The Gillioz Theatre Gives an Old Space New Life

Geoff Steele continually recreates the community-focused purpose of the Gillioz Theatre. Next on the agenda, offering space at the historic theater for other organizations with a creative focus.

by Susan Atteberry Smith

Jan 2024

Gillioz Theatre workspace
Photo by Brandon AlmsThe newly finished lobby of the The Third Floor in the Gillioz Theatre features a poster wall, seating area, and custom artwork. Purchase Photo

The historic Gillioz Theatre on Park Central Square has long staged a variety of performers, from comedy acts to country music and rock and roll bands.

Now, an eclectic group of local arts organizations is under the roof of the 97-year-old theater, too, setting the stage for more collaboration—and the promise of more one-of-a-kind performances.

With a new name to match its expanded mission, the Gillioz Center for Arts & Entertainment opened a renovated third floor to its first tenant last May. That’s when Ozarks Lyric Opera moved there from The Creamery Arts Center.

By last November, film nonprofit SATO48, veterans arts foundation Two Black Ravens and the Missouri Jazz Orchestra, or MOJO, had moved up to The Third Floor, too, filling three of seven available offices.

“Of course, we’re marketing people, so we said, ‘Let’s not call it something else, let’s just call it what it is: It’s The Third Floor,’” Gillioz Executive Director Geoff Steele says of the name etched into the frosted glass entry to the industrial-style office space.

Doors open to a waiting area wall of large photographs, one of Springfield native Michael Spyres performing Pagliacci for the opera. Painted by a Two Black Ravens artist, a portrait of actor and fellow native Brad Pitt hangs opposite the photos, near a wallpapered wall of previous event posters.

After a local church moved out of the building in March, a private grant from Springfield’s Hatch Foundation funded the reconfiguration and remodeling of the space, once occupied by Ozarks Technical Community College’s Department of Art, Design and Humanities.

Before the renovation, Steele says, “I had multiple employees who didn’t have a desk at all. I was in a closet on the second floor. It was a huge problem, but I didn’t need the whole floor, and so I said, ‘What could we do?’”

Then, he realized that renting the rest of the floor was a way to solve a problem for other arts organizations needing not only office but meeting space.

Now, Steele and other center employees work together on one side, while tenant arts organizations occupy individual offices. Conference rooms, office equipment and a kitchen are shared.

Besides easy access to the theater, tenants also have access to Gillioz “eventologists” offering help with planning as well as promotions, Steele says. In November, for example, the Gillioz was working with MOJO Executive Director Randy Hamm to coordinate that group’s holiday show.

Reflecting on the opera’s “Opera Rocks!” concert with the M-Dock Band last spring, Steele says future collaboration among Springfield arts groups could strengthen all.

“My primary responsibility is to keep this 97-year-old institution not only alive but thriving,” he says. “So when you’re looking around and being part of the arts community, you’re thinking, ‘Well, how can I meet my mission and along the way make the others stronger as well?’”

Lessons in Nonprofit Leadership

A couple of years after becoming executive director of the Gillioz in 2014, Geoff Steele realized the nonprofit could not survive on ticket sales alone. With some good advice, he has been able to chart a new course for the historic theater. “My biggest mistake when I came here was not really focusing on the fact that the Gillioz is a 501c3 nonprofit,” Steele says.

“And that was a critical mistake, because most theaters like this, 45 to 60 percent of the revenue comes through donations, grants, sponsorships, endowments. We had less than 2 percent when I arrived. And so the sustainability was really in question. People from other theaters across the country thought it was amazing that I was surviving on our ticket sales, but the truth is nobody does that.” Experts with the League of Historic American Theatres advised Steele to be more direct in asking patrons for donations. Advocating for the theater in emails and other communications has worked, he says. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, revenue from donations has increased to 35 percent of the center’s budget.