Take the centuries-old practice of being an art patron, toss in a dash of Mickey Rooney’s enthusiasm about putting on shows in early 20th-century film musicals, sprinkle with a practical nature and you have Benicia producer Rhonda Lucile Hicks.
Rhonda has brought an eclectic array of musicians and comedians to Solano stages since she started producing shows in 2005. The humorous country-rock band Antsy McLain and the Trailer Park Troubadours. Comedians Paula Poundstone and Will Durst. The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. Electric violinist Carlos Reyes. Nuevo flamenco guitarists Muriel Anderson and Tierra Negra. And many, many more.
Finding artists is the easy part, she says. Putting together shows, minding all the details and making sure everything is right – that takes real work.
Rhonda launched Red Dragonfly Productions in 2005 after hosting successful performances at a local church and in her backyard. She also owns 851 Music Studio on Military West. She produces 15 to 20 shows a year and divides her work time “about 50-50” between teaching piano students and putting on local shows.
Rhonda’s goal is to present performers who might not be heard in the corporate-dominated music industry, and to build community through shared experiences.
“To me, that’s the heart of what music is – community and sharing. Music is not just buying tickets from Live Nation and going to a concert at the Concord Pavilion. I am perfectly happy with those concerts, but they don’t have to squish out everything else,” she says.
Rhonda, 51, has one son, Grayson Hauser, a blues guitarist in San Francisco. She moved to Benicia 17 years ago from Berkeley to find good schools for him. She sold her medical billing business when she changed careers five years ago, and now she’s looking forward to taking a brief respite from the demands of being a music producer.
What gave you the idea to start organizing local shows?
A friend of mine has a husband who’s a surgeon. He has a friend, also a surgeon, who lives on the peninsula and who’s a big supporter of the San Francisco Symphony. I saw a well-known violinist at his home and I thought, “I wish I had the money to do this.”
And then I thought it could be done on a smaller scale. You don’t have to have a lot of money to be a patron of the arts, you just have to find artists you like and want to share with your friends.
What convinced you to move from organizing house concerts to staging professional productions?
I found I was really good at it. I have a good ear, I know good music when I hear it, I’m good at details and I’m able to put together all those details. …
But in the end, what makes me a good producer is I know who my master is, and it’s the audience. I always put the audience first.
I work with artists, venues and nonprofits; and people often get caught up in their own interests and lose site of the fact that it’s a show. It’s a show and you want to please your audience. In most circles, there’s no advocate for the audience. I’m that advocate when we put together a show.
How do you know what audiences will like?
I read audiences pretty well. I sit in the back of the house during a show and watch how the audience is reacting. I’ve learned that there’s an arc to their excitement. It peaks about five minutes after showtime; and every minute you go past that, you see excitement diminish. That’s why my shows start on time.
You also can’t go too long. People start to leave. You always want to give your audience a good show and leave them wanting more.
What does a producer do?
There’s an old joke: What’s a producer? A fool with a checkbook.
The producer pays the deposits, signs the contracts, manages the show. I do 15 to 20 shows a year; half are smaller shows like the Spenger Music Series and the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum’s comedy shows, and half are in larger venues.
I do six to eight bigger shows every year. Bigger venue, bigger risk. I can’t do more than that because of the stress and the financial exposure.
When I sign contracts, I’m $6,000 in the hole. That’s the venue, artist and insurance costs, before you add in Green Room food and any other expenses that come up, and they always come up.
I’m an individual, not a corporation or nonprofit. It’s me who’s going to pay for it if the show tanks.
What are your long-range plans?
My long-range plans are at the Empress Theatre in Vallejo. VenueTech took over management about a month ago, so everything is on hold now because they’re in a reorganization mode. They asked me to itemize the changes I think need to be made, things that get in the way of producing shows there. …
There are some challenges with an old vaudeville movie theater – the Green Room is next door, in a building shared with a restaurant, you need security because of the location and that adds to the cost.
Because of some of these extraneous costs, some shows have not been financially feasible. The bottom line is that I’m not doing shows anywhere where I’ve done the numbers and they show it will be in the red. I’m not in a situation where I can do shows in the red.
So it depends on how the Empress works out. The Empress has a beautiful stage. I’d love to make it my home.
What comes next for Red Dragonfly?
I’d like it to become an income producer. For the past five years, I’ve taken the money from each show and put it into the next show. I’ve bought my own sound system and I started buying lighting.
So the bad economy has been good for me in a way because it made me make decisions. I’m cutting back. Some people have hobbies like golf that they enjoy. But if you wake up on a Saturday and you don’t want to go golfing, you don’t have to.
But if you’re putting on a show, you don’t have the luxury of not doing it. When you have multiple shows coming up, you don’t have a choice. So you don’t get the opportunity to unplug.
So you’re taking some time off?
I’ve worked five years without a break. I’ve never had a time when I didn’t have shows on the calendar. If it’s not going to generate some revenue, I need to cut back. I can do fewer shows and have a better quality of life. …
So the Spenger Garden series ends in October and then I’m going to take a couple months off. I started saying no to everything about two months ago. …
I have got to take a break in order to figure out what’s next and where I want to go. It’s been five years — I need a couple of months without a show. By the time I return from hiatus, the Empress should be settled. I’d like a home stage. I want a community, I’m not an itinerate producer.
I want to wake up in the morning without a long “to-do” list. I’ll still teach lessons, but I want to find some balance in my life.