Q&A With Bob Rothermel, A Man Of Many Hats

Q&A With Bob Rothermel, A Man Of Many Hats
1 Bob Rothermel

OCEAN CITY – Bob Rothermel scratches the gray whiskers on his trademark beard as he tries to answer my question about how long he’s been a promoter. He’s a guy who always appears to either be crafting a plan or carrying another one out. His mind is tellingly in constant motion, and it’s notable how careful he is in choosing his words, especially when you consider all the different things he has going on.

“I think I was 16 or 17,” he recalls, “and it really came about because there was nothing to do in my little town, and someone asked me and a friend of mine if we thought we could pull something off. So we gave it a shot.”

Rothermel has been the proverbial “man behind the curtain” when it comes to special events in Ocean City for decades, and he’s developed a reputation as a “bringer,” meaning he brings good stuff to town which creates added value for the tourists, and significant economic impact for the town.

From the annual Cruisin’ car event, to the free fireworks and laser shows on the beach to booking national acts at the Freeman Stage and the new Performing Arts Center, you have likely been to a Bob Rothermel event whether you know it or not.

Over a cup of tea earlier this week, we chatted about how putting on shows is always a high-stakes gamble that is often more risk than reward, and he revealed his so-called “white whale” of a booking that he still dreams of bringing to the region.

But we began with his role in the controversial changes to the street performer law earlier this year. He was a member of the Ocean City Boardwalk Street Performer Task Force and is also president of the Worcester County Board of Education as well as the producer of the semi-annual Cruisin’ events.

Q: Some people say compromise is making sure that not everybody gets their way and that everybody is still a little upset about it. The street performers are obviously upset. Is the town feeling like it did enough? Was it true compromise to you?

A: I don’t know the answer to that, because I think it is still playing out. I know I was honored to be part of a taskforce to represent some interests in making a community decision. We saw a great deal of input from the community and we saw a great deal of polarization from both sides as to what is a First Amendment freedom and what is commercialization, and there, the two met. So, I believe there was a fair discourse in the community that provided balance.

And again, when there is something in the balance, someone is not going to be happy, and it remains to be seen if it needs to be tweaked anymore or if it is going to live the way it lives. But clearly, it was out of control, and from a community standpoint, it made no sense. Some of those decisions that are made in the Supreme Court and they say ‘I know it when I see it’, well you could stand out there and know it was the Wild West.

Q: Does it surprise you at all the general public’s not even very hidden disdain for these performers. If you were to look at our social media [age during these debates, there was a ton of venom exuded toward these performers of all different kinds.

A: I don’t think you can use any sort of social media as a barometer. People can write and say things they probably don’t mean in the comfort of their own home that I would rather have said in a public forum. I don’t know if there is venom or not, I didn’t see venom in that taskforce, I saw people bringing ideas.

I saw a concern for a community saying ‘we need to coexist somehow, and there has to be an understanding of what First Amendment protections really are.’ Once you get rid of the hyperbole on both sides, somewhere in the middle you find balance.

Q: What’s more challenging as a promoter, trying to fill an event in the summer months when everything is at stake, or trying to fill an event in the off season when it’s kind of an added bonus?

A: It’s equally challenging. Not only do you have the summer months with, any given weekend, 300-some thousand people in town with their attention spread out between a hundred or so different things, or do you have an event in the middle of winter when there are not many people in town and not many things pulling on their attention, but do you have enough people in a critical mass to make the event happen. You are caught between a rock and a hard place. So, it becomes the event itself. You have to figure out what is the show that has the demand to implement all those wheels to start moving to make a successful end. Look, I’ve been doing this for forty-some years and sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t.

Q: There has been a lot of discussion about the Performing Arts Center and sort of the slow growth that it’s on. People sometimes compare it to the Freeman Stage and they say ‘why aren’t we getting the huge national acts coming to the Performing Arts Center that they are in the first few years?’ What should the public understand about the feasible realities of the PAC and do you think the town is doing a good enough job of articulating that to the public?

A: Well, you have to walk before you run. I think people’s expectations are always higher than what reality is, and we have to temper that reality with good economic parameters for picking and choosing the date, the timeline and the artist wherever it happens. It’s kind of like a Richter scale. Where do you want to make the most noise?

The talent that has a great deal of attention and popularity, which probably means it’s going to have a higher talent cost and higher cost of doing business, or do we start looking at dates other than Friday or Saturday format in either summer or winter? Or do you start looking for a Tuesday or Wednesday that might bring a lower cost or a higher profile?

Q: Do you think the right approach (for the PAC) is a balance between a few big gamble slots for the national acts, the existing clientele in the building that are going to use that room anyway, and then community based stuff? Where you can have a destination in the community where you can see local shows?

A: One of the big variables in the Performing Arts Center is there isn’t one promoter. There are multiple ones. Often times in Performing Arts Centers, there is a foundation that is endowed with a certain amount of money that gives it the opportunity to “play” in the market and pick and choose artists at various times.

I think over time, we will find that there will be a foundation; some philanthropic organization that creates the nucleus so events start happening in the town, but doesn’t stop private promoters either.

Q: It seems to me with a resort community, discretionary dollars are just as important as the weather. Are there enough discretionary dollars to continue the growth of everything (in this resort) that’s been happening?

A: I think there is because we will always entertain ourselves. We will give ourselves the reason to go spend that money. So if it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and we want to go have that dinner before we see that show, and it’s going to be one of those memorable Kodak moments, we are going to go do it.

Q: What type of event have you always wanted to bring to town but never been able to bring to town. Simply put, what’s on your wishlist?

A: I’ve always wanted Jimmy Buffett. I’ve offered him a lot of money to play the beach here, and it’s never happened.

Q: He’s your white whale?

A: Yeah, absolutely. He always has been. Am I a big Jimmy Buffet fan? No, not at all, but that’s the market. I always thought doing the Labor Day weekend show with him would be the show to do.

(Editor’s Note: In the coming weeks, this interview will be the first of a planned series called The Dispatch Download, which will be featured on our website at www.mdcoastdispatch.com with a podcast available for listening.)

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.