MORGANTON — Bill Wilson might easily be considered Morganton’s “Wizard of Oz.”
He’s the man behind the curtain at the city’s municipal auditorium — or “CoMMA” as it’s better known.
Throughout the more than 25-year existence of the city’s cultural arts center, Wilson is the one who has been in charge of its operations and of choosing the artists who perform on its stage.
He has pulled back that magical curtain to reveal some of the greatest shows and performers of all time.
“We have had real legends come here,” Wilson said as he points to a wall filled with photos and posters autographed by the entertainers who have left their stardust on the CoMMA stage.
The list reads like a Hollywood roll call including everyone from TV great Steve Allen to international mime artist Marcel Marceau.
It is Marceau who brings back a special recollection for Wilson.
“He came here after 9/11 and the show had to be postponed because there was a delay in getting visas for his assistants,” Wilson recalled.
“We were standing here in the lobby when he asked if America was going to war and, with tears in his eyes, said he would join with America because this nation had helped save his,” Wilson said. “It was quite a moment.”
There have been many moments for the auditorium director since the start of the “Main Stage Morganton” series.
“Looking back and even today, Morganton has been considered a fairly progressive community and you have to have progressive people to make that happen,” Wilson said.
It was in the early 1980s when there was a move by city leaders to do something “to put the community on the map and raise the bar.”
That is when a bond referendum narrowly passed that allowed the city to purchase the old Grace Hospital property and turn it into the performance center that now attracts thousands every year.
He said he has heard people come into the building more than once saying “I was born here” or “I had my children here.”
“The group who opposed it the most were the city’s older population who feared it would only attract rock and roll, have nothing for them and be expensive,” Wilson recalled. “Our biggest supporters are and have been since Day One those same people.”
That alone speaks volumes about how Wilson has been able to bring a banquet of variety, music and drama that attracts audiences which may not have an interest in a particular show.
It was an even bolder move to sell a ticket to a show when no one knew what they would see.
Wilson had “The Show? 1” last spring and kept the secret for almost a year.
The response even surprised him somewhat.
“I had seen the group Perpetuum Jazzile from Slovenia on YouTube singing ‘Africa’ and I wondered if they would be available,” Wilson said. “I also wanted a way to spice up the season and so we gave it a try. The audience response was incredible. They kept jumping to their feet.”
“The Show? 2” is scheduled for Oct. 10, and Wilson again is keeping a tight lid on what the audience will see.
Wilson says one of the reasons Morganton is able to attract such talent is because of the quality of the theater facilities provided.
“I think it looks better today than it ever has,” Wilson said. “We have kept up with the latest in technologies with lighting and digital sound.”
He said there was also help from other venues that were more established.
“I would call people I didn’t know — who are now very good friends — and ask how to get in touch with people,” he said. “If I needed a picture of an artist, I might have to wait a week or two. That was all before the Internet.”
He tells the story of one of the Broadway performers who did a show at CoMMA several years ago.
“She said she had toured the world and played everywhere. She said she had played operas and musicals and concerts. She then said, ‘I am just amazed. I have never been in a theater this nice,’” Wilson said.
The performer went on to described how artists have clean dressing facilities and do not have the encumbrances of going up and down spiral staircases to get on and off the stage as is the case in many of the classic Broadway theaters in New York.
“She said, ‘This is the perfect storm for a theater,’” Wilson said.
Another thing that can be attractive to artists is the attitude they are greeted with when they arrive in town.
“We try to be friendly and make people feel at home,” he said. “At the same time, we try to be professional about it.”
Wilson said he is aware there are people “within a stone’s throw” who have never entered the theatre, but also knows there are many ordering tickets on line from other areas.
“We are getting some of the Charlotte audience,” he said. “Our facility fee is lower than industry standards and that is an attractive thing for ticket buyers.”
However, Wilson is quick to note what it means to have this kind of access to entertainment for the local public.
“We have a 7:30 p.m. showtime and you can be home and in bed by 10:30 p.m. without driving a long distance to see the same quality shows,” he said.
Wilson has plenty of theater background himself, having performed the famous one-man show of Mark Twain. “That took eight hours of makeup,” he recalled. “I would have some ask me to just do 15 minutes of it for a presentation and had to say no.”
But a return to the stage is not in any of Wilson’s plans, and there have been thoughts of ending his own run at the CoMMA after this season.
“I thought about it, but I think I’ll kick it around a little longer,” Wilson said.
Wilson says CoMMA is a service provided to the community by the city, although it may not be considered a service in a traditional sense.
“This is a place you come to, the lights go down, there are no phones or televisions and you sit and enjoy an evening,” he said. “What this provides is a great opportunity if you will just walk though the door.”
For more information:
On CoMMA, the Main Stage Morganton series and ticket sales information, use
» Call: 828-433-SHOW (7469)
» Visit the box office at 401 S. College St., Morganton