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Revamped Rex Theatre ready for a range of acts

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By Rege Behe
Friday, Oct. 23, 2009

Ben Penigar doesn't have a lot of money or resources. The 28-year-old Bloomfield resident doesn't have a lot of business experience, and his civil engineering degree from the University of Pittsburgh is gathering dust.

But Penigar is confident his new venture at the Rex Theatre on the South Side -- Grey Area Productions -- is going to be an effective player in the competitive arena of Pittsburgh concert promotions.

"We're running the venue now, and bringing a lot of love," Penigar says.

While the Rex is a work in progress, there already are notable improvements. The lobby has been completely refurbished via "sweat, time, motivation and paint," featuring paintings by John Ross, an artist who is affiliated with the Meter Room, a gallery and performance space in Sheraden. New lighting and sound systems have been installed, transforming the stage from a stodgy, archaic throwback into a state-of-the-art space. The permanent seats have been removed, and the 300 person-capacity room looks infinitely larger -- and much cleaner.

Penigar's expectations are muted by the current economic climate.

"It's ridiculous to think I'm going to make good money at this, because I'm not," he says."But when the economy makes a swing, goes back up ... "

Penigar's deep bass voice elevates with excitement at the thought. He speaks excitedly of developing a jazz and funk scene (he manages Jazzam, a Pittsburgh-based funk and jazz group), but plans on bringing a range of acts to the Rex, from indie rock to bluegrass to folk to reggae. Punk and metal bands, traditionally the strongest draws locally, are probably out for now, he admits, because they entail extra security.

Grey Area's first show, a Sept. 17 concert featuring Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, a New Orleans jazz group, was a success, Penigar says, because he made "$100, and no one makes money on their first show." He's plans to book approximately 16 national acts per month, with local bands featured four to eight times monthly. Scott Forsyth, who used to book acts for Opus One Productions, will serve in that capacity for Grey Area; Hannah Heaney will be box-office manager, and Penigar will be production manager.

While the cosmetic improvements are important, Penigar insists the biggest change will be in the attitude patrons encounter when they enter the Rex.

"Everyone is going to be greeted with a smile," he says.

And while he realizes concert promotion is often a cutthroat business, Penigar insists he's not going to fall into that mode of operation.

"I'm not going to play ball that way," he says. " I'm going to bring the best music I can to Pittsburgh, and it's going to speak for itself."

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