Backstage at the Fox Theatre with Ernie Schmidt 

in Community/Featured/Headline

Playgoers peruse their program notes for information about the performers and likely don’t give a lot of thought to the what goes on backstage; that’s the hallmark, after all, of a seamless, well-run show. But behind the proscenium at Redwood City’s Fox Theatre, the new year brings a change in status for Ernie Schmidt, who has been elevated to general manager. He had been working in marketing for Tesla six years ago when former Fox owners Eric and Lori Lochtefeld asked him to come to work at the theater, where he has been involved since then in overall operations. As of this month, Schmidt is now the general manager of Fox Theatre Properties and is running theater operations for Sand Hill Properties, which bought the Fox from the Lochtefelds. Though it will be “business as usual,” says the 53-year-old Schmidt, he looks forward to new opportunities for the 90-year-old landmark to be open for public shows and benefit the community. He’d like, for example, to introduce a top-flight celebrity speaker series and says some interior renovations are planned. 

Schmidt, who has run twice for the City Council and has served on the Planning Commission for 10 years, has loved the theater and performing going back to his youth in Los Altos. He tried his hand at acting in Los Angeles and had a small role on “Melrose Place” and studied at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. While in Hollywood he got to work with stars like Dick Van Dyke, Heather Locklear, Robert Urich and Gavin MacLeod. (Schmidt returned to the Bay Area in 2001 and he and wife, Gina, live in Redwood City’s Eagle Hill neighborhood.) He keeps his Screen Actors Guild membership active and every so often he submits for an audition. A singer (but not a dancer), he has never acted in a Broadway by the Bay musical, the Fox’s theatrical mainstay, which has a lease until 2021. 

As busy as he and his “skeleton crew” of five are, trying to take roles both on stage and back stage would be a stretch. Schmidt says the theater is in use up to 200 days a year for everything from corporate events and parties to high school formals.  They are staff-intensive and that means long hours ensuring that all details from lighting and sound to refreshments and clean restrooms are taken care of. And he doesn’t take on too much for the hard-working staff. “You have to be able to manage that because you can get everybody burned out,” he says.    

Though people might not be aware of it, the Fox gets used frequently for private events, notably corporate meetings for executives looking for an out-of-the-ordinary location. “A lot of these corporate leaders really like utilizing a very creative space because there’s so much they can do with it,” Schmidt says. Thousands of people converge on the Fox in February for the annual Startup Grind global conference for networking entrepreneurs. In the fall, young tech workers pack the theater to see their friends compete in the Techapella a capella singing competition, which marked its sixth year at the Fox in October. Seven or eight high schools hold their formals at the Fox in January and February. “Those kids are just awesome,” Schmidt says. “Even though I provide janitorial staff, these kids stay after the events and clean up after themselves.”  

On occasion, high-profile clients drop into town to screen new motion pictures, under extremely tight security. Schmidt would like to be able book more public shows, but there are challenges in securing big name entertainers. Schmidt works only through theatrical producers and if an artist is appearing at another Bay Area theater, booking him or her at a theater that might siphon off an audience typically isn’t possible. In addition, top-flight entertainers usually perform in larger venues than the Fox, which seats 1,100, adding to the challenge. “Public shows alone are not going to keep the doors open, unfortunately,” he says.  

Schmidt always encourages companies which rent the theater to patronize local restaurants for their catering so the Redwood City community benefits from the activity at the Fox. He’s excited about the opportunities ahead. “I feel a deep responsibility to the community and everyone that the theater’s doors be always open for them,” he says. “The mantle of this is heavy.”  

 It was nice to see that the Sequoia Veterans Memorial at the high school all decked out for Christmas and that our veterans weren’t forgotten during the holiday rush. Credit Rich and Dee Eva, who were behind the campaign years ago to create the monument, for this beautiful remembrance. 

 This story was originally published in the January print edition of Climate Magazine.