From a Vienna Boys Choir member with a queasy stomach to Alice Cooper, Steve Borders has seen it all at the Koger Center.
“I’m the original employee,” said Borders, the technical director for Columbia’s performing arts center. “They call me the Great and Powerful Oz, because I’m the one that’s behind the curtain.”
Earlier this month, Borders pulled back that curtain — pointing out that, in a backstage rehearsal room, said fabric is original to the building, which opened in 1989 — as he gave tours of the center during its 30th anniversary celebration. Visitors viewed an imagined audience from an onstage piano bench, peeked into staging rooms and a laundry facility and learned that the Koger Center can play host as many as four events in one day.
“It’s about family. It’s about community,” Borders said. “It’s bringing something to people that they’re going to remember. We’re selling memories.”
The Koger Center’s year-long anniversary celebration aims to broaden that audience with varied programming and an increased focus on free or low-cost activities, director Nate Terracio said. That includes an effort to showcase lesser-seen arts such as modern dance and professional jazz and a stepped-up partnership with the University of South Carolina, whose School of Music adjoins the center.
An exhibit featuring works from USC’s School of Visual and Art Design faculty and staff members opened Feb. 8., and an April exhibit will feature bird feathers and ornithology talks from renowned university naturalist Rudy Mancke, Terracio said. There are also plans afoot for lunchtime lectures featuring School of Music students playing in the lobby.
“Our goal moving forward is to reintegrate ourselves into the local community — the university community, but the local community as a whole — and try to look at what part of the cultural scene, the arts scene, is missing,” Terracio said. “You can’t consider yourself a city without an arts and culture scene, and this building provides a real home for that, and has for 30 years.”
DECADES OF MEMORIES
A lot has changed in three decades, and Borders has seen it all, starting with the Koger Center’s first show on Jan. 14, 1989, when the London Philharmonic opened a building that wasn’t quite finished.
“I remember 30 minutes before we opened the doors, we were kicking out the carpet in the lobby to lay it down — not gluing it down, but just kicking it out so that people could walk across it and not be on concrete,” Borders said.
The Vienna Boys Choir also played the center in January 1989, and Borders has a vivid memory from that night as well: a child getting sick mid-performance but gamely finishing the show.
“They didn’t miss a beat,” Borders said. “All the other kids took a step to the right and kept going. At the intermission, we went and cleaned it up.”
Borders said the Koger Center can change stage setups in as little as 35 minutes, transforming from a ballet performance to a sit-down dinner for 300 people. He showed visitors a large backstage rehearsal room where performances are taped off and the loading dock where Broadway shows deposit tractor trailers of gear.
Kinky Boots, which ran from Jan. 13-14, had four semis, Borders said. Beautiful — The Carole King Musical, which will run April 2-7, will have up to a dozen.
Soon, Columbia audiences will see more big Broadway shows making two- and three-week stays, Borders said. That’s thanks to a new grid system that allows the Koger Center to load and move heavy pieces of stage equipment in a fraction of the time it used to take.
“We will have the big Broadway shows that have gone to Greenville or Charlotte,” Borders said. “It’s been frustrating for us as a building to see those events go to those places, knowing we can do it. That grid levels the playing surface. It expedites loading. It cuts down on labor and the number of man hours. It makes it attractive for promoters.”
EXPANDING THE AUDIENCE
Borders spoke to tour-takers about “re-establishing what we started” when the 2,256-seat, $15 million arts showcase, named for community philanthropists Ira and Nancy Koger, first opened.
“Thirty years ago, it was a lot different,” Borders said. “There was no internet. There was basic cable. We’ve had to step up our game so people will come.”
The goal for the next 30 years, Terracio said, is get more people through the glass doors – especially those who haven’t previously attended performances.
“I really want to bring new people here, people who don’t normally come” and build upon the center’s dedicated following of center staples such as the S.C. Philharmonic and Columbia City Ballet, Terracio said. “As people are trying to grow a dance scene or a jazz scene or whatever it happens to be, how can we provide that support by bringing someone here that lets people see something new and wonderful? How can we provide an extra venue for them to reach new audiences?”
As the center works to expand its reach, Borders will remain its behind-the-scenes constant.
“There’s not anything that we haven’t done on this stage,” said Borders, who checked an item off his personal bucket list when he met theatrical rocker Alice Cooper – “I’ve got all of his original records” – after Cooper’s May 2017 performance.
In fact, Koger Center loyalists may be more familiar with Borders than they know. His daughter made her stage debut as the original baby in the Columbia City Ballet’s long-running production of “Dracula,” and Borders has also played a key role in that production throughout the years.
In addition to designing the ballet’s surround sound, “Dracula’s scream when he’s dying – that’s my voice,” said Borders, who recorded his raspy shout when he was sick.
“Every day I come into work, it’s different,” Borders said. “I get to create magic.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 11 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.