If you’ve been to a show at the Englert Theatre in the past six years, chances are that Mr. Kent Smith greeted you at the door. He started volunteering at the downtown Iowa City theatre on July 31, 2005 as an usher, and has since become the venue’s well-known doorman. Through cold winters and humid summers, Kent has been accommodating the Englert’s patrons for over 899 events.
Kent lives in Iowa City and has been married to his wife Diane for over 25 years, they have a son Eric. Kent has worked at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics as the Data Center Manager for 27 years. He is an avid runner and is also a volunteer at the Coralville Library. As of January 15, 2012 Kent has logged 4026 total volunteer hours and counting. And, in 2011 alone, he volunteered at 160 of 173 shows at the Englert for a total of almost 800 volunteer hours.
The Englert is known for its exceptional theatre experience, but often an overlooked part of that experience is having a kind man open the door and let you into the fantastic and historical atmosphere. I recently had time to sit down at the Englert and talk to Kent about what it’s like to volunteer and be a part of the beloved organization.
When did you start volunteering and what made you interested?
I started volunteering in July 31, 2005. The show was Gypsy put on by City Circle, the reason I volunteered that night was because our neighbor was in Gypsy and she said they needed help, a few ushers to supply to the Englert and she wondered if I’d be nice and come and help.
Do you know how many events you have worked at the door?
I am at 860 events if I remember right (checks computer), 866 events and 3890 hours. I mean like this year there has been 147 shows that there have been ushers and I’ve been to 133 of them. I would have been to a few more except my wife and I went to Hawaii for Valentine’s Day and when I booked the trip I was going to only miss 2 shows, but by the time I got back 9 shows had been scheduled.
Are there any shows that were the most memorable for you?
I mean we have had great shows here at the Englert, we’ve had Joan Baez, we’ve had Judy Collins, and we’ve had the guy the plays “Short People,” Randy Newman. The most memorable show we probably had was in April of ’06 when we had the tornado and the show was going on.
What happened then with the tornado?
We stopped the show and we take the people to the lobby back here and tell them about the inclement weather is coming and they can do what they want. Fortunate or unfortunate it was an independent film festival going on that night and half the people had their cameras on them and they all wanted to go out and try and film it, until the winds all picked up and we saw them scrambling back like wild chickens.
Do you work most events? Judging by the numbers you gave it seems like you try.
My goal is to try and make it around 90% of the events. I do need to have a little bit of a life away from here.
Are there any types of events you prefer to work, do you notice a large crowd difference?
Oh yeah, I mean They Might Be Giants it was a younger crowd that drank and got a little rowdy but then we do things like the Nutcracker and it’s more of a family thing. Three times a year we do kids shows and we invite schools to come and we do an afternoon or morning matinee. Sometimes we have over 700 kids in this place. It’s filled with a lot of energy; sometimes you wish you had that energy. You think I have a lot of energy well those kids, the building starts rocking. Then the moment the lights go out you can hear a pin drop because they’re ready for the show.
What drives you to want to be here at the Englert?
It makes me happy. I mean many years ago there was a performer, Janice Danfield she’s a motivational speaker for women and she was here and telling people what to do to empower themselves and make them happy, actually there was something like 200 women and I was the only guy here (laughs). But no, just listening to her message you gotta find something in life that makes you happy and do it and be happy with it and your decisions. Like tonight, what is there on television? What would you rather do, sit at home and watch something not so good on television or come down here and work with 15 wonderful people and help 700 people enjoy the night? We try to make the night special for every person, that’s why we open the door for them; we go back to the old style. There is just stuff you won’t see anywhere else. There is something for everybody here.
For you, is there anything special that stands out about the Englert?
We have great volunteers. We probably have about 150 active volunteers that have volunteered in the past year or so. They are all wonderful people and they do a great job when they are here, they are great people to work with, not as crazy as I am, often they do 10 to 15 shows a year. They are great people and we’re glad to have them.
Are you out there with the door the entire event, or is there some point where your role switches?
When I first started it was basically that we rotated the usher’s every fifteen minutes but then I mean it’s hard to rotate and keep track of everything, if you go back into the lobby for fifteen minutes it’s hard to tell what happened in the time you were gone. So I like standing, I am not one who likes to sit for a long time. I just took on the responsibility of doing lobby duty during the show.
Are there any shows that’d you rather be in the audience for?
I am perfectly content doing what I am doing. I mean if you look back here there are few places where we can see what is happening. If it’s a musical act we can hear with no problem, if but it isn’t like I’m missing a whole lot of the show if I’m not seeing it.
How does weather play into the events? Are there any points you wish you were inside?
I love being out there, it’s always my choice being out there, I don’t have to go if I don’t want. Most of the time it depends on the wind, if the wind isn’t blowing that hard I try and get out there until at least 10 degrees. If the wind is blowing we might come in before then, but like I said it’s always my choice. But what’s fun about going in the cold is that you have all these nice ladies come around and they’re just like your mother, “Do you have your wool underwear on?” “I hope you have something on under that wool coat!” Just people who are out there really concerned about me out there, one time a lady tried to give me her hat because I didn’t have anything on my head. I wasn’t that cold but she thought it was freezing out. I get it to see it all the good and the bad of downtown Iowa City I get to see.
I bet you spend more time outside than most people do.
Often I spend an hour before each show outside. During the summer I go outside and run for at least an hour a day. But at my real job I’m in this office with nine computer monitors and no windows, my only contact with the outside world is the Internet or the telephone. This is totally opposite of my job.
How long do you intend on volunteering here at the Englert?
I’d like to do it as long as I can. For sure it will be until 2013 at least, I want to get at least 5000 volunteer hours here. I don’t think I am going to get it until 2013. That’s my goal 5000, my first goal was a 1000 hours but I blew by that a long time ago. Now we’re looking at 5000 and we’ll decide at 5000 what we’re going to do, I mean we’ll probably keep coming. This is a wonderful place, wonderful people, wonderful entertainment.
What type of music do you prefer to listen to?
I’m the old fashioned type. I like big band, I like the barbershop quartets. Really if you listen to my playlist when I run, it has a little bit of everything. Some days I play nothing but the hard rock, its gets you out there, other times its like Sting or Air Supply, sometimes you just want to take it easy.
Are there and events of types of performances you’d like to see come to the Englert?
Some time I’d like to see a hypnotist, and then, not that anyone else would like to see it, but the group Sha Na Na which I related to when I was younger, would be fun just to see. Like the Beatles Tribute, they come every year and we sell 400 or 500 tickets to that. Part of the fun in standing out front is people don’t know how I know that they are probably coming to the Englert. They are so surprised when somebody else in front of them will walk by but I will open the door for them when they come by. I guess it’s just standing out there for six years. You just kind of learn the type of people that come to the Englert. I probably get at least 80% of them right, there’s a few that I miss. It’s kind of a game out there okay, let’s see how good we can do tonight, can we get by with less than three mistakes. You have to do something when you’re standing out there. If it’s a sellout you can stay pretty busy out there.
[Reporter’s Note: Kent also wanted me to add that the Englert Theatre has many other great volunteers. Last year 112 different people ushered for a group total of 3835 total hours. Linda Bergquist, Diane Smith, and Cheryl Tugwell all reached their 1000 hour mark as volunteer ushers.]