hughey emphasizes.
Updating the Long Center’s main floor concession space and adding a new one on the balcony level are on his immediate to do list.
Overall, Hughey wants all the performance elements to work together to make memories. “The experience of bringing family and friends together for a show is transformational,” he says. “The memories you’re making can last a lifetime. That’s the business we’re really in – making memories!” ★