When the Mondavi Center for the Arts at UC Davis opened its doors in 2002, with a performance by the San Francisco Symphony, it was not readily apparent how deeply it would change the performance ecology of the Sacramento region.
Today, as the center celebrates its 10th anniversary season, its reputation as the premier presenter of the arts in the Central Valley is well established, and its Jackson Hall has earned a reputation as one of the best concert halls on the West Coast, acoustically.
More than 90,000 patrons enter the front doors at Mondavi each season, and the hall uses a dedicated volunteer pool of ushers to make things run smoothly.
Those volunteers constitute two pools. About 280 ushers are used each year for Mondavi's mainstage performances, and 70 ushers handle Mondavi's school matinee offerings.
Most of the Mondavi ushers are Davis residents and retirees and for many of them, getting to usher can be the highlight of their week.
It's nothing if not an extremely loyal usher corps. Some of them have been at Mondavi since the doors opened. The Bee talks to five of them:
My wife and I were head ushers at the time the hall opened, and we ushered at Freeborn Hall before Mondavi opened. Ushering is a win-win situation for us because we get the satisfaction of doing something for the community.
Most memorable performance?
There are a number of them, but if I had to pick out one it would be the reenactment of the Pentagon Papers. That was very dramatic. It was so emotionally strong and that is why it stood out for me.
The one that stands out was a concert where two women were sitting in the very first row and they had glasses of wine a no-no inside the hall. So I had to go down the center row aisle, crouching all the way, to retrieve the two glasses they had tucked under their seats. They were not thrilled. I was not thrilled with it either.
Mary Jane Yuki
I started ushering 10 years ago. I thought it would be a fun thing to do and ever since I just love to go there. I'm retired. My doctor told me that ushering would be one of the best things that I can do. For me it is not a chore it is entertaining.
Most memorable show?
There have been a quite a few, but the most memorable was the "Blanche Neige" ballet they did last spring. They had never done anything like it at Mondavi.
Hardest thing you've done as an usher?
The audience can be testy, and some people can be very demanding especially when an artist requests that there be no recording. We make the announcement but people forget or do not care, and they start recording. We get to the people on the aisle seats that are recording and ask them to put cameras away ... but when someone is recording and sitting in center seats you cannot get to them. It's hard when you tell someone on the aisle they can't record but you allow someone in the center to do it because you cannot get to them. That makes me feel bad.
What do you tell new ushers?
That you have to be polite and the customer is always right. You have to expect different attitudes from different audiences. For the classical concerts, audiences are well behaved, they know what to do. They're easy to usher. And then there are other events, like country music, where they do not go often to Mondavi and are kind of boisterous and they drink a lot and sometimes get out of control.
When I heard that the Mondavi Center was looking for volunteers, I jumped at the chance. I thought "What better way to learn about the different venues of music and dance?" Not to mention getting to see all the different artists and speakers.
First show you ushered?
It was Cirque Eloize, and I've ushered their performances each time they've been here. Soon thereafter, I ushered when Bill Clinton came and still have the handout from his speaking engagement.
What's the most difficult thing about ushering?
Asking patrons to stop taking pictures during a performance. The first time I had to ask someone to stop taking pictures, the house manager asked that I take the camera away from the patron and delete the pictures. Luckily, I was familiar with that particular camera and how to delete its pictures. That was a little nerve-wracking.
What compelled you to usher?
My wife and I moved here from Salinas 11 years ago and met some friends that were ushering at Freeborn Hall before Mondavi was built. We went to a couple of plays there and asked about ushering and they told us they were always looking for people, so we signed up.
Your favorite performances?
We have liked the big orchestras like the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia as well as the Russian orchestras. We really liked Lang Lang.
How have you noticed Mondavi change the last 10 years?
They have more Indian groups as well as groups from the Asian countries, and these have been very, very good. I have also noticed that there are more dance groups coming in.
What compelled you to usher?
One evening my husband was sitting in his chair reading the newspaper and I glanced over his shoulder and saw a little article announcing a call for ushers at Mondavi. I thought "That would be so much fun," but he thought it was crazy because of all the other things in my life that I have going on.
As head usher, how do you deal with problems?
If I can take care of it, I do. If I cannot, then the house manager is called. As volunteers we can do that.
Your most memorable show?
The gala opening of "Blanche Neige." Oh my god, I was so blown away, and I kept thinking "This is so cool." I had to keep reminding myself that I was ushering and that I had to keep working.
Mondavi Executive Director Don Roth talks about the next decade at Mondavi:
"We've evolved an eclectic mix of classic and contemporary... and that will continue to be a part of what we do, as we look for new artists and ensembles to introduce, and others to bring back to Davis."
On the Studio Theatre:
"We've wanted to complement Jackson Hall performances with the opportunity for audiences to experience the same art forms in the intimate confines of the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre. This season we're taking that beyond music and film with the new Studio Dance Series."
On resident artists:
"Toward the end of our first decade we've begun to explore ways to bring more artists in residence, to give them an opportunity to connect more deeply and broadly on campus and in the community."
"Long-term partnerships with major organizations ... these have been an increasing characteristic of what we do and have provided us with unique content, such as the Curtis on Tour programs. I expect the second decade will see at least one or two more such unique relationships."
On Mondavi's establishing a national profile:
"With 'Blanche Neige,' we raised our national profile significantly something that is important for the Mondavi Center. We will continue to identify opportunities to maintain this kind of heightened profile in the course of the coming decade."
Mondavi Center for the Arts
One Shields Ave., UC Davis
Box office hours: Noon-6 p.m., Monday-Saturday and one hour before all ticketed events.
Information: (866) 754-2787 or (530) 7542787; www.mondaviarts.org
To volunteer to be an usher, a form is available on the center's website or call (530) 752-1000. Ushers must be at least 18 years old.