Reborn Stargazers sets its sights high

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At first, John Hooton was gung-ho about taking over Stargazers but his wife, Cindy was dubious (her initial response was, “Sure, honey.”) Now they’ve fallen in love with the place.

At first, John Hooton was gung-ho about taking over Stargazers but his wife, Cindy was dubious (her initial response was, “Sure, honey.”) Now they’ve fallen in love with the place.

After an all-night rock concert featuring confetti-shooting cannons at Stargazers Theatre and Event Center, owners John and Cindy Hooton and a team of 20 were up in the wee hours with leaf blowers and garden rakes cleaning up 10 inches of the stuff.

Within hours, the theater was transformed into casino night with game tables, a bar and buffet for a local company’s holiday party.

That’s life at Stargazers as the 550-seat venue goes from concert hall to corporate event center to film screening room to trade show, sometimes making two or three changes in a single day. In 2010 the Hootons booked 110 concerts and more than 100 events at Stargazers, which is located at 10 S. Parkside Drive. According to the Hootons, that doubled the number of events the previous year — and doubled revenue as well, although they declined to reveal figures.

February marks the second year of the theater’s opening and the Hootons are celebrating all month with special events, from comedian Kevin Nealon to Colorado favorite Dotsero. It’s a frantic and logistically challenging business, but the Hootons wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We are having a ball,” Cindy Hooton said.

John Hooton loved the 16,000-square-foot domed building long before he set foot in it, saying, “If that building ever comes up for sale, I want to buy it.”

Cindy Hooton laughed it off. “Sure, honey,” she said.

The couple has owned and run Timber Lodge, 24 cabins near Manitou Springs, for more than 20 years. Before that they were in the retail business for 20 years. Both of them love going to shows, and when the Stargazers building was put on the market, Cindy Hooton agreed to see it despite some initial reluctance.

“We walked into the theater, I looked up and said, ‘I think we can do something with this,’ “ Cindy Hooton said.

The Hootons bought the building for $670,000. They refinanced the Timber Lodge through Pikes Peak National Bank to get the money. And they got a Small Business Administration loan through Rocky Mountain Bank and Trust to pay for construction.

The movie theater was built in 1969 — it still had the original carpet in the gallery, and it was in desperate need of love, Cindy Hooton said. Drapes were stapled to the frame of the dome and the original theater chairs had enough caked-on gum to fill a barrel.

Most recently, the building was used as a church, but it wasn’t up to code, and John Hooton said the first thing the fire department ordered was the installation of a sprinkler system. It also needed a heating and air conditioning system. In a 50-foot domed ceiling, those kind of upgrades cost three times what it would have for a typical flat ceiling, he said.

What was supposed to be a two-month project turned into 10 months and cost nearly $1 million.

“It was a brutal remodel,” John Hooton said.

The upgrades ate into their marketing budget, so the couple relied on word of mouth, John Hooton said. They passed out cards and told artists there was a new venue in town. And Cindy Hooton has become an expert at Tweeting.

“Now, we’ve been here for two years and we are at that point where almost everyone in town has heard about Stargazers,” John Hooton said. “In the last three months we’ve seen a dramatic increase in attendance at our concerts and a dramatic increase of bookings of private and corporate events.”

The Hootons and their staff of eight work with local, regional and national acts. Ticket sales can range from $6 per show to $40. National acts like picking up an extra show if they are already booked in Denver, Cindy Hooton said.

No matter the size of the act, the Hootons greet the artists and make them feel at home. And, they don’t mind being dubbed a mom-and-pop operation — “Nobody treats customers like mom and pop,” John Hooton said.

Cathy Genato, the booking manager for the Colorado Springs rock ’n’ roll cover band 6035, said Stargazers is creating an entertainment scene and giving local artists a place to play.

“Most local venues are large, like the World Arena or the Pikes Peak Center, and local talent can’t get into those,” she said.

Stargazers won’t keep local bands from playing small bars and nightclubs, she said. But it will give musicians exposure to a new audience.

“We’ve needed a venue like this in Colorado Springs for a long time,” Genato said.

As for the Hootons, they said that after 40 years in business, they have never been so connected to their community. The level of talent in this area amazes them, Cindy Hooton said.

In 2011, their goal is to pack the house night after night.

“We still have not had everyone in town play here,” John Hooton said. “But we’re working on it.”