—From the Pages of FLL#36
It’s the day before opening night of The Fillmore Philadelphia and Ron Bension is at the venue making sure everything is in its place— from the general vibe, all the way to the iconic chandeliers and posters synonymous with a show carrying the Fillmore name. Bension is the President of House of Blues Entertainment, the largest collection of live entertainment clubs and theatres in the world, which includes their newest venue in Philly’s blossoming Fishtown. He took time to chat with Fine Living Lancaster about carrying on a live music tradition and why Philly made sense as the place for the sixth Fillmore.
THE FILLMORE BRAND
“We have a much storied rock and roll pedigree,” says Bension.
It’s an understatement.
The original Fillmore is an iconic music venue, which first opened in San Francisco during the height of counterculture rock. It was the focal point for the psychedelic music scene of the 60s and 70s, and launched the careers of some legendary acts like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Santana, and The Doors. It was essentially the home of The Grateful Dead from 1965 until 1969. As a venue, it is a legend.Historic rock promoter Bill Graham (who also gave roots to the venerable Winterland) opened the Fillmore in 1965, but by the early 80s the original building became a punk magnet called The Elite Club. It didn’t take long for Graham to come back into management and return the Fillmore name, but Mother Nature (not The Mothers of Invention) played a huge part in the place’s history. On October 17, 1989 at 5:04 p.m., Northern California was rocked by the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake. (Sports fans and historians will remember this catastrophe as the first live televised earthquake, which took place just before game three of the World Series between the Athletics and the Giants.)
The tremor damaged the structural integrity of the Fillmore. Before his tragic death, Graham made it clear he wished to rebuild. Posthumously, his friends came to his aid and on April 27, 1994 The Smashing Pumpkins played an unannounced surprise show to unofficially reopen the Fillmore. In 2007, Live Nation began operation and expansion of the brand. Since then, Fillmores have opened in Detroit, Miami, and inside the Capital Beltway.
Bension joined Live Nation’s House of Blues Entertainment in September of 2010 and immediately focused on consolidating several venues into a national platform, with new touring products and innovative consumer experiences. His aim has been to have legendary properties serve as both a home for emerging artists and the place where major stars want to get as close as possible to their audiences. He started to look at what the Fillmore meant to both musician and fan: outstanding sound and lighting, great sightlines, and unrivaled intimacy.
“We think it’s going to be very successful. We spent the time to make something more than just a concert venue,” says Bension. “We have expectations. We look to have 90 to 100 shows in the first fiscal year.”
He describes the venue as a “full entertainment event” where people can choose their level of involvement in the new era of concert going. Whether you’re a crowd-the-stage kind of fan or someone who wants to chill at the bar and chat while enjoying some live music, this venue is for you. “We sure put our money where our mouth is with the fan experience,” says Bension. Instead of stashing the bar at the back of the space, designers moved the drink station to the two-thirds mark of the middle of the room. This is a place to hang, both before and after the show.
“We don’t want to be just a snapshot of a show,” says Bension. “When most of us were growing up we went to concerts and all eyes were on the stage. At shows today—big and small—people are more distracted. Sure, they’re listening to the music, but they are also taking pictures, taking selfies, they’re talking, texting, interacting with social media. It’s a different experience.”
He recognized the need to evolve with the experience, and with The Fillmore Philadelphia he aimed to create areas where people could be more interactive. It was part of the design push with the venue—make places where people can just hang out. Attending a concert at The Fillmore Philadelphia will allow more people to interact with the bands and even the venue, something enjoyable—and profitable— for everyone.
“There’s a whole marketing basis for much of what we do. We try to bring the bands to the fans pre-show,” says Bension. “There’s a physical aspect to what we do. We need to evolve our venues to be more accommodating to what the live concert experience is today.”
So, why Philly? Why now?
“We don’t want a Fillmore to be like the other big boxes where some concerts take place. There are certain design components we wanted to incorporate,” says Bension, harkening back to the red curtains, chandeliers, and even posters by famed artist Bonnie MacLean, which garnered national attention when created for the opening Philly location.
“All of those things define the brand,” says Bension. “Fillmore’s just don’t get dropped into places.”
“Being a part of the community is as big a signature part of a Fillmore as are its red curtains and chandeliers,” says Bension. The company has even gone so far as have friends and family visit the site and the area, and has even had community barbecues. “We feel we are going to be a huge part of the turnaround going on here in Fishtown, as well as a complement to a great city for music.”
Bension was approached by developer Michael Samschick who had an idea for the building. Live Nation had been looking to expand its footprint in Philadelphia—already operating the TLA and The Tower— and the Fillmore brand fit the bill, especially when they found the right location.
“We were lucky enough to share Samschick’s vision,” says Bension. “When I first walked into this building it was disgusting. It was leaking; there were holes in the roof. It was abandoned.”
But, there was more to the building than what initially met the eye. Its thick walls were perfect for sound. It was large, but at the same time had some innate intimacy. He knew almost immediately it was the right place for The Fillmore Philadelphia.
“We think being on the ground floor of a redevelopment project is more economic. We are clearly an anchor business to the whole community. It had, certainly, a very friendly vibe to it,” says Bension. “We weren’t going to create something that wasn’t right for the Philadelphia market and this has a great street vibe to it. It’s really cool.”
Each Fillmore venue—now including Philly—has evolved to meet the constraints, or better yet the attributes, of the physical building and community it represents. The Fillmore Detroit makes its home in a circa 1925 movie theater with 80-foot ceilings. The famed Jackie Gleason Theater, which spawned a new generation of entertainment in its own right in the 50s, is now home to The Fillmore Miami Beach. The Fillmore Silver Spring joins the American Film Institute and Discovery Communications to anchor the burgeoning Maryland town’s arts and entertainment district.
Housed in a 100-year-old foundry, The Fillmore Philadelphia has a 2,500-person capacity.
“It was a funky old place. It just kind of had that vibe.”
He describes the graffiti tagged interior as organic, original, and weathered. The original foundry smokestack runs the entire length of the building like a sentinel of rock. Immediately he knew he wanted to work with the building’s character.
So, Bension had a place and plan. Now, to fill in the extra touches. Gone are the days of concert fare like overcooked hot dogs and stale popcorn; The Fillmore Philadelphia has a full menu of food made fresh on site.
“But, our food is properly packaged for a concert venue. You can walk around with your brat-bites and your beer and not need a table,” says Bension. “We also have an extensive VIP section. We found that is something people want.”
The VIP experience is like no other in Philly. VIP ticket holders have their own parking, entrance, and restrooms. From their reserved, frontrow, mezzanine box seats concertgoers can order premium food and cocktails delivered by The Fillmore Philadelphia’s Premium Seats team. This elevated experience also includes access into Circle Bar, the venue’s exclusive VIP lounge. “Roll like a rockstar and treat yourself,” encourages the Circle Bar, which connects directly to the mezzanine level and offers bottle service.
Right now, Bension is focusing on Philly. Live Nation’s House of Blues Entertainment doesn’t have an aggressive plan for seeking out the next Fillmore.
“If we can find the appropriate market, but more importantly the appropriate canvas if you will, to place another Fillmore, we will,” says Bension. “The name conjures up live music. It has a core value to it, but we won’t aggressively push it out unless we find the right market.”
Now, the focus is on “quality escalation” of the live music experience. The next step of escalation was taken on the evening of October 1, when Hall and Oates took the stage and officially opened the doors of The Fillmore Philadelphia—pretty fitting. Pretty fitting all around!
The Premium Seats Program at The Fillmore offers the most luxurious and enjoyable way to see a concert in Philadelphia. As we built the program, the main focus was to deliver the most premier experience from the moment members parked their car to the very last note of the concert. This means offering upscale cocktail, beer, and wine menus as well as creating the Circle Bar and making it the perfect place to relax and visit with friends or clients. From the moment you enter, you will spend the night surrounded by great music, great food, and great drinks. Once you make your way to the VIP Boxes, you will be greeted with an incredible view of both the stage and the entire venue.
The Fillmore brand is so iconic and so nationally recognized that it was important to make the Premium Seats Program something truly special. What’s really wonderful about this program is it lends itself to meeting so many different peoples’ needs. Clients range from couples wanting the best seats for date nights, all the way to major corporations looking for a unique way to entertain clients and reward employees. If you want to be a part of Philadelphia’s newest and best music venue, this is the way to do it.
Prior to joining Live Nation’s House of Blues Entertainment, Chief Executive Officer Ron Bension served as CEO of TicketsNow, while working with Ticketmaster to restructure resale sites operations and business initiatives. Over his 30-plus-years career, Bension led several major e-commerce, recreation, and entertainment companies to financial and strategic success. He was the CEO of Wasserman Media Group’s, Sportnet, a leading developer of action sports websites. This led to a position at Tickets.com. Bension also managed the company’s relationships with the Winter Olympics in 2002 and the World Series. Eventually he helped complete the sale of Tickets.com to Major League Baseball in 2005.
Prior to Tickets.com, Bension was President and CEO of Sega GameWorks, a multi-unit, location-based entertainment company founded by Steven Spielberg. He was with the company for two and a half years, and engineered a dramatic increase in revenue and growth receiving honors for his achievements with the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2001.
Bension holds a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice from California State University. He is the founder of the Discover A Star Foundation, Universal Studios Hollywood’s philanthropic division, which provides scholarships to financially challenged, high-achieving high school graduates.