Marion Ross Performing Arts Center manager hangs up the hat

Published 10:00 am Saturday, February 25, 2023

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After a decade managing the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center, Neil Lang retired as building manager at the end of 2022, bringing with him a decade of memories with local, regional and national performers.

Lang started his role in early 2012, after his wife, Barbara, told him the city was looking for someone to run the day-to-day operations. The duo thought it would be a good fit, and Lang said it had been.

“I told the board that I’m interested, it’s right down my alley,” he said.

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Lang started the role at age 69, and knew he wanted to put a number on how long he’d be there. He decided on 80, a number he reached last August.

He described the decision to retire as “bittersweet” because of his passion for the work.

“It’s time to spend more time with my family, especially weekends, cause it ties up a lot of weekends,” he said.

One of his first acts was to set up an online ticket sales system, which he and his wife did with WizTix. They also made sure patrons could pay with credit cards, a process he called “an undertaking.”

Any entertainers he brings in weren’t guaranteed anything, a fact he admitted made it hard to bring in big name performers. Instead, the theater offers an 80% to 20% split on ticket sales. Performers were also responsible for setting their own prices.

Lang felt the most famous performer he brought to Albert Lea was country music singer Bill Anderson, someone Lang described as a “legend.”

“He’s been in Nashville since the early ’60s, writes songs for many, many artists,” he said. “I got him to agree to come. Of course, he filled the place, it sold out in just a few hours.”

Tickets were $35 for the show, and the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center can only seat 250 patrons at a time.

Besides ticket sales, he had to put bands together for artists without one, a situation he said happens.

“Tony Booth, he was in here,” he said. “I had the son of Earl Haggard, he was in here — the son of Conway Twitty.”

Besides booking and sales, he helped ensure every band had every piece of equipment they needed. During shows he was responsible for lighting and any sound enhancements. And after shows he locked up. Between his phone, computer and building, Lang estimated work was anywhere from six to 30 hours per week.His favorite shows were classic country and ’40s music, but his favorite part about the role was meeting some of his favorite musicians, such as Anderson.

Lang was also involved in the theater portion of the center, and it was his job to see every performance had the needed supplies. And when his wife directed musicals, he helped with equipment and did troubleshooting for any sound issues, and typically signed up to do the sound booth with lighting or sound effects when she was in the play.

He was also involved in helping Hope Church host services at the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center.

“They’re fantastic people, very trustworthy and easy to work with,” Lang said.

And in 2015 he helped set up a new public announcement system for plays, entertainers and (the now discontinued) Met: Live in HD programming. Lang also looked into the purchase of a screen projector.

“Pretty much everything that goes on here I’ve been pretty involved with,” he said.

He said you needed to have passion to do the job, and that passion has kept him in the music business.

“I don’t know any other way to explain it except it’s good for your soul,” he said.

Lang has been in the music business over 60 years, starting out with Denny Charnecki from Austin who performed shows for him.

“He’s done a lot of shows over the years and made lots of contacts for me, too,” he said.

He described himself as more involved in music and band, and first got involved in music with accordion lessons at age 9. From there, he learned to play a family guitar back in the late ’50s, and started a band after a week of marriage in 1961.

“Played all the clubs and bars and entertainment places in a 50-mile radius of Albert Lea,” he said.

But as he got older, the desire to haul equipment faded. And when he heard about the position, he thought it was a good fit.

“I get to be involved in music, plus we’ve put a lot of shows on,” he said.

Lang wanted to thank everyone in Albert Lea who came to a concert he helped bring in.

“Without them it just does not happen,” he said.

And even though he’s retiring, he said he would be willing to help whoever takes over the position, which hadn’t been filled as of the beginning of December. He also hopes the next manager continues with concerts.

“Before that all that came here was plays pretty much,” he said.

And he enjoyed the experience and met what he described as “wonderful” people.

“Over the years I’ve learned a greater respect for all kinds of music and developed better people skills as far as working with people,” he said. “Some people are easy to work with, others are not easy to work with. … In my position you have to try to get along with all of them and satisfy them, which always isn’t easy to do sometimes.”

During retirement Lang wants to take more short trips with his family.

“Thank you for the opportunity to serve,” he said.