The Museum Behind the Music

Mixing rock, country and comedy to feed Bubbles and Squeak

For a quarter-century, music fed Calvert Marine Museum’s otters and salaried its staff.     
    In service of the museum’s twin causes of local history and science, Los Lobos howled, Crosby Stills and Nash harmonized, Bob Dylan growled and the Allman Brothers jammed.
    Calvert brought Southern Maryland the big names of rock and country music, and if some of them were slightly off their prime, the fans didn’t care. The classics were balanced with young performers like Travis Tritt, Big & Rich, Trace Adkins and Montgomery Gentry — at the height of their popularity.
    The concerts built their own stage. The popular otter house and the skate and ray exhibit — both starring live animals — were paid for by concerts. Ticket sales have supported those non-sexy things like maintenance that are not easy to fund. Concerts have also been a boom for museum membership. When Bob Dylan’s 2003 concert was announced, 350 memberships were sold in just two weeks — and not just locally. The museum now boasts members in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco.
    Concert ticket sales have fallen more than 15 percent over the last year, according to the music industry trade publication, Pollstar. Even the biggest concert tours in North America in 2010 felt the drop, with sales falling to their lowest point since 2005 as the weak economy and “piggish” ticket prices kept fans at home, Pollstar reports.
    Putting rears in seats in this economy takes thinking way outside the box to meet the region’s varied taste.
    “Nothing in this economy is easy,” says event spokeswoman Tracy Cimini. “It has been difficult to fill seats since a ticket equals a tank of gas these days. We’ve had to work harder and be more creative to promote the shows and had to re-evaluate our marketing approach.”

Trying for Laughs

    The museum kicked off its 2011 series with comedy to bring in new fans. Larry the Cable Guy, known for his redneck persona and blue-collar humor, filled more than 4,000 seats — a good turnout, but not a sellout.
    “Country, rock and comedy, nothing is a guarantee. Everything is a risk,” Cimini says.
    Comedy was doubly risky for the museum. Its other forays in the field fell short. In 2005, mega-star Bill Cosby wasn’t able to fill the 5,000 seats; only 3,600 tickets were sold. Last year, stand-up comedian Bill Engvall missed the 3,000 mark.
    “Comedy is definitely not as big of a draw as music,” Cimini says. “But we try to mix it up, crossing into as many different genres as possible so we can appeal to a broad range of audiences and bring as many different people to the museum as possible.”

On the Road

    This year “mixing it up” sent the museum away from its Calvert Marine Museum Pavilion. For the second show of the season on June 18, the Waterside Concert Series went on a road trip — lock, stock and lights — to the Blue Crab/Regency Furniture stadium in Waldorf for Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown music festival.
    This first-time venture with the Blue Crabs minor league baseball team introduced new fans to both groups.
    “Our goal was to have residents from Charles County visit and see what’s offered at the museum, and Calvert County residents would do the same at the stadium,” Cimini tells Bay Weekly. “With such a small community it’s crucial to the success of both institutions to receive support from all over Southern Maryland.”
    Like the concerts held at the museum, the Blue Crab stadium festival was a fundraiser for the museum with one hundred percent of the ticket sales going to the museum.
    Thirteen artists on three stages — with country superstar Willie Nelson topping the list — played for eight hours. It was festival seating: no reserved seats, so concert-goers could stroll to all three stages. With tickets priced at only $40, the day was a bargain for country music lovers from any county.
    But here again, the tough economy took its toll. Out of 5,000 tickets, just 3,700 were sold.
    For the remaining two concerts of the year, the music comes back home to Solomons with two top seat-fillers making encore performances.

Back on the Home Stage

    Country music superstar Martina McBride returns July 30.
    The songstress had her fans on their feet during her last performance eight years ago. That concert sold out in just two weeks, holding the record for the museum’s most profitable show.
    McBride has just released her 10th studio album, Shine. Her newest hit, “Teenage Daughters,” joins fan favorites “Independence Day,” “Concrete Angel,” “A Broken Wing” and “Love’s the Only House.” Nominated for over 10 Grammys, the award-winning performer has matched Reba McEntire’s record for most wins for the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year.
    Ending the season, a few sharp-dressed men in long beards return to the Solomons Island stage after just three years. ZZ Top and special guest Joan Jett and The Blackhearts promise a night of classic rock-n-roll on Sunday, August 21.
    “ZZ Top’s sold-out show in 2008 was one of the best ever at the museum,” Cimini says. “They performed hits like “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs.” Joan Jett and The Blackhearts will add an extra kick to the evening and will hopefully sell out this show again.”

The Price Is Right

    With ticket prices soaring into the hundreds of dollars at bigger venues, the Calvert Marine Museum’s concert series remains a great deal. Beyond acts and strobes, there are no flashy special effects — one of the forces driving ticket prices sky high.
    You don’t need a bank loan to enjoy these shows.
    “We understand how tight times are,” Cimini says. “We keep our drink prices to $2 for soda and water, $4 for beer and wine. All we’re trying to do is raise enough money to keep the museum programs going and our doors open.”
    A ticket — almost always priced under $60 — will buy an evening filled with comedy and music by today’s chart-toppers and yesterday’s memorable artists. Add a glass of wine, a cold beer, a bite to eat, all under a star-filled sky, and you get a budget-friendly summer night on the Island.

Saturday, July 30, 7:30pm: Martina McBride; $45-$55.

Sunday, August 21, 7:30pm: ZZ Top plus Joan Jett & The Blackhearts; $49-$59.

Tickets by phone at 800-787-9454; in person at Prince Frederick Ford/Dodge; online at www.calvertmarinemuseum.com.