Eddie Walker felt a seismic shift this year as the Oklahoma City Philharmonic prepared for its annual “Red White and Boom” concert at State Fair Park, a level of excitement and interest in what his organization was doing that outstripped all previous Independence Day concerts.
Weeks before the Philharmonic's July 3 show with Susan Powell, reporters started checking in with Walker's office, gathering information for the upcoming event.
In any normal year, that equation would be flipped. But Walker, the executive director of the Philharmonic, said the Oklahoma City Thunder's ascendance to the NBA Finals changed everything.
“For the first time, media representatives have been contacting us, asking ‘How can we help promote the Phil? How can we help promote the concert?'” Walker said. “Usually, it's the other way around. So suddenly, we're seeing this real desire from people who are involved in the promotion of the city to look around and say, ‘What else can we help promote?'”
This is not an isolated experience, but part of what several arts organization leaders and promoters are seeing as a possible benefit of Thunder mania, a cultural dividend that could impact the concert scene and the visibility and success of museums, theater groups and arts education groups.
On the surface, these entities have nothing to do with basketball, but the potential windfall has everything to do with basketball.
“It brings a spotlight onto the city, which opens the door for everything to be noticed,” said Scott Booker, president of the Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma and manager of The Flaming Lips.
“It might be that I get an A&R person here to Oklahoma just because he wants to go to a Thunder game, and the sideline is that he gets to see a band that I want to show him,” Booker said. “There are tendrils that go out in directions you wouldn't expect at all.”
The unifying power of the winning season has staffers at Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma City wearing “Thunder blue” in the offices, said the organization's executive director, Paula Stover. The Thunder is breaking down barriers and bridging cultural gaps — more art aficionados are now basketball fans.
Stover said she has heard a few people who still believe it is safe to schedule events on the same night as a Finals game between the Thunder and the Miami Heat — a potentially dangerous assumption these days. She said that Lyric Theatre throws its full support behind the Thunder but also is hoping for a speedy victory over the Heat. If the series goes to seven games, the final game would take place on June 26, the opening night of “Bye Bye Birdie,” Lyric's first production of the summer season.
But Stover said she believes that, in the long run, a victorious Thunder helps Lyric and groups like it.
“I think we'll see that as the year goes along, because I think everybody is really proud of what we've done and the attention that we're getting, and I'm hoping that it will make them feel that way about their homegrown arts organizations, too,” she said. “I think it could be a big asset.”
‘On the radar'
Part of this optimism results from the Thunder mania resonating far outside the city, on a national and international level. People hear it on business calls and in airports, on urban streets far away from Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“Every agent I talk to in L.A. and New York, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is, ‘How 'bout the Thunder?'” said David Fitzgerald, president of DCF Concerts, which books rock, pop and country artists into venues in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Wichita, Kan.
“I think that us making it to the Finals has really opened the eyes of a lot of different people,” Fitzgerald said.
“What could culturally come from it? I don't know. But this has given us the ability to be on the radar.”
Booker said that he sees a benefit for ACM@UCO, the “school of rock” that helps students hone their artistic, business and technical skills for a career in music, every time an exterior shot of the school's Bricktown building appears during a Thunder broadcast. The excitement, he said, can be felt throughout the school.
“Being literally across the street from it here at school, it's exciting,” Booker said.
“You know when you go to one of those big festivals in Europe, and you're seeing 10 or 15 or 20 of your favorite bands all in one place? This feels like that. There's an energy to it that's, frankly, very rock ‘n' roll.”
And it is music to Walker's ears, as well. On a recent trip to New York, the Philharmonic executive director and his family wore blue Thunder T-shirts while they walked through Manhattan, and he said the vocal support he heard from locals was a new and exciting experience. Oklahoma City's image is changing thanks to the Thunder, he said, and that new image can only help his organization and other arts groups.
“Anything that's good for Oklahoma City is good for the arts and culture of Oklahoma City,” Walker said. “Since the Thunder came here, I've been saying very publicly that I think they are the single best thing to happen to Oklahoma City — maybe ever.”
And the Thunder impact still will be felt, Walker said, when the fireworks go off after the Philharmonic's “Red, White and Boom” concert.
“I thought it was going to take more residential in downtown, more corporate relocations,” he said.
“But if the right people start getting excited about what Oklahoma City has to offer, I think the arts and cultural entities are going to start seeing benefits faster than I ever thought it was going to happen.”