Behind The Scene: Cheryl Liguori on Wetlands, The Boulder Music Community and 30 Years of The Fox

2022-06-15 15:06:03 By : Ms. lily fan

“I just fell in love with the area and decided that I needed to be out here,” Cheryl Liguori says of two fateful trips she made to Telluride, Colo., in the summer of 1991. At that time, the native New Yorker was the general manager of the Manhattan music venue Wetlands Preserve, having joined Larry and Laura Bloch at the outset of construction in February 1988, a year before the club officially opened.

In June 1991, Liguori attended the 18th annual Telluride Music Festival. Then she returned the following month for the inaugural Telluride Mid-Summer Music Festival, which might have become a venerable event in its own right but for producer Bill Graham’s October helicopter crash.

Liguori’s experience at these two fests ultimately prompted her relocation to Boulder. There, she began work on another fledgling venue, the Fox Theatre, which first welcomed audiences on March 6, 1992 for a show by The Meters.

These days, Liguori is the CEO of Z2 Entertainment, which owns and operates the Fox—now celebrating its 30th anniversary— along with the Boulder Theater and the Aggie Theatre. The company also books additional Colorado venues such as the Breckenridge Riverwalk Center, Steamboat Springs’ Strings Music Pavilion, Frisco’s 10 Mile Music Hall and Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium.

“At this point, we’re able to route both developing artists and established artists on a quality tour around the region,” Liguori says. “I think my greatest accomplishment has been my role in creating Z2 Entertainment and bringing the Fox and the Boulder theaters together, which has created a really vibrant cultural scene in our small city.”

You began your live music career at Wetlands. How did that come about?

I became very good friends with Larry and Laura Bloch when we all lived in Southern California. We were all originally East Coasters, and we ended up moving back.

Larry had always talked about wanting to do something in New York, whether it was a natural food store or a radio station. And, eventually, he decided on a club. I was working in advertising when I was in LA and, when I returned, I was doing that in New York.

At a certain point, Larry asked if I would come help him open up Wetlands. I had never worked in a club, a bar or a restaurant but I did have business experience in the advertising agency world and music has always been a passion of mine. So that’s how I got roped into Wetlands. [Laughs.]

When I met Larry, he owned a print shop. So he wasn’t doing anything in music, but I think anybody in this business always had that undercurrent of “This is my true passion.”

When I was growing up, I started going to live music, sneaking into The Chance or going to the Bardavon [in Poughkeepsie, N.Y]. I also saw artists like Bruce Springsteen at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center. Later, while I was at college on Long Island, I would run around to see Patti Smith. I just always loved live music. The opportunity to get involved in the live-music industry, along with Larry’s passion for live music and the way he wanted to do it, was really compelling for me.

So, after living the advertising agency life for a while, I was definitely ready for a change that would kind of fill my soul.

Since you had no prior experience, how challenging was that learning curve, particularly given the fact that Wetlands was open seven days a week?

You have to keep in mind that we were all figuring it out together. I just didn’t ever live in that world. I sat in on a lot of the initial interviews with Larry and Brian [Gibson], who was the first general manager. Brian came from the Hard Rock Café so he was the one with the food and beverage experience early on.

Then, Brian and I pretty much split every house management shift, settling with the bands. I would work with Walter [Durkacz, the talent buyer] as well. I knew what it meant to Larry to have an amazing vibe there. And I think we carried that vision through as we did the day-to-day work of opening the club, getting folks in, settling with the bands and closing the club.

Back in the day, everything was cash. The bar was cash. The box office was cash. People would come in with the $5 discount cards that we would hand out at the end of the night as people were leaving.

I also did a lot of research. Larry said, “Hey, I want some food, but I don’t want anybody to have to use utensils, and it has to be healthy and organic.” So, I came up with a menu and handled all of that. I also ordered all of the merchandise that was for sale in the VW bus.

The original concept was that there was going to be recorded music with a little bit of live music. The idea was that it would be a dance club, but you still didn’t have to dress up or get chosen to go inside. And you could dance to the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and The Doors. It wasn’t set up to be a live-music club, hosting music seven nights a week, which is pretty much what it became. New Potato Caboose was the first band that we had, and it was pretty clear that night there was a desire for more live music.

When you attended those two festivals in Telluride, were you already thinking about relocating?

No, I really wasn’t. I didn’t originally come out here because I wanted to move out here. It was because I had friends who said, “You have to come out to this festival.” So I went out to Telluride, and then it was like, “Oh, you have to come back.”

The Widespread guys, who played Wetlands in the early days of the club, said to me: “We’re playing the festival, come on out.” So those two festivals happened in succession and, as I was heading home, I was like, “I really want to be out there.” I felt like the Rocky Mountains were calling to me.

Had you already locked down your job at the Fox by the time you finally made the move?

No, I hadn’t. There had been a lot of really long, hard days at Wetlands. It was a number of years of loving what I was doing, but also becoming exhausted by it. Sometimes we stopped the music at 4 a.m., I would get home at 7 a.m. and I would have to back at work in the early afternoon. There was also at least one double shift every week.

Then, I felt rejuvenated when I came out to Colorado. I didn’t have a job when I came out here but, through some friends of mine in The Samples, I heard about this club that was being built called the Fox. I’d had a phone conversation with someone and they were like, “We’re not in a position to bring on someone else full time.”

After I came to Colorado, I started talking with them. Construction was underway, and I came in as a freelance marketing person to help get the artwork done. I helped get the press releases and the press kits out, and I started reaching out to music writers to get everything set up in advance of the opening. I worked through the opening but then, at the end of April, I took a break as a freelancer for the Fox and was looking for full-time, gainful employment so that I could stay out here. Finally, in September—five months or so after the Fox opened—I was asked to come in as the general manager.

The original corporate name was the Pyramid Group and it was Dicke Sidman, Don Strasburg and Jon O’Leary. You also had other founders who were investors; they came in and supplied the funds. Don was the person chosen to talk with me about coming in to take care of the business, and we did it over a game of pinball. Don and I were laughing about this at our 30th anniversary party. Next door to the Fox, there was a pinball arcade and we walked over there, started playing pinball and had the conversation. I agreed to come in and oversee the day-to[1]day business.

What was your biggest challenge as you took over the GM role at the Fox?

The venue was built to be a world-class room. Getting the Fox Theatre’s name on the map took a little time but word spread quickly to artists, agents and fans. My initial challenge as GM was to look at the financial obligations and the overhead and then build a financial model that supported the vision but also paid the bills. Cash management was key to getting there.

I also think my contribution to the Fox was being able to bring over that same vibe from Wetlands. I’d tell security: “Kill ‘em with kindness.” People were coming for the best night of their life with an artist they were really excited to see. So I infused that through the staff and the way we operated.

In 1998, you moved from the Fox to the Boulder Theater before you eventually brought both venues together under one management group with the establishment of Z2 Entertainment in 2010. Had that been your intent for a while, or did an opportunity suddenly present itself?

I had it my mind for a long time to try and bring these two venues together.

I went to the Boulder Theater during my first visit for a Big Head Todd/Samples concert, since they both had played Wetlands. Then, shortly after I moved out here, the Boulder Theater experienced some trouble and went dark. So it wasn’t open when I started at the Fox or maybe it had one more month or so to go before it closed. It had been the center of the musical world for a lot of people in Boulder until the Fox opened, and then the Fox did it right with the sound, the sight lines and the top notch production. It was the first club in the Rocky Mountain region that prioritized all of the things that you want when you go see live music.

I think eTown took over for a little while. Then, Doug Greene— who’s our business partner now—bought the Boulder Theater, put some people in place and started operating it as a live-music venue again. I had some friends who worked there and they were like, “We could really use your help down here.” That’s when I came over.

I briefly talked about the idea of joining the management arms of the two clubs back then, at the very end of ‘98, but we had two separate liquor licenses. So it was a logistical non-starter because we couldn’t have the same management of two different types of liquor licenses. But over the years, when I was at the Boulder Theater, I always thought that it made sense. It didn’t make sense to beat each other up over talent, which drives up ticket prices, and the party who really feels it is the patron. So I kept poking at that.

Eventually, the Fox managed to get a tavern license, which is the same license that the Boulder Theater had. So, a few years after that, I finally called Don and I was like, “Look, it’s probably time that we should do this.” I talked to the owner of the Boulder Theater and I said, “This is what I see. This is why we should do it.” He agreed, I reached out to Don and we made it happen. So that’s how Z2 Entertainment came to be.

Back then, it was really challenging for either company to turn a profit, so that didn’t make sense to me. It just seemed silly. I thought, “Put the right act in the right room for the right price, and we all move forward as a happy family.” And that’s exactly what happened. And when the venues can actually make money, then you can invest in those venues. You can improve your PAs, you can put in new lighting—it’s just a better experience all around.

Part of the magic happens because of the music, but the other part of the magic happens when people feel good about the place where they’re going to hear that music. It is the combination of those two things that makes an incredible venue and an incredible overall experience for all of us who love live music.

Don began at the Fox, but he now works at AEG, even though Z2 Entertainment remains independent. I imagine that can be confusing for some folks at times.

Don is a founder of the Fox and Z2 Entertainment is 50% Fox ownership and 50% Boulder Theater ownership. But, even though some people think we’re affiliated with AEG, there’s really no financial or booking arrangement. As an ownership group, we love all our Boulder venues but we operate completely separately as a business entity.

We just had a wonderful moment at the Fox. Don was the original talent buyer for the Fox, then Eric Pirritt booked it for a long time. Eric now works for Live Nation, and the two of them are in the exact same role. They both handle the Rocky Mountain region and the Northwest, with Don at AEG and Eric Pirritt at Live Nation. It was really heartwarming to see them hanging out together at the Fox’s 30th anniversary party, sharing their love for the venue where both of their careers really started.

Now that music venues are open again following quarantine, what is the state of the Fox and your other venues?

I feel Z2 is in a good place, even though Q1 was a bit shaky. Shows were still being canceled and tours were moving further out again. Our 2022 show counts are approaching the 2019 level if everything stays on track. Fingers crossed. The uplifting impact SVOG [Shuttered Venue Operators Grant] and NIVA [National Independent Venue Association] had on so many independent venues and the live-music ecosystem can’t be understated.

Finally, as you think back over the past three decades, what are some of your musical highlights?

There are so many highlights, it’s really hard to say. Obviously, all of the nights with The Meters at the Fox were really spectacular. Also, the nights with Ween, Dave Matthews Band, Gov’t Mule and Michael Franti. We also would do a lot of reggae and tons of funk. There’s nothing better than looking out at a crowd where every single person is boogying. That’s just the best feeling in the world.

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