Faces of the Tri-State

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April 06, 2010 @ 12:00 AM
The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON — On March 15, The Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center was packed, the stage was set for the opera “Don Giovanni,” and then came darkness.

About 7 p.m., the lights went out and mild chaos ensued in the dark. Backstage a full company of wonderful European performers — none of whom spoke a drop of English — and out in the house, a thousand or so antsy Marshall Artists Series patrons wondering what was happening.

Luckily, Bill Heaberlin, who has been producing shows with his Huntington company MPE Entertainment since 1971, doesn’t have a panic button.

In nearly 40 years of producing shows around the country, he’s been there, and found a way to salvage that.

“We were all waiting in joyful hope that the situation would solve itself,” Heaberlin said with a laugh about the Marshall Artists Series show.

About five minutes before 8 p.m. (which was show time), Heaberlin asked a loyal Artists Series patron if he would prefer a little light, jokingly swinging his arm and saying, “Let there be light.”

As if on cue, the lights came on, and as Heaberlin said laughing, “I will never live that down.”

In four decades of show business, Heaberlin stacks up these too-wild-not-to-be-true stories.

You may not know his name, but if you’ve stepped out of your house, chances are you have seen an MPE show.

Heaberlin and a veteran team of Allen Stotler, Ken Bannon, Joe Eddins, Andy Kelley and Scott Fulton are constantly booking and/or producing all types of events, or provide support services for diverse projects.

For their 200 or so shows a year, they hired an additional staff of about 20 people who help put on shows from Atlanta to Las Vegas.

Regionally, they book and produce such area favorites as Summer Motion, Barboursville Fall Fest, the Marshall Artists Series, St. Albans Riverfest, Cabell County Fair, Ribfest, Wolfstock, Kanawha County Fair and the West Virginia Coal Festival, not to mention having a slew of corporate clients such as Toyota.

“It’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle,” said Heaberlin, drinking a coffee at the Old Village Roaster, next to the Keith-Albee where his team helps put on the Marshall Artists Series shows. “We’re always working and we’re always available, and sometimes it’s one thing on top of the other.”

This week is pretty typical planning for tons of upcoming shows, such as graduations for Marshall, WVU and the University of Charleston, and putting on several events as well.

They’ve got a corporate gig in Louisville on Thursday, and then truck back to Huntington on Friday, when they’ll be setting up for the Saturday events for The National Symphony Orchestra. Those range from a nighttime concert at the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center to a free show called the Neighborhood Super-Duper Outing that takes place from noon to 3 p.m. at the Barnett Center at Hal Greer Boulevard and 10th Avenue.

Heaberlin has jumped full force into the NSO-inspired activities, including the Music Box Project, a local project spearheaded by the Marshall Artists Series and a bunch of other local groups, trying to pair up donated musical instruments with local kids in need who want to learn to play music but can’t afford it.

A multi-instrumentalist who played drums in bands in Beckley and Huntington, Heaberlin donated his son’s violin as the first instrument donated to the project.

Heaberlin is excited to see so many groups such as The Woman’s Club of Huntington get on board with that project to foster music among area students.

“We’re hoping people will identify some instruments that may be sitting in their attic or garage and donate them and put them to work and give these students some opportunity,” Heaberlin said.

In Huntington since 1966, Heaberlin said he loves being some small part of what he calls a great arts and music scene here with the Tri-State’s wealth of theater troupes, festivals, the Marshall Artists Series, the Big Sandy Superstore and weekly doses of music of all stripes throughout the area’s theater venues and clubs.

Heaberlin and MPE have just about been involved in it all.

MPE was there at the beginning of the Tri-State Fair and Regatta when Heaberlin booked three days of acts in Catlettsburg that included headliner Kitty Wells, Jeannie C. Riley (of “Harper Valley P.T.A.” fame) and an opening night performer, Hank Williams Jr., who was then still only singing Hank Williams Sr. songs.

Heaberlin is really proud that MPE is still part of the mega summer fest that morphed out of the Regatta — Ashland’s Summer Motion, which again made it into the Top 20 list of best festivals in the Southeast.

“Summer Motion is an example of what happens in a small town when everyone pulls on the same side of the rope,” Heaberlin said.

Heaberlin said much has changed since he began the business here in ’71 after teaching six semesters at Marshall.

He and his late wife, who both cashed out their teachers’ retirement to start MPE, were booking a plethora of classic lounge acts such as Wayne Newton on cruise ships and other gigs around the country.

Heaberlin, who has served as a two-time president of the International Entertainment Buyers Association, said they transformed the agency from just booking acts for everything from cruises to big concerts to providing turn-key production, meaning Heaberlin and his posse can for a set price take care of everything. That includes artist’s fees, sound, lighting, staging, hospitality, catering, hotel rooms, flights, backline, power requirements, on-site staffing and taking care of the artist’s special requirements.

Post 9/11, Heaberlin said international work dried up, but they’ve seen a bunch of local festivals really taking off from the West Virginia Coal Festival in Madison, W.Va., to Huntington’s Ribfest, which has posted record attendance numbers the past few years.

Heaberlin has wild festival stories by the dozens.

Like when Aaron Tippin was booked at the Coal Festival and his wife went into labor in Nashville. They found Tippin, a commercial pilot, a plane to fly to Nashville, and he said he would fly back.

When that couldn’t happen because of complications, Heaberlin called his manager, who was in church. The manager promised to track down a new singer who would be flown up for the show that day.

Not knowing who was coming or when, Heaberlin was bringing the band on without this late-arriving singer when the guy burst through the back of the stage in time for the emcee to announce, “Ladies and gentleman … Kenny Chesney.”

“He had just had his first No. 1 that week and everyone went wild, and we looked really good,” Heaberlin said.

Perhaps the wildest night working with MPE was at the Grandview Amphitheater near Beckley doing a fundraising show for the YMCA. One of Heaberlin’s great friends in the industry, the late, great Bill Pinkney, of the original Drifters, who were opening up for Sha Na Na in 1990.

Pinkney thought that evening was so wild, he wrote about in his autobiography that he gave Heaberlin backstage at a show they did in Renfro Valley, Ky.

Heaberlin, who had produced about 10 years of Grandview shows for the Beckley Y bringing in everyone from Three Dog Night to Blood, Sweat and Tears, said that night was unbelievable.

For starters, a service building caught fire, and a stage hand grabbed a fire extinguisher to put out the blaze. More un-scripted drama followed.

“Then the skies opened up and it flooded the first three rows of seats,” Heaberlin said.

Lightning knocked out power, but when people who had taken shelter began filtering back to their seats after the storm, the show had to go on. Heaberlin talked Pinkney and the Drifters into taking an acoustic guitar and walking into the crowd singing gospel songs and classics like “Old Man River,” while Heaberlin and his bunch rigged up alternative power to the stage.

Heaberlin said nights like those make that little hourlong power outage at the Keith-Albee back in March seem like just another day at the office.

“Yes, it does get worse than a power outage,” he said with a chuckle.

Bill Heaberlin

HOMETOWN: A native of Beckley, Heaberlin has lived in Huntington since 1966 when he came to Marshall University.

FAMILY: Wife, Debby, human relations director at Strictly Business Computer Systems and representative for Southern Living At Home. One son, Michael, and three grandchildren, Brandon, 14, Jarrod, 12, and Julie, 7.

EDUCATION: Graduate of Marshall University (bachelor’s in 1968; master’s in 1971) and former MU instructor.

JOB: Owner and operator of Media Promotions Enterprises Entertainment or MPE Entertainment, which books all types of performers, from national attractions to regional artists. The company also provides support services such as staging, sound, lighting, backline and event management. Its newest division is creative services, which includes graphic and Web design, video and film production, custom imprint items and intellectual property consultation.

HOBBIES: Music and sports, especially MU football.

ON THE WEB: For more information or to receive a quote for event entertainment services, visit www.mpe-entertainment.com or call 800-788-4006.

Photo Credit:
Toril Lavender/ For The Herald-Dispatch
Bill Heaberlin of MPE Entertainment outside the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center. Heaberlin’s MPE produces such shows as Marshall Artists Series, Summer Motion, Ribfest and a ton of other events all over the United States but mainly now in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.