Catching up with Tower Theatre co-operator Chad Whitehead
Stephen Tyler and Chad Whitehead set out on a mission for their community in 2017. They were asked to reopen the Tower Theatre as a place for live music and civic events.
In a quick rush from April to August of that year, they managed to make the building into a concert venue, and now it’s a destination in the historic Uptown 23rd Street District.
Whitehead and Tyler are also trying to get companies and party planners to see Tower as a destination for their next event.
Since opening, Tower has made a dent in the city’s and state coffers, with nearly $500,000 being collected in sales and mixed-beverage taxes. The little-venue-that-could started with Tyler and Whitehead running the show and now there are 27 employees.
“The best part of the job is knowing we’re making it happen,” said Whitehead.
In its two years, there have been 686 events at the venue, though most are concerts, with more than 130,000 tickets sold. Most people are coming from the metro to shows, though there have been tickets purchased from Tulsa and Dallas.
Within those nearly 700 shows, they’ve already seen acts return, which is a huge win for the duo.
Whitehead said he knows that bands can choose to play wherever they want and likely can get more money at other venues.
“One of my favorite things is booking a band that’s not been to Oklahoma City in 20 years,” he said. “What’s even more meaningful than that is when they want to come back.”
Groups that have played multiple times include Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, The Mavericks, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Charlie Crockett, and Steve Earle and The Dukes.
“It’s a real stamp of approval for the Tower Theatre and Uptown 23rd and the hospitality of Oklahoma City that these bands want to come back. It’s not just about the money for them. The fact that they’re not skipping Oklahoma City anymore is a really big deal.”
Whitehead said he and Tyler try to book shows that the whole state will enjoy and not just groups that suit their personal tastes. Whitehead still gets excited about any band they sign on to play.
“The economic impact is very very real,” he said. “You don’t make people mad when you book a concert. If people don’t like a band, they just don’t care. The people that notice and like that band: You just made their day. They didn’t know that announcement was coming and all of a sudden you have them something to look forward to.”
Whitehead said one of the most meaningful bookings was getting Thundercat on the stage. It took nearly three years for the group to agree to come to town. He said it’s also fun to get masters like Steve Earle on the stage as well.
Then, there are the shows that Whitehead isn’t too sure about, but they turn out to be a success, like the American indie rock band Built to Spill.
“The place was packed out with people that wanted to reminisce and watch an old band from 20 years ago,” he said.
Seeing how that show went is something he can share with his colleagues at The Granada Theater in Dallas. The Granada and the Tower signed onto a partnership in late 2018. Whitehead said the agreement is more about being able to share best practices, strategies and advice. The live music-booking industry is competitive so it can be difficult to get another venue booker to share ideas.
“That relationship gives us a lot of strength,” he said.
Besides live music, the Tower has become a place for civic events, such as election watch parties or rallies to encourage development of more bicycle lanes. It’s also held more personal events, such as weddings, wakes and funerals. The venue can hold 600 people seated and 1,000 people with an open floor.
“So many people have these dreams of throwing a crazy 40th or crazy 50th birthday,” he said. “This is the best place for you to book that artist that you’ve always loved to come in and play for your birthday or play for your corporate party.”
Above the main venue floor is the Tower’s historic movie theater. The historic seats have been repadded and reupholstered, but they're now surrounded by a state-of-the-art sound system to make the movie-viewing experience top notch.
The Tower was selling single tickets for each screening, but it’s changed its model. For $10 a month, people can join The Projector Club and watch as many movies as they’d like. Tyler has plans to show everything from new releases to cult classics. Cancellation is available at any time.