Student Union Auditorium Not For Students?

It’s a chilly Saturday night inside the Student Union, and English major Jacob Henson is disgusted. Just yesterday, he passed through the popular social hangout, and nothing seemed amiss. A few students were scattered about – some chatting on the plush red suede sofa, two others shooting pool, and a handful parked before the projection TV.

But the next day, the scene looks spun from a time warp: more than 200 senior citizens have crammed themselves into every crevice of the Boca campus Student Union. The men are clad in black ties and slacks and the women in dinner gowns.

“Man, they’re swarming,” Henson says and walks off. Soon, 2,053 guests join the others filing into the Carole and Barry Kaye Auditorium, squeezing through the double doors to catch the Palm Beach Pops Orchestra concert Feb. 9.

For the last 15 years, the auditorium has played host to “The Big Three” – Palm Beach Pops, Sunshine Pops and Klezmer Company Orchestra – commercial events geared toward the elderly. In fact, “The Big Three” booked 35 performances in the 2007-08 theater season, leaving primarily student-driven events by the wayside or phased out altogether.

The guest-heavy crowds are something Assistant Student Union Director Randale Nunley is more than willing to accept.

“We’re a venue, not a booking house,” says Nunley, who coordinates with commercial promoters for all bookings inside the Carole and Barry Kaye Auditorium. “[Senior citizens] help keep the doors open and account for the majority of our revenue. The ‘Big Three’ aren’t geared toward students, but guests.”

From Feb. 1 to June 30, less than a dozen of the 60 events booked will be tailored toward college-age students. Why? Because commercial promoters fork over five times more in fees per day to rent the auditorium, guest tickets typically cost twice as much as student tickets, and it’s cheaper to book events that cater to the Boca Raton age demographic.

Marshall and Ellie Eisenberg, two senior citizen guests, bought fourth row season tickets seven months in advance of the Feb. 9 Palm Beach Pops event.

“Most of these shows, the music is from 30, 40 years ago,” Marshall says. “I’d say anyone who grew up in the ’50s would appreciate this music. It’s not meant for anyone younger.”

According to the Student Union rental schedule, commercial promoters pay $5,000 to book a full day and $4,000 per half-day (under eight hours) in the auditorium. Comparatively, student event promoters pay as little as $1,130 to book an event.

Student Union records show that over 38 percent of the buildings revenues are generated from auditorium rental fees. According to the 2006-07 budget, the Student Union calculated $1.68 million in total revenues. Of this, over $640,000 came from non-FAU commercial bookings and about $840,000 came from Student Government.

Student Government is required to fund entities like the Program Board – FAU’s student-funded event committee – and the Student Union entirely from activity and service fees, a $6.5 million annual budget pool. Each student pays $10 per credit hour.

But despite that half the Student Union budget is derived from student money, students aren’t the target audience for the majority of auditorium bookings.

“I would say that 80 percent of all attendees per event [on average] are senior citizens,” Nunley adds, noting many of the senior citizens are in Boca at this time because of the weather. “It’s warmest here when it’s coldest everywhere else.”

As an incentive for students to attend auditorium events, the Student Union offered to charge half-price for the lowest-priced ticket. Yet while the Feb. 9 concert boasted 2,053 ticket sales, only 26 of them were purchased at the half-priced student rate. Student Union Director Brian Keintz says students are welcome to non-FAU events, but also admits they aren’t exactly the “primary audience.”

As the Program Board’s concert and music coordinator, junior Dan Ross is responsible for this year’s Battle of the Bands and alternative rock band Mae – the only two student-promoted concerts this semester. But he’s not encouraged by the stigmatizing effect guest events have on student attendance. On many nights, he says the Student Union resembles “the walk of the living dead.”

“It’s hard to book a student concert event in a 2,400-seat auditorium. We’re only budgeted around $500,000 [for the 2007-08 school year],” Ross says. “I don’t see bands even wanting to perform here. And students don’t come out for the events because of the old people.”

When the UP relayed these comments to Keintz, he leaned back in his chair and wrapped his palms behind his head.

“The auditorium is available to students at a much lower rate. It’s there to serve students, but students have sort of gone away,” he says. “People like to paint the picture that it’s just old people.”

Keintz attributes the reduction of student attendance not to the abundance of non-FAU events, but to SG’s trimming of Student Union funding in 2003, for which the auditorium never rebounded.

“Basically, the Student Union went through a very rough time,” Keintz remembers. “There was a disagreement between what the Student Union wanted for its budget and what Student Government wanted to apportion us.”

As a result, the Student Union budget was chopped in half from the projected $750,000 in fiscal year 2002-03 to $332,000, according to Student Union budget documents.

But Student Body President Tony Teixeira thinks Keintz is evading the real problem.

“I’ve actually sat in his office and told him he’s outright denying it,” Teixeira says. “It’s unbelievable how much [senior citizens] are a major contribution to the Student Union. I wish the director of the Student Union could find something that caters to the student demographic.”

Yet because “The Big Three” and other commercial promoters have a stranglehold on the Student Union’s vitality, it’s impossible to function without the bonanza of rental and equipment fees.

“If we remove sources of revenue like the Palm Beach Pops, the Student Union is dead in the water,” Teixeira says. “We’d have to use a couple million from students’ A&S [Activity and Service] fees just to keep us afloat. It’s a catch-22. We need to sustain the Union, which belongs to students, by renting out the auditorium to non-student interests.”

Teixeira estimates SG will allocate up to $1.1 million for the Student Union during the 2008-09 school year – a $260,000 hike since 2006.

It’s a large sacrifice, Teixeira admits, but what’s proving most vexing to commuter students and campus residents are parking nightmares in lots 15 and 16.

Closest to the Student Services and Student Union buildings, this popular stretch of asphalt is usually deluged with 2,000 or more patrons on performance nights.

However, some concerts intersect with Thursday and Friday night classes on the Boca campus, leaving some students charged with the task of space-hunting in a lot further away, Teixeira says.

“I would suggest as a solution having guest parking in Lot 15 [soccer field] instead,” Teixeira adds, “but as I understand it there’s already an overflow from Lot 16 [Student Union]. And besides, they’re not exactly 20 years old. If I were to suggest they park farther away, they’ll take forever to get to their cars.”

But that’s not the only reason guests avoid far-flung parking lots, SG Director Rivka Felsher says.

“If the Student Union forced the non-students to park on the other side of campus away from student-heavy areas, it’s likely that guests would no longer bother going to these events,” Felsher says. “It would negatively impact ticket sales, and nobody wants that.”

By the Numbers

Why our elderly guests matter: large revenues and high attendance

$916,700: How much SG allocated the Student Union in the 2007-08 fiscal year from A & S* fees, a $10 per credit hour charge

$840,000: How much SG gave the Student Union in the 2006-07 fiscal year from A & S fees

$640,676: Total revenues generated from auditorium rental fees in the 2006-07 fiscal year

$5,000: Cost for commercial promoters like the “Big Three” to book a full-day (eight hours or more) at the auditorium

$4,000: Cost for commercial promoters like the “Big Three” to book a half-day (eight hours or less) at the auditorium

2,053: Attendees at the Feb. 9 Palm Beach Pops Orchestra event

80: Number of half-priced seats available to students in the auditorium’s “Rear Gallery”

26: Number of half-priced student tickets purchased on Feb. 9

* Activity and service fees are a $10 per credit hour charge.

Source: Student Union Budget