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Out of the Shadows

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JPAS programs get the spotlight they deserve in a first-rate arts center

Before the Jefferson Performing Arts Society came along 31 years ago, parish residents headed to New Orleans for their holiday entertainment. But the JPAS has worked tirelessly “to create a cultural climate in the parish,” as co-founder and artistic director Dennis Assaf puts it, and the holiday season is a big part of that.

This year, the JPAS has two holiday shows in December: a production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, at Westwego Performing Arts Theatre, on December 6 and 7, and the perennial favorite Miracle on 34th Street, from December 5 to 14, at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center.

In addition to those theaters, the JPAS runs shows at Teatro Wego! Dinner Theatre. It operates year-round, bringing a wide range of national and

international tours and local productions to the parish. Although the work of the JPAS is highly praised, it is often overshadowed by the performing arts scene in New Orleans. That’s changing, however, now that the JPAS is building a state-funded $31 million performing arts center, slated to open in fall 2010, on Airline Highway next to Zephyr Field. The center represents a personal victory for Assaf, who has made it a major goal from the start. Recently I talked to the New Orleans native about the challenges and rewards of running the organization.

How did the JPAS get started?

Dennis Assaf, far right

In 1977, I took a job at Munholland Methodist Church on Metairie Road. I looked up and down the street and noticed six other churches within a mile. I thought it would be great to organize all the church choirs for Christmas of 1978, hire the New Orleans symphony and perform Handel’s Messiah. That September, our first rehearsal, 91 people showed up. I thought, ‘This is terrific,’ and decided to start a nonprofit arts organization. Singing in the Munholland Church choir at the time was a lady named Hannah Cunningham. I told her about my plans, and she joined me to form JPAS. What started out as an ecumenical community choir has turned into a nonprofit organization with a $2.5 million budget, over 160 performances a year, managing three theaters.

How did the performing arts center come about?

When we first started JPAS, there was no venue from which to do anything. I seized upon the goal of building our own center. The first brochure JPAS produced mentioned that goal. We’ve been preaching the same mantra for 31 years.

The thing that turned me into a militant about it was a 1997 article that former Governor Dave Treen wrote about the North Shore Performing Arts Society, which had been in existence for three years. The woman who founded it modeled it after JPAS. She did a great job, and it’s still around today. But the article stated that the group needed its own performing arts center and cited two bills in the legislature providing $25 million in funding to build it. JPAS was entering its 20th season and we still didn’t have our own center. I went ballistic. I wrote letters to the Jefferson Parish legislators saying, “How dare you vote on $25 million for St. Tammany? What have we been up to for the past 20 years?”

A few days later, I ran into State Senator Ken Hollis. I showed him the article and my letter and said, “I’ve been trying to get a performing arts center for 20 years here, and I’m frustrated. We need state funding.” He promised to make it a focal point of the next legislative session. That’s what got the ball rolling. I contacted Senate President John Hankel and [enlisted his help too.]

What benefits will the center bring to the parish?

In Jefferson Parish, $16 million in economic impact was generated by arts programs in 2002. People buy the tickets, go out to dinner, pay for parking, et cetera. In contrast, Orleans Parish, with roughly the same population, generated $316 million in economic impact that year. big reason for the disparity is that Orleans
Parish had at least 38 performing arts venues. In contrast, there were only five facilities in Jefferson. So, the center will have a big economic as well as cultural impact.

JPAS has a packed schedule every year.

This season we’re doing 14 productions. We are never dark; we perform every month of the year. And we present a wide range of productions, including operas, Broadway musicals and American premieres, the Moscow Boys Choir and dance companies like Alvin Ailey.

How has it been building an audience?

It’s been difficult. There are other theater, ballet and opera companies in the metropolitan area and another orchestra, and more people know about the New Orleans organizations. Even after 31 years, there are people here—even arts consumers—who’ve never heard of JPAS. One of the reasons is that we perform in a high school auditorium. People don’t give it a chance. But we’ve done major repairs to the [East Jefferson] auditorium, which we call the Jefferson Performing Arts Center. We’ve built the second-largest orchestra pit in the metropolitan area and put in approximately 800 beautiful padded theater seats. So when you come, you’ll sit in a comfortable seat and see a quality production.

Is public awareness changing now that the center is being built?

Yes. I always said, “Build the center. They will come.” And, now that people know we’re getting the new theater, they are starting to come to our productions.

For more information, visit www.jpas.org.