Media & Arts
Donnie Hayes
Donnie Hayes
Setting the Stage
Foo Fighters prove Alaska is a viable stop for premier touring acts
By Brad Joyal

ver since Billie Holliday visited Anchorage in 1954 for a gig at the 1042 Club, Alaska has served as a desired destination for musical acts both big and small. While some artists plan a tour stop because they want to check another state off of the list of places they have performed, other acts have viewed Alaska as a new frontier to gain fans willing to spend money on records, tickets, and merchandise. Throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, West Anchorage High School’s auditorium served as the preferred venue for large national touring acts. Steppenwolf, Ozzy Osbourne, Bee Gees, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and the Grateful Dead performed inside the school’s 2,000-seat auditorium.

The 1983 opening of the George M. Sullivan Arena unlocked new possibilities for Anchorage-area promoters, able to fit more than 8,700 concertgoers. Interior Alaska received its own arena in 1990 when the Carlson Center opened in Fairbanks with a capacity of approximately 6,500. The Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, Bon Jovi, James Brown, and Elton John are among the many performers who have graced the stage at Sullivan Arena, while Elton John, Toby Keith, Godsmack, and comedians Larry the Cable Guy and Cheech & Chong are some of the many acts that have performed at the Carlson Center.

The number of major national touring stops in Alaska dwindled during the 21st century. In recent years, music fans have had to turn to smaller clubs and venues or fairs and festivals for live music.

That changed last August when Foo Fighters performed a three-night run of concerts that included two performances at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center and another at the Carlson Center in the Golden Heart City. The three concerts marked the return of large-scale events in Alaska after COVID-19 limited crowd sizes for more than a year.

The logistics to bring the fifteen-time Grammy Award-winning band to Alaska is representative of the many challenges that promoters and venues face while trying to host national touring acts this far north.

“We definitely had our struggles,” says Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Hayes, who organized the Carlson Center show. “If it weren’t for all the different people who jumped in and said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make this happen,’ we couldn’t have pulled it off. There was a lot of support from the community to make it happen.”

This Is a Call
Anchorage Convention Centers assistant general manager Therin Ferrin first heard rumblings about Alaska being on Foo Fighters’ radar in the fall of 2019. A concert promoter reached out to him to discuss the possibility of bringing the band to the Sullivan Arena, which is operated by ASM Global, the Los Angeles-based company that manages the Dena’ina Center and Egan Center in Anchorage. After several months of discussions, the prospect of a Sullivan Arena show was shelved when COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.

A year later, Ferrin got another call from Emporium Presents, a promotion company and subsidiary of Live Nation, when Alaska started easing its COVID-19 restrictions. Emporium wanted to promote Foo Fighters’ first concerts in Alaska, but the Sullivan Arena had since been pressed into service as a homeless shelter. The Alaska Airlines Center on the UAA campus was also not an option, temporarily closed to repair damaged flooring. At the same time, Emporium was in discussions with Hayes about a show at the Carlson Center, which was preparing to undergo its own changes.

“The Parks and Recreation department has always owned the Carlson Center,” Hayes explains. “It’s always been a borough facility, but up until July 1 of last year, we always had a third-party management company taking care of it.” As in Anchorage, the Fairbanks arena had been managed by ASM Global, but it was closed for two years when the contract ended last July and the borough reopened the building.

Despite not knowing what shape the arena was in, Hayes said he’d commit to the Fairbanks concert if promoters found a venue in Anchorage.

“They asked if it’s something we’d be interested in and I laughed and said, ‘Yeah, we’re interested, but I have no staff, the building’s not open, and I don’t even know what’s inside of it,’” recalls Hayes. “I told the promoter, ‘Look, we will make this happen because it’s the Foo Fighters and I will get strung up if the community found out that I turned down an opportunity to have the Foo Fighters in Fairbanks.’ I’d be taken out to the Parks and Recreation gun range and the firing squad would be set on me.”

For Anchorage, Emporium and Ferrin settled on the Dena’ina Center’s 47,400-square foot exhibit hall to hold two concerts on August 17 and 19 in front of a capacity crowd of 5,000. Even though Ferrin had a pre-existing relationship with Emporium from when the company promoted Miranda Lambert and Luke Bryan concerts at the Sullivan Arena, the thought of hosting Foo Fighters, a rock band founded in 1994 by former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, seemed like a major undertaking.

“We ran out of bottled water and had to get more in the middle of the concert. I honestly had no idea we would sell that much. Between providing water for the band and crew and selling to guests, we went through 100 cases.”
Beth Richards, Owner and General Manager
Malemute, Inc.
“We don’t do a huge amount of concerts at the convention center,” says Ferrin, a thirty-year veteran of the events industry. “We do a lot of cruise ship hospitality rooms during the summertime, or we do some weddings and some dinners, things like that. As far as musical acts or comedy shows, we don’t do a lot of those. The promoter was talking to me about it and said, ‘The Foo Fighters must really want to come to Anchorage or Alaska if they’re willing to play in a convention center.’ These guys had just sold out Madison Square Garden about a month before they were due to come up here, so they’re not used to playing in a convention center in some little town.”

In Fairbanks, Hayes was beginning to lose faith after not hearing from Emporium or its co-founder Jason Zink.

“I had kind of given up,” he says. “They knew we were interested, but the Anchorage situation sounded interesting, so I was just like, ‘I can’t do anything about them down there. I’m just going to cross my fingers and hope, but it’s probably not happening.’”

Finally, the call arrived during the first week of July.

“We got the official word saying, ‘Donnie, August—we’re doing it,’” Hayes remembers.

Foo Fighters scheduled a travel day after the Anchorage shows and tickets went on sale for an August 21 show.

Something from Nothing
Although Ferrin and Hayes were hosting the same band, the Dena’ina Center and Carlson Center had different to-do lists in the weeks leading up to the concerts. The Dena’ina Center has the luxury of having its own food and beverage department, so it was able to run its own bar service—Ferrin estimates the convention center constructed forty bars—and handle concessions for both concerts. Hayes and the Carlson Center weren’t as fortunate; the borough’s Parks and Recreation department needed to quickly secure a food and beverage contract while they simultaneously built a staff after regaining control of the arena from ASM Global.

“When I finally got the word that the concert was on, there were four staff at the building: two janitors, an events coordinator, and a food and beverage manager,” says Hayes. “We hadn’t got our food concessions contract in place. We didn’t have a production contract in place. We just got into the building and only had one working vacuum. The building still had a brand new roof being put on because, during COVID, a huge flood affected the building and the roof gave way. When we pulled the bleachers out for the first time, we had sixty chairs that were busted and broken. It was nuts that we were saying, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this.’”

Fairbanks-based Malemute, Inc., which owns and operates the Alaska Salmon Bake in Pioneer Park, was awarded the Carlson Center’s food and beverage contract under the name Riverside Eats and Drinks after responding to the arena’s request for a concessions vendor. Despite having the salmon bake in place, Malemute was “starting from scratch” inside the Carlson Center, according to Malemute owner and general manager Beth Richards.

“The building hadn’t been used in two years, so we kind of got in and figured out what was still working and what wasn’t,” says Richards. “The borough was wonderful. They created a sort of back-to-school open house event that had some free food. It gave us a test run in the concessions a couple weeks before the concert, and we actually learned a lot from that. We tried some mini pizzas, but there wasn’t a good place to hold them—we felt like the quality wasn’t good enough to sell after they held for a couple minutes.”

Food and beverages weren’t the only staffing issue the Carlson Center faced. Hayes turned to Fort Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base for equipment and security while relying on other borough staff members to help prepare.

Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Hayes (front left) takes a selfie with friends and family before the Foo Fighters concert August 21, 2021 at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks.

Donnie Hayes

Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Hayes takes a selfie with friends and family before the Foo Fighters concert
Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Hayes (front left) takes a selfie with friends and family before the Foo Fighters concert August 21, 2021 at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks.

Donnie Hayes

“Every department in the whole entire borough—our maintenance department, all of the other staff from the Parks and Recreation department—are sending people they don’t really have to give to us just to get the building up and ready,” Hayes says. “It was, without a doubt, a mass project for the whole entire community and everybody put in a little bit of time and effort.”

The Dena’ina Center’s biggest issue, with food and beverage services secured, was security. Ferrin says it helped that the convention center had purchased metal detectors about five or six years ago.

“We needed sixty security guards,” says Ferrin, who contracted guards for two nights through local security companies. “That was a challenge, especially coming out of COVID with not everyone back to work. They are the most high-profile band that we’ve had at the convention center, so security was tighter than what we’d normally do.”

Have It All
Any doubts regarding the demand Foo Fighters would have in Alaska quickly vanished once tickets went on sale via Ticketmaster on July 14, 2021. Within three hours, the two Anchorage shows sold out of general admission tickets priced at $129.50 plus fees. Although the Carlson Center show never quite sold out, Hayes says a little less than 6,000 people were ultimately in attendance for what he described as “like a bar setting—it was that intimate.”

While Emporium was in charge of providing sound, lights, and production equipment—Ferrin estimates the company needed four semi-trailer trucks to carry all of the gear—the venues were responsible for additional preparations beyond hiring staff. They needed to fulfill all the dressing room requests included on the Foo Fighters’ rider.

“I got the rider and my mouth dropped,” says Hayes. “I was like, ‘What? This is a lot!’”

“They needed twelve dressing rooms and they wanted brand-new furniture—couches, stuffed chairs, end tables, coffee tables, and lamps,” says Ferrin. “Most of the time, we take the furniture we have in the lobby at the convention center and put that in a room and call it the dressing room, and most people are fine with it. With these guys, it was way more elaborate.”

Ferrin says the convention center worked with an Anchorage Rent-A-Center to build out the twelve dressing rooms, a task he says took the Rent-A-Center “five or six trips” with their moving truck due to all of the furniture that was needed. He notes that the catering requests for the dressing rooms was “over the top as well.”

“They had all different types of requests,” says Ferrin. “It was standard food, but they wanted individual chips and dips and orange juice. It was all stuff we could get at the local store, but it was just a lot, with there being twelve different rooms.”

The pre-concert preparations weren’t limited to food and furniture, though—there were production components the venues helped with. For Ferrin, that meant designing a rigging plot to hang all of the band’s lights and sound equipment from the Dena’ina Center’s ceiling, a process that required approval from a structural engineer to ensure the ceiling could withstand the weight. In Fairbanks, Hayes says the Carlson Center provided metal detectors, chain-link fencing, the stage, stage barriers, and bike racks.

Both venues were presented with one last-minute change: due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases in early August, Foo Fighters requested a new COVID-19 policy that required attendees to either present a vaccine card or receive a negative test result within forty-eight hours of attending the concert.

“That was the hardest moment because we looked out to the community and the community was upset because they had already bought their tickets under one set of guidelines and now the guidelines were changing,” says Hayes. “That was a hard moment for us to work through, but we did it. We got nurses from the community, and the band paid those nurses to run tests in front of the Carlson Center for the two and a half days before the concert started. We knew the hospital and our local clinics didn’t have the manpower to do that, so it was nice of the band to help make it right.”

Ferrin and the Dena’ina Center staff first recognized the significance of the concerts when they arrived early on the morning of the first concert.

“We had people that flew up from New York and stood in line at 7 a.m. the morning of the concert,” says Ferrin. “They already had their tickets; they just wanted to be the first ones in. I think it was the fifth or sixth time this group of women had seen them—they buy tickets and fly all over the country.”

Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Hayes (right) poses with his best friend, Brian Colõn, whom Hayes leaned on during the final week of preparations.

Donnie Hayes

Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Hayes (right) poses with his best friend, Brian Colõn, whom Hayes leaned on during the final week of preparations.

Donnie Hayes

Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Hayes poses with his best friend, Brian Colõn
Ferrin estimates he met at least ten people who flew from out of state to attend the show. Hayes encountered a similar situation in Fairbanks.

“We had people calling us saying, ‘Hey, we’re flying in just for the show and then flying out, but all of the hotels are booked right now, and we just need a place to put our backpack,’” Hayes recalls. “People were buying U-Haul trucks just for the day so they could crash in them that night before they had to hop on a plane, or just to store their backpack and luggage. It was definitely a big deal.”

The finances surrounding the concert varied by venue. Hayes says the Carlson Center made some money through its three-day rental fee of about $7,500, but he was quick to point out the real winners were the members of the community, who were able to witness the one-of-a-kind performance, and Riverside Eats and Drinks, which proved it can handle concessions at the Carlson Center for special events and UAF hockey games.

Richards says the company settled on selling tacos, chicken, and hot dogs, though she notes most money was made through beverage sales.

“We had three local beers plus Bud Light on draft, and we went through twenty-five full size kegs of beer—which is the equivalent of 3,100 pints,” says Richards. “We ran out of bottled water and had to get more in the middle of the concert. I honestly had no idea we would sell that much. Between providing water for the band and crew and selling to guests, we went through 100 cases.”

In Anchorage, Ferrin says the Dena’ina Center did well with its share of merchandise sales.

“They sent up over 200 boxes of T-shirts and records and posters and stuff,” says Ferrin. “That was huge. Our share was about $60,000 or $70,000.”

My Hero
While they both are proud of their respective venues for pulling off the feat, Ferrin and Hayes also recognize that major touring acts like Foo Fighters can bring a lot to their communities.

“I think there was a big economic impact for downtown,” says Ferrin. “On Tuesday, most people showed up at the same time, right around when the doors opened. Thursday night’s concert seemed more like a weekend night; people came in sporadically and a lot didn’t show up until right before the band took the stage. I believe they were probably out at the local bars and restaurants getting something to eat or drink before the event.”

More than the financial gains, however, the Dena’ina Center and Carlson Center proved that Alaska can still welcome national touring acts, even in a post-pandemic world. Hayes expects more acts to visit Fairbanks after seeing how the Carlson Center handled Foo Fighters.

“We definitely believe there will be some bigger shows coming out of this, but we also realize it’s Fairbanks and it’s Alaska and it’s not going to happen every other week,” says Hayes. “We have a big-name comedian that we’re working to bring up in December that had heard about the show and thought it was pretty rad.”

The Carlson Center also received glowing reviews from Emporium.

“The promoter came up to us afterwards and said, ‘This was a great show—we didn’t know what to expect out of Fairbanks,’” says Hayes. “At one point, I was in a back room totally mentally and physically exhausted while the concert was going on. I was crying because it happened—I couldn’t believe it happened, it was so emotional—and the promoter Jason walked by and saw me in the room and walked up and threw his arms around me. The two of us just cried and we were like, ‘We did it! We can’t believe we actually did it!’ I feel like we presented to the community that we can do this and to the promoters that, hey, Fairbanks can pull this off. We also know that the next time we do it we’ll be way better.”