10-year-old venue has grown into major mecca for performing arts at the beach
By Pam George
Special to Delaware Business Times
You’d expect to see comedian Jay Leno, The O’Jays, Ben Harper, Chicago and Blues Traveler in Philadelphia. It would be a coup to catch even a few of these acts at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington. But this summer, all of the above are performing at the Freeman Stage at Bayside, an open-air venue in Selbyville, just west of Fenwick Island.
While Firefly has been stealing the lion’s share of the musical limelight in Delaware, the Freeman Stage has quietly grown into a reputable arts facility. Founded in 2007, the venue hosted about 14,000 patrons during its first season in 2008. The number soared to 25,000 in 2011 and 62,000 in 2016. Since opening its doors, The Freeman Stage has hosted a total of more than 322,000 people.
Along with gaining the audience’s applause, the facility has benefitted the local economy.
“Since 2008, the Freeman Stage has injected $13 million into the local economy, and event ticket purchasers have come from 42 of the 50 states,” said Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism.
The setting is part of the attraction, he continued. “When you attend a performance at the Freeman Stage … you are treated to world-class entertainment, but you are also captivated by the setting and communal feel of the venue.”
The Freeman Stage is operated by the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation, and credit for the nonprofit’s success largely goes to two savvy businesswomen, Michelle Freeman and Patti Grimes.
“They’re an inspiration to business people,” said Scott Kammerer, president of SoDel Concepts, a concert sponsor, and the owner of nine coastal restaurants. “They’ve seamlessly blended a charity that brings arts education to the community and under-served children in Sussex County with a business model that brings world-class entertainment to Delaware.”
The roots of a legacy
Raised in tiny Boonsboro, Maryland, Grimes majored in political science and public administration and minored in business at James Madison University.
She joined the Carl M. Freeman Cos. as a controller in 1984. The company is responsible for the Sea Colony community in South Bethany Beach, Village of Bear Trap Dunes in Ocean View and Bayside, a golf course community.
Grimes worked her way up to vice president of sales and marketing for Sea Colony, the Preserve, The Cove, Bear Trap Dunes and Bayside. In a 1986 photo of the company’s leaders, Grimes is the only woman.
Born in Wilmington,
Michelle DiFebo Freeman and sister Lisa DiFebo-Osias grew up spending summers in Bethany Beach. Both decided to live at the beach full time. DiFebo-Osias opened DiFebo’s restaurant. Freeman got her real estate license and a job at Sea Colony, where the single mom met her husband-to-be, Joshua M. Freeman, the boss’s son.
Sudden tragedy hit the family and the company’s leadership not once but twice. Carl M. Freeman died in a car accident in 1998. Josh died in December 2006 in a helicopter crash. He was 42. Michelle Freeman, who had three young children, took his place in the company. She also became chairman of the Carl M. Freeman Foundation, which was founded in 1960 as a private grant-making organization.
Josh, who grew up surrounded by the arts-and-culture scene in the D.C. area, had always planned on building a gathering place with a small theater in Bayview. After his death, Freeman took the plan to the next level. She created the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation to bring entertainment to culture-starved Sussex County, where a trip to see a performance in D.C. could take from two to three hours one way.
Freeman recalled her own days of being a single mom on a fixed income in southern Delaware. “The opportunity to take Nick to anything that was cultural … was nonexistent,” she said. Growing up in a middle-class family, she’d also lacked opportunities to interact with the arts. Being with Josh had opened that world
“I personally loved it,” she said. “I loved the music of opera, even if I hadn’t been exposed to it before. It brought me hope.”
Freeman, chairman and president of the foundation, and Grimes brainstormed a summer program that would appeal to audiences regardless of income or race. On March 1, 2008, Freeman asked Grimes to make it happen by Memorial Day. Grimes, who had no experience in entertainment programming, got down to work. The Freeman Stage debuted on June 15.
Diversity and divas
Initially, The Freeman Stage offered the type of performers that you might see at the bandstands in Bethany and Rehoboth — only the guests didn’t need to brave the beach crowds to see them.
Community and state performers remain an important part of the programming, but by 2010, the board had high ambitions. “We wanted national recording artists who previously were not available here,” Grimes said. In 2011, the Freeman Stage showcased LeAnn Rimes. “We predicted that an artist from the country genre would appeal to our local patrons, and it did,” said Grimes, who joined the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation full time in 2009. (She became the executive director of both foundations in 2010.) It was such a positive experience that the Freeman Stage booked more headliner acts, including the B-52s, Lyle Lovett, Pat Benatar, Heart and Yo-Yo Ma.
The increase in headliner acts and the attendance led to the new stage that will debut this season. At more than 16,000 square feet, the mobile stage is double the size of the previous platform. It is also nearly double the height at the midline, and there are wings on both sides.
“It allows for better lighting,” Grimes explained. “It allows us to do some rigging, and, truly, it allows us to have a band like Tedeschi Trucks on June 17 … which has 12 musicians on the stage. Or, when we have a double-header, we can accommodate two bands.” The new stage will help attract even more headliner acts.
“Tribute bands,” which perform the music of well-known pop music groups, can elicit nearly the same enthusiasm as the actual artists. This season, tribute bands include Kashmir (Led Zeppelin) and Hollywood Nights (Bob Seger).
Dancers, magicians, symphonies, jugglers, Shakespearean actors and local artists will also take the stage this summer. While many performances have a fee, there are several free events for all audience members, as well as events with free admission for children. (A free Saturday morning series for children is a schedule staple.)
Keeping the lights on
Ticket sales alone do not pay for performances and the school outreach programs, which to date have reached 19,000 children in nine school districts in Delaware and Worcester County.
The foundation competes for grants from regional arts-funding organizations, corporate foundations, and county, state and federal sources and holds annual fundraisers, such as the White Party, arguably the hottest gala event in Sussex during the summer.
The Freeman Stage has individual and corporate stage sponsorships. Of the 20 original sponsors, 19 still contribute. In all, there are 340. “Without them, we wouldn’t be able to offer free programming,” Grimes said.
Because there are so few major corporations in the area, small businesses make up the bulk of the sponsors. Freeman said it’s more challenging to raise money in Sussex County than in D.C., where she is also active in philanthropy. The population in coastal Delaware is mostly seasonal, she explained, and some people with vacation homes aren’t as invested in this area as they are in their primary communities.
The threat to the funding of the National Endowment for the Arts leaves Freeman heartbroken, she said. “Something I value — that I see bringing joy and hope to people — isn’t valued by others. That’s the first response. The second has to be: How do I answer this challenge? If I’m truly committed to the idea of the arts changing lives and if I truly believe that children who are exposed to the arts think differently about life then how committed am I? We need to take a stand and have a voice as it relates to the arts.”
Grimes is no stranger to state legislators or Capitol Hill.
The dedication to the mission will be critical as the Freeman Stage gears up for a capital campaign to build the Coastal Arts Pavilion at Freeman Park, a $25-to-$27 million venue that will incorporate the existing property. It will take up to six years to create.
The customer comes first
The new venue is a response to what the community needs and wants, Grimes said. As seasoned business executives, she and Freeman have always kept their finger on the pulse of their customers. “The audience’s experience starts when they leave their house,” Freeman said. Everything from the parking to the ticket-taking to the seating is carefully considered to please the guest.
The Freeman Stage takes the same approach with the artists. “It’s super important to us that the artist has a great place to play,” said Freeman, a minority partner in Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns Verizon Center, Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics. If Lyle Lovett wants a crab cake, he gets it. If the artists’ families want to go crabbing, the staff will get them to the docks.
As for-profit executives, Grimes and Freeman also know that it’s important to nurture employees and not just focus on the bottom line. The investment in a new stage, for instance, takes the stress off of the staff, who in the past had to get creative to accommodate large bands and elaborate staging. (Not that there’s anything wrong with invention under pressure, added Freeman, who said she values opportunity to solve problems.)
Finally, the women and their colleagues are seeking to create a foundation and a performing arts venue that will last far into the future. “You can’t run a business if you know you’re going to blow through your cash,” Freeman said. “You need to have a three-year plan, five-year plan and 10-year plan.”
It’s a big year for Freeman, who turned 50 and is marking the anniversary of her husband’s death along with the birthday of the foundation that he inspired. “You want to leave a legacy that is sound,” Freeman said. “I’m in the business of spreading the arts and bringing joy to people. I think Josh and Carl would look at me and say: That’s what you’re responsible for, Michelle. Continue to bring the business acumen to philanthropy.”