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The Tower's Great Experiment: The theater's new chief wants to get your butt in a seat 

click to enlarge The Tower's new number one, Ray Solley: The Tower's new number one, Ray Solley.
  • The Tower's new number one, Ray Solley: The Tower's new number one, Ray Solley.
The Tower's new number one, Ray Solley.
After scouring the nation, just as they said they would, the Tower's board of directors have settled on an executive director to replace Eli Ashley in the form of Ray Solley, who comes to Bend from the Los Angeles-area city of Torrance. Solley has been at the helm of the Torrance Cultural Arts Center Foundation and also had a long career in the television industry.

But he didn't merely work in television, he was one of the creators of arguably the greatest amateur-athlete-against-pro-athlete-all-spandex programs of all time: American Gladiators. We're talking the original version, not the recently cancelled revamped edition on NBC hosted by a bloated Hulk Hogan and including at least one gladiator who howled like a wild animal. That's right - the jewel of Bend's downtown and the center of all things sophisticated in Bend is now under the supervision of the man who gave us American Gladiators.

"The initial concept was that it was people living out their dreams, but all in all, it's looked back upon as this weird pop culture phenomenon," Solley says of the program.

Could we see a foam pyramid and/or jousting platforms on the Tower stage soon? Probably not -something like that probably wouldn't fit within the Tower's cozy confines - something that Solley views as both a blessing and a bane.

"One really good thing about the theater is that it's 475 seats, but one of the bad things about it is that it's 475 seats," he says.

Solley's main objective at this point, to be brief, is to get you into the Tower.

"I think that everyone in Bend should have a reason to come in the theater at least once a year," Solley says from Southern California before making his way up to Bend this week. "We will never be all things to all people, but you have to be accessible."

Solley says that any changes at the Tower early in his tenure will likely be more "evolutionary than revolutionary," and has clearly done his homework on the Tower. Although he hasn't yet settled in Bend, he can recite nearly every event the theater has hosted over the last year and seems to have the upcoming schedule tattooed on his brain. He also is familiar with the status the building has in the city.

"There's a feeling that here is this 1940's art-deco icon with an imposing entrance, and it's not Broadway, but there's a notion that you're at the heart of the artistic community," Solley says.

While the sub-500 seating capacity surely makes for an intimate show and leaves hardly a bad seat in the house, it does pose some logistical problems, Solley says. Less seats for a high-profile act can mean higher ticket prices (or the inability to book such acts at all), which in turn makes it more difficult to work toward a more inclusive venue.

"We're never going to be the Les Schwab Amphitheater. In a way we're an experiment, we've got 475 seats and we're trying to send you out the door saying, 'Wow, that was an amazing experience,''' Solley says.

The other challenge for the Tower is weathering the economic downturn that has put other local non-profits in financial straits.

"The Tower marquee is not an ATM, even if it is a landmark in this town. Now is ironically the time for individuals to carve out some money for the arts," Solley says.

Solley and others hope that Bendites will carve out money for the arts in these down economic times, and people - hopefully more people and different people, as Solley says-will continue to pass through the Tower doors...even if the marquee never reads "American Gladiators: Live at the Tower."

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