Journalism won’t die if you donate. Support Voice of San Diego today!
Jamie Sutton was selling Christmas.
The 31-year-old businessman dreamed of fathering an epic tradition in San Diego, the Christmas-only version of popular but religion-neutral events like Balboa Park’s December Nights. Last summer, he made his way around town wooing vendors and performers, painting them into his Rockwellian vision.
For a debut event, he snagged an impressive lineup. He secured the San Diego Ballet to perform the entire two-hour Nutcracker. He had carolers. A mariachi band. A veteran brass quintet agreed to play, a theater troupe would perform, and the San Diego Master Chorale signed on to sing.
The yuletide smorgasbord would spill over offstage, too. Sutton envisioned a winter wonderland complete with a snow hill, live reindeer, actors embodying Nativity characters, a forest of Christmas trees, Santa Claus and horse carriage rides.
Sutton was sick of the inclusive nature of events that celebrate other traditions and holidays. He wanted to put Christ back in the holiday, he said. To provide a space where people could say “Merry Christmas.”
But the groups he hired harbor different words for him now. The event, A Christmas Tabernacle, turned into a holiday nightmare. The four-day event in Liberty Station in December drew a slim portion of the 20,000 to 30,000 ticket buyers Sutton had forecasted. Now the group of professional and side-job artists and small business owners are out thousands of dollars and don’t know what to expect.
When your business is Christmas, losing money on a December weekend is demoralizing and painful.
“My deer got Scrooged,” said Diana Frieling, owner of California Reindeer Rentals in central California. “I don’t have the heart to tell them.”
Situations like these stick with ballerinas and choir directors, leaving them wary of the next guy to come along selling a rosy vision of an event they could join. Sutton spoke in superlatives, dreamed big and hyped bigger. He promised some proceeds would go to big-name charities like Rady Children’s Hospital — a connection he hoped would draw thousands of attendees from the hospital’s network. He touted his friendships with churchgoers, imagining aloud that throngs from the region’s megachurches would show up to celebrate the event’s Christian elements.
He promised a multitude. Only a fraction showed up.
In many cases, performing groups and vendors had protections in place, like requiring deposits before the event. But when they got the runaround, most just assumed Sutton and his team were busy. In a rough economy, they went forward on good faith. And with the smell of kettle corn and funnel cake in the air, maybe they wanted to believe the event would be the success Sutton forecasted. They looked around and saw a giant stage and other performers, and they went for it.
“Somewhere along the line, I was captivated,” said David Scovel, the event stage manager. Scovel didn’t get paid for his work organizing more than two dozen acts and running the entertainment logistics during the event.
“I liked the idea and I wanted it to work,” Scovel said. “I remember thinking it’d be really cool to say I was part of the first time.”
A Blustery Trapeze Act
It was pouring. Cold, wet and nervous, vendors set up their wares for a Thursday evening VIP night for the weekend. The giant 40-by-50-foot stage would showcase a preview of all of the acts planned for the weekend. As they sound-checked, singers and dancers were pelted with sideways rain.
The next day, winds reached 40 miles per hour. Scovel watched trapeze aerialists reach for their ribbon supports as the wind blew them around. He told the act they wouldn’t be able to perform; the weather was too dangerous.
Meanwhile, ticket-takers at the door charged $18 per adult and $12 per child.
The entertainment was one of the chief things Sutton factored in the ticket price. But throughout the weekend, audiences only filled tiny portions of the more than 1,000 chairs set up. When the Master Chorale performed on Saturday night, only about 20 people sat to watch, swallowed by a sea of empty chairs.
The choir’s executive director, Joanne Couvrette, had combed the frenetic festival looking for Sutton before the performance. She’d even driven to his office days before to get her deposit. When she didn’t get it, she’d asked her colleagues: Should we perform? But they’d already spent money to pay the director, the arranger and the accompanist. If they canceled, they’d have no right to the money they were supposed to earn by singing.
The performance was great, she said. The choir had brought four teenagers to do theatrical readings and had teamed up with Westwind Brass quintet. But Couvrette was one of the only ones to hear it.
The performance was done by about 7:15 p.m. And then Couvrette waited by the business trailer.
“I was cold, I was wet, standing in the mud,” she said. “My strategy was to be in front of them with my hand out saying, ‘You’ve got to give me a check, you’ve got to give me a check.’”
But after two hours, Couvrette was getting nowhere. Fed up, she took her daughter and the other three teenage readers home. The group has still not been paid the $2,700 owed.
“Those little gigs really make us, they pay the bills and keep the lights on,” she said. “Everything they did led us to believe there was more behind them than there was.”
There are seemingly as many horror stories as groups on the event program.
Barry Toombs, the brass quintet’s head, didn’t get his group’s $1,400.
When the San Diego Ballet got up on Friday night to perform the full Nutcracker, the 100-or-so dancers on stage seemed to outnumber the people in the audience. The company trucked all of its costumes down to the event and back from UCSD where the dancers were performing “The Nutcracker” the rest of the weekend. And co-director Robin Sherertz Morgan said she’s out the money she paid her professional dancers to perform.
Janet Hammer signed a contract to send some of her 60 carolers all four nights. It would be one of the 225 gigs her Full Measure Carolers group would book during the season. She wasn’t paid the $1,100 she was owed for those first two nights. She didn’t bring singers back Saturday or Sunday. She threatened to sue, which was the only thing that got Sutton to email her back. She’s paid the singers out of her own pocket, she said, and doesn’t know what she’ll do next.
George Duff’s company, Pacific Events Productions, set up the design for the event layout and managed some other pieces like lighting, equipment and sets. “We got screwed like everybody else,” he said.
“Jamie paints a great picture; he talks about his marketing, his interviews, his big team of people, his connectivity to the churches,” he said. “He talks a big picture like it’s all going to be successful, and he failed with his obligations to pay everyone.”
A Piece of a Meager Pie
These stories aren’t news to Sutton. He’s been hearing from people he’d built his dream with since mid-December. “I was in total tears when this thing happened for all the little stories that are involved,” he said.
“It was supposed to be this big event that brought Christmas back to San Diego,” he continued. “Instead it wound up hurting people. It was pretty devastating.”
Before this, Sutton’s experience has been in selling San Diego. He’s run marketing campaigns and slid slick tourism print and video materials into hotel rooms. This was the first kind of event like this he’d tried, but he put his PR hat on to launch a massive promotional offensive with spots on TV morning shows, ads on the radio and in print. His slick website featured animated snowflakes trickling over the text, Christmas music playing in the background and a video of ballerinas performing. He estimated the event could draw at least 10 percent of the typical December Nights crowd of more than 300,000.
Just to be safe, he did calculations based on getting just 10,000 people through the gate. But throughout the entire rainy, windy weekend, he drew more like 5,000 people.
“That worst-case scenario didn’t even come true,” he said. “It was just mind-boggling.”
He said the company spent more on advertising than it got back in ticket revenue. He and two partners invested about $300,000, he said. His goal was to hit at least $600,000 in revenue. He thinks he probably made about one-quarter of that. He declined to say how much money there is now to divvy up.
But, he said, “I didn’t take a dime. I’m not going to take a dime.”
Attorney Jerry Hemme took the case a couple of weeks ago. He said the company is trying to navigate the situation in the “best, most ethical way it can.” He’s planning to offer the groups a pro-rated share of whatever money’s left.
“No one’s going to recover all their money,” he said. “We’re choosing this route to try and maximize what’s there.”
But some vendors are still seething.
Frieling, who brought the reindeer, said she rents out 14 reindeer all over the state during December to raise money to rescue other animals and keep them on her land in central California. She told Sutton she’d bring two reindeer for four days for $6,000. She has a regular place to stay on Hotel Circle that lets her park her trailer near her room to make sure her animals are OK at night. But she only wound up with half of her contracted amount.
Frieling takes every dollar personally, she said. This month, the gap left by the loss of revenue hit especially hard.
“I just got a call about (rescuing) a bunch of horses and I’m not going to be able to do it,” she said. “Three thousand dollars is a lot of feed. I hate to let ’em go to slaughter.”
I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0531.
And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.