NORMAL - One thing that Barb Dallinger has learned for certain in her 2 1/2 years booking the Stars on Stage series for Illinois State University's Braden Auditorium: We do love our country music here.
"These are the shows that have sold the best," says Dallinger, coordinator of programming ISU's dean of student's office.
That means you, Brad Paisley (the biggest seller of all), George Jones, Willie Nelson and the rest of the rustic gang who've passed through Braden since Dallinger began booking the Stars on Stage series in 2003.
But the Pantagraph-area native - raised in Morton and employed at ISU since 1991 - knows that Braden isn't the Grand Ole Opry.
And the series name, Stars on Stage, means more than Paisley, Jones and Nelson.
"I try to balance it out with a little of something for everyone," she says. "The one thing I've learned to appreciate is that my subscribers are very communicative with me. They call me, they send me e-mails and they stop me at concerts to tell me what they want. I really do appreciate that."
For example, she notes that one refrain this year "was my series is too heavy into music - and I'm in agreement. There was a little too much music. I'm a music major, so that was a good wake-up call for me to realize you really have to pay attention to what you're doing."
As a result, she says, "My goal next year is to branch out by adding more theater, comedy and specialty acts like magic and circuses."
Expect the results of that goal to be revealed this spring, probably around mid-to-late April.
When Dallinger took over her programming role at Braden, following the departure of the previous manager in the summer of 2003, "my main area of focus was to collaborate and work with promoters and agents to get ISU and Braden back on their radar."
In the summer of 2003, they weren't there in the way they needed to be. By the spring of 2006, she says, things have improved greatly.
If country sells well hereabouts, its opposite number, Dallinger has learned, is the more specialized area of dance.
"It's the hardest thing to sell," she says. "However, as a venue attached to a university, we feel we have a commitment to arts in the community and we do those anyway. If we can make enough money on a big-name act, then we can afford a dance or classical act that might lose money."
Though there is competition for the ticket dollar looming with the rebirth of the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts and the U.S. Cellular Coliseum, Dallinger doesn't seem concerned that her job will be made any tougher. It'll just require more communicating.
In fact, Dallinger says she is working closely with Bloomington Cultural District executive director Bruce Marquis, relaying her upcoming plans to him and vice versa.
"I have his entire season for next year, so we know who each other is talking to," she says. "We're making sure we don't schedule against each other."
Ultimately, "We have very different venues - he has 1,200 seats and I have 3,500."
As for the U.S. Cellular Coliseum, Dallinger says, "I think there are things they are going to be interested in doing that I have no interest in doing. For example, I can't do a major ice show, and I can't do major rock shows - I don't have the seats."
As she approaches her third year overseeing Braden's Stars on Stage programming, Dallinger says there are many elements of her job she has enjoyed and continues to enjoy.
From her backstage vantage point, she's learned that, "for the most part, the stars have been as nice as they can be. They're people on the road, and they have families, and they miss them, and they just want their dinner, and it's their downtime when they aren't on stage."
She's also learned that "the bigger they are, the less they seem to ask for," referring to the established likes of Bill Cosby and Jeff Foxworthy, who've passed through during her tenure and made life relatively easy through their simple wants.
There have also been some surprises, like last fall's disappointing sales for a pair of Whoopi Goldberg shows, which resulted in the first one being scrapped close to the wire.
"A tricky part of this job is that you just never know," Dallinger admits. "You do the research and you check with other (area) venues to see what is going on that same night. But you don't always know what you're going to be up against when you book early. So you just try to give it your best shot."
If the Goldberg booking was disappointing, there have been plenty of compensations at the other end of the spectrum, like, say the recent Boston Pops holiday concert.
"Usually, the time I get to be in the auditorium is very little for any of the shows," she says, referring to her backstage duties overseeing the big picture. "People always ask me how I liked the show, and I always say, 'Of the four minutes I saw, it was fabulous!' "
However, for the Pops, "I really wanted to hear 'Sleigh Ride.' So I made sure that I was out front in the house then. It was just me and my assistant Judy standing there with our arms around each other's shoulders listening to the Boston Pops playing 'Sleigh Ride' in our auditorium."
It was an epiphany, no less.
They both were so happy, they were crying.