Some people get a brief transition period in a new job, training with the person they’re replacing. Fortunately, Lance Sadlek gets 23 months, as new executive director of the RiverCenter and Adler Theatre.

He is succeeding Rick Palmer, a 63-year-old native of Marion, Iowa (near Cedar Rapids), who earlier this year, requested the opportunity to concentrate exclusively on programming the Adler Theatre as its general manager. Palmer plans to retire in November 2024, when he’s 65. He started with the city-owned facility in 1997 (as assistant to the director), becoming the head honcho in 2005.

Rick Palmer, right, has worked for RiverCenter/Adler Theatre since 1997, and Lance Sadlek comes to the facility after heading Galvin Fine Arts Center at St. Ambrose since 1991 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

VenuWorks – based in Ames, Iowa — formed in 1997, and the city of Davenport began that year to contract with the private firm to manage RiverCenter/Adler Theatre. It manages about 40 arenas, theaters, and convention centers across the country (most owned by municipalities).

“Private management brings a specialized skill set to a specialized industry,” Palmer said recently, noting it’s “an economic impact leader for our community.”

“You’re going to find almost every convention center has a pretty good sized subsidy to it,” he said of public funding. In Davenport’s case, it’s mainly paid from hotel-motel taxes.

Before coming to Davenport, Palmer worked in Cedar Rapids for the former US Cellular Center (now the Alliant Energy PowerHouse), and Evansville, Ind. (there for year), until VenuWorks started as Compass Facility Management.

He graduated from Coe College, Cedar Rapids, and was familiar with the Bix jazz fest and Blues Fest in Davenport. “I’ve always been a fan of live music. I was a connoisseur before I came here to manage it,” Palmer said.

The Adler (formerly the 1931 RKO Orpheum movie theater) underwent a major renovation before reopening in November 1986. Lance Sadlek (former executive director of the Galvin Fine Arts Center at St. Ambrose University since 1991) was past chairman of the RiverCenter advisory board.

The 2,400 seat Adler Theatre (136 E. 3rd St., Davenport) originally opened in 1931 as the RKO Orpheum movie house (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Sadlek was on the advisory board (which no longer exists) from 1997 to 2017, working on the facility budget, meeting monthly, discussing capital projects and programming.

A 63-year-old native of southern Illinois, he has worked at University of Wisconsin-Platteville (as assistant director of student activities), and Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, running the student union, with a 1,500-seat auditorium.

Sadlek did his undergrad degree at MacMurry College in central Illinois and master’s at Eastern Illinois University.

“I really enjoyed working with academia and faculty,” he said recently, noting his biggest satisfaction was running the Galvin performing arts series, and working with different SAU departments, including commencement ceremonies in the 1,100-seat auditorium.

“Being that gatekeeper of all the events coming into the Galvin Fine Arts Center, keeping all the arts aligned with the different departments in the building,” Sadlek said. Each year, Galvin hosted 60-70 student groups and events, and 10-15 outside visiting artists.

He not only managed the Allaert Auditorium, but the 100-seat Madsen Hall, plus a 55-seat black box theater.

Galvin is not really a competitor with the 2,400-seat Adler for events, but he and Palmer would both attend the Association for Performing Arts Presenters meetings.

Fulfilling a 31-year dream

Sadlek said he’s dreamed of working for the Adler and RiverCenter since he first saw it in 1991.

“I’ve got to feel the impact of this facility and I want to do some wonderful things,” he said in the recent interview. “Given the opportunity in ’97, to serve on the advisory board and I became president. During that year, I launched the marquee campaign (for the Adler) that we had.”

“Applying and getting the position is a dream and I feel well-prepared for what the university has given me in the last 31 years,” Sadlek said. “I am very invested in this community. I’ve got those great contacts, which I think can help this place prosper.”

The Galvin Fine Arts Center (at Locust and Gaines streets) has a 1,100-seat auditorium.

One of the best aspects of the new job is that he will get a nearly two-year transition, alongside Palmer.

“I would not only have the management expertise, helping me in this new endeavor, but working with Rick – Rick has developed a great team of people here,” Sadlek said. “They’re very well experienced and they really care about this facility.”

That has made his transition in the last two weeks in the job very smooth.

“I’ll learn a lot from him and we’ll learn a lot from each other on this,” Sadlek said. “We’re both the same age, so we get along pretty well. I’m just looking forward to this being an amazing, easy transition for me, as I’m looking for those opportunities and ways to make all these facilities very impactful for the community.”

The RiverCenter is marketed as a 100,000-square-foot venue and includes two large exhibit halls, 10 breakout rooms, executive boardroom and the historic art-deco Adler Theatre.

Originally built in 1983, the RiverCenter (the current north building) opened as a state-of-the-art convention center with an open industrial look. The original facility provided approximately 20,500 square feet of flexible meeting space including the Mississippi Hall, Atrium, and six breakout rooms. Ten years later, a feasibility study determined that the RiverCenter could be expanded.

The RiverCenter is connected to both the Adler, and the Hotel Blackhawk (right), which first opened in 1915 and had a $46-million renovation completed in 2010 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

A 49,000-square-foot expansion addition known as the south building was completed in the fall of 1993. A skywalk connected the two buildings; it was the first skywalk in Davenport’s history.

Palmer always planned to retire at 65 and wants to focus more on his hobbies, including fishing and woodcarving.

The city renewed its VenuWorks contract, which runs 2022 to 2026. “I wanted to be real transparent that I wasn’t gonna be the executive director at the end of this contract,” he said. “I could stay here and help lead it, but at some point there’s gonna be a transition.”

Palmer wanted to focus on the Adler programming and VenuWorks wanted to have a smooth transition for the new executive director.

“Time for a change”

“It’s time for a change, it’s time for some fresh ideas,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for a long time. I stand behind our track record – we’ve done pretty well, but it’s a team effort, with the city, myself, with Steve Peters of VenuWorks. It’s a lot of communication, it’s how we work best for the common goal.”

There were many applications for the job and made sense to choose Sadlek, Palmer said.

“Lance had worked with me as chair of the RiverCenter advisory board,” he said. “We’ve had a working relationship. We’re both out in the community, we know each other. It’s an important aspect of this job – not only knowing this building, but what’s going on in the community.”

Sadlek counted a spectacular Chinese national dance troupe as a highlight at Galvin, with about 70 dancers on stage. He also enjoyed mid-‘90s show of Peter Schickele as P.D.Q. Bach.

A highlight for Palmer at the Adler was the first week-long Broadway tour run of “Jersey Boys,” in April 2015.

The Broadway tour of the “Jersey Boys” musical played a full week at the Adler in April 2015.

The $15-million Adler renovation and expansion (completed in 2006) was done while the city relinquished ownership to the private, nonprofit RiverCenter for the Performing Arts (RCPA). That allowed it to secure $9 million in historic tax credits to pay for the project, Palmer said.

“That theater expansion really had to do with the stage, to make the stage bigger so we could do bigger Broadway shows,” he said. “Before that, we couldn’t do first-run Broadway shows because we couldn’t meet their criteria for space.”

That included improvements in dressing rooms, sound and lighting equipment. Once the project was finished, the facility (which was closed from June 2005 to November 2006) reverted back to city ownership.

“This year, we’re doing a lot of classics, because that’s frankly all the inventory that was out there,” Palmer said of Broadway at the Adler. “You’ll see next season development of more contemporary.”

“The classics are always great, don’t get me wrong. That’s the reason they’re classics,” Palmer said. “Our relationship we’ve developed with the various promoters throughout the country…we’ve been successful and we’ve been strong enough so when you pick up the phone, you get answers.”

“I’ve always looked at it not as ‘That’s what I like, so that’s what I’m gonna book,’” he explained. “I need to book what is popular, what people want to see. If it’s in my wheelhouse, great. If it’s not, that’s just fine because I want people to come. We’re working hard on our diversity, talking with the Trust about maybe developing a new grant program.”

The Adler saw big increases in attendance for the Broadway series after the renovations, Palmer said. “Subscriber numbers are strong, not as strong as Des Moines I will admit,” he said. “Broadway shows are expensive.”

There are over 50 stagehands required for each production, costing over $25,000 alone.

One big-name Adler show in recent years was Steve Martin and Martin Short in June 2019.

Palmer said the holiday season attendance for the 2022 Festival of Trees and “The Nutcracker” was “superb,” though he hasn’t seen final numbers yet.

Ballet Quad Cities performed “The Nutcracker” at the Adler over the weekend of Dec. 9, 2022.

“Based on what we saw, we’re well into pre-COVID numbers for attendance for Festival,” he said. “It was very busy, well-attended. It’s a great event – 36 years going on.”

“It’s amazing what kind of effect COVID had on this industry, and the recovery,” Sadlek said. “There are a lot of theaters that are shuttered now.”

Palmer noted it’s been especially tough for entertainment venues and restaurants to recover that disposable income among consumers, especially when people have more choices in the marketplace.

“I feel fortunate that we’re in the state of Iowa, that took a more business approach to this,” he said of COVID restrictions not as harsh in Iowa versus in Illinois. “It was frustrating and challenging. At the same time, we were able to keep six people on our payroll and not send them to the unemployment line. Those are things that I look at, the real hard struggles.”

Funding changes

The RCPA (which operates the Adler Theatre Foundation) is now under the Quad Cities Cultural Trust. In November, the QCCT approved $245,000 in new grants for the Adler – to support the Broadway series, concerts, comedy shows and urban plays that appeal to the African-American, Latino and LGBTQ communities.

Some of the confirmed Broadway shows include “Legally Blonde” (which was Nov. 20, 2022), “Stomp” (Jan. 19, 2023), “Hairspray” (Jan. 31, 2023), “My Fair Lady” (March 8, 2023), and “Annie” (May 10, 2023).

“We’re doing well,” Palmer said of the QCCT. “We have about $6 million that we need to invest in the RiverCenter side – new flooring, new walls, new lighting.”

The 36th annual Festival of Trees in November 2022 was a big success for the RiverCenter.

The city has invested in the last few years, replacing the HVAC in the RiverCenter, as well as exterior doors and the roof. “All the bones are really good in the building now; we’re not suffering from those issues,” Palmer said.

The RiverCenter needs other improvements for convention center events, including being more inviting. “Our facility is a little institutional looking and we’d like to be able to get up with the times, with what other convention centers are doing.”

Balancing act in programming

Sadlek added that choosing shows and events is a tricky business.

“The fact that you have to have your finger on the pulse of not only the area, but what area presenters are doing,” he said. “I think we’re very well-positioned.”

Sadlek is involved with Iowa presenters groups, which over Zoom has felt like group therapy, he said. “We were really working through a lot.”

Sadlek, left, and Palmer in the RiverCenter on Dec. 23, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“I see my role as being a collaborator – somebody who can help work with those users, utilizing their creativity to hopefully bring special things to all our facilities here,” he said.

The RiverCenter building improvements are yet to be scheduled, Palmer said. He’s in discussions with the Cultural Trust to potentially fund more of the capital, building needs.

In late 2024, Sadlek will likely add a staff person in marketing. The RiverCenter executive chef is being promoted in VenuWorks, so Sadlek will need to replace him.

In mid-January, RiverCenter will be hosting a major pool tournament.

A sculpture outside the Col. Davenport Room at the city-owned RiverCenter (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“The convention business has changed. There’s not as much corporate business in our world anymore,” Palmer said, noting many meet virtually now since the pandemic. “We do a lot of community events, whether it’s HAVlife, Big Brothers Big Sisters, a lot of weddings. We’re still getting banquet business.”

They also work closely with Visit Quad Cities to fill the facilities with events.

With all the improvements happening in downtown Davenport, Palmer said the market has never been more competitive.

“That’s not a complaint; that can be a good thing,” he said. “I think it forces you to be the best you can be, to stay competitive. We’ve certainly held our own here. Our last season for Broadway saw some of the strongest numbers, as far as percentages across the board in our recovery year. They’re elated to be partners with us.”

After retiring, Florida does not beckon — he plans to stay in Iowa. “I kayaked maybe three times last year; that’s not enough,” Palmer said. “I should be out there once a week if I can. Those are the things I’m gonna do.”

Sadlek said this is a good next chapter for him, with no eye towards retirement.

He’s also been a fan of “The Nutcracker” and Quad City Symphony concerts at the Adler.

Though it was before his time, Palmer is especially proud that the hard-rock band KISS included tracks in its landmark “Alive” double live album from its July 20, 1975 concert at the Adler (then the RKO Orpheum).

“The Quad Cities had some neat stuff,” he said, noting Jimi Hendrix played the Col Ballroom in Davenport. “There’s been some very marquee artists that have graced us with their stage presence.”

John Hagar, Galvin’s marketing manager, is interim director there, and there is no timetable for a permanent replacement, Sadlek said.

“What he’s doing right now is maintaining that role, along with the marketing,” he said. “I certainly hope it’s sometime soon.”

“My particular concerns right now is to make sure the activities that happen are those that spotlight the actual activity, and less so the facility,” Sadlek said of RiverCenter and Adler. “As we are trying to pull up the aesthetics of the facility, you’ve got to try to make sure the activity people are coming to, that is the highlight.”

To see a schedule of upcoming events, visit the Adler website.