YAKIMA, Wash. — Ellie Strosahl, the woman who shepherded The Seasons Performance Hall from the brink of closure to a place of relative financial stability over the past four years, is leaving the organization this summer.
It would be an oversimplification to say Strosahl, 30, saved The Seasons, but she was at the helm. And many of the changes she championed — expanding programming beyond classical and jazz, partnering with the Yakima Light Project Gallery, renting the hall to more outside promoters — have since been credited with keeping the nonprofit music venue afloat.
Her tenure is credited with stabilizing the operation at The Seasons, which is considered one of the city’s most important entertainment venues.
“Ellie has been a great leader,” said Sean Hawkins, the current Seasons board president. “It’s been more than just a job. It takes a lot of passion.”
The Seasons was founded in late 2005 under the ownership of the Strosahl family business, United Builders. Pat Strosahl, his brother, Steve Strosahl, and their mother, Joyce Strosahl, envisioned it as a venue for the classical and jazz music they loved. And they subsidized its operating costs with about $100,000 a year of United Builders money. But when the economy tanked, they could no longer afford that and a new business model was needed.
Ellie, hired out of college to do marketing work for the venue, was thrust into a management role as The Seasons lost its angel donor and transitioned into a nonprofit.
“It was almost like a second startup phase,” she said. “We had to replace half the funding we started with and still appease the people who liked what we had been doing.”
That meant severely scaling back on the jazz and classical offerings while offering a wider array of performers, something Stosahl said she and her father fought about to the point that it threatened their outside-of-work relationship.
“We really had a power struggle,” she said. “We really had differing visions. And it’s hard to have a vision and have to let go of that. But we’ve definitely come to a place of understanding.”
The elder Strosahl, clearly proud of his daughter, downplayed the power struggle, saying the economic reality of the situation ultimately tilted toward Ellie’s vision.
“The musical direction became a secondary issue the minute we couldn’t support the vision we originally had,” he said. “I actually think of it as an agreement. We had to find a way to make The Seasons work, and Ellie had a lot of great ideas about that, that I didn’t have. ... We had to give things up, and sometimes I gritted my teeth. I don’t in any way fault Ellie in terms of what she did.”
It helped that the younger Strosahl was passionate about saving the place and about bringing in good music. Still, it took time. The Seasons began booking rock bands, as well as performers such as Elvis impersonator Danny Vernon, who packed the house but is about as far from the venue’s original mission as possible. Still, 2010 was touch and go.
“Failure was definitely a possibility,” Strosahl said.
She and newly hired employee Nick Orlando put in 50-hour weeks, hustling to book and promote shows as well as reaching out to potential donors and, when needed, manning the bar during performances.
“When I got hired, I had no idea how bad off The Seasons Performance Hall was,” Orlando said. “I jumped into a sinking ship, and it was a month-by-month ride, just trying to keep the doors open.”
Both he and Stosahl talk about those days now with a sort of muted romanticism; the venue was in jeopardy but there wasn’t time to worry about that with all the work to be done.
“It was really kind of a magic time,” Orlando said. “We both had a lot of passion for the facility and the organization. Even though the hours were crazy, at the end of the day it was about putting on a show for the people that they would enjoy.”
That passion, especially in the face of financial insecurity, has been a hallmark of Strosahl’s tenure as director, said Bill Cook, president of the Seasons board in 2011 and 2012.
“She seems to have a good sense of people around her,” he said. “She selects people who equally enjoy the challenge of putting on a show.”
Programming is still a challenge. Contemporary bands such as Blitzen Trapper and The Cave Singers have drawn well. But others, such as reggae legends Toots and The Maytals and critically acclaimed neo-soul singer Cody ChesnuTT, have drawn surprisingly small crowds.
Being able to identify who will draw and who won’t is something Strosahl has gotten increasingly good at, though, Hawkins said, adding that’s something the board will look for in her replacement.
But keeping The Seasons afloat is important to Yakima’s cultural identity, said Hawkins, whose day job is economic development director for the city.
“When people go there, they know they’re going to see something interesting,” he said. “It’s not just a band at a bar. (The Seasons) has really helped put (Yakima) on the radar screen.”
Like any arts organization in a small community, there’s not much of a financial cushion for The Seasons, even now, he said. But it is in a good place, relative to where it was a few years ago.
That’s why Strosahl feels comfortable leaving. She doesn’t know exactly what she’ll do next, but she’s going to start by moving to California to live with her sister for a while and just explore her options.
“I was tied to it,” she said. “But it was also an anchor for me in my formative years. I needed it. I’ve always been into art and music, and it was a perfect fit for me.”
She was a perfect fit for The Seasons, too, said Pat Strosahl. She was strong enough to battle him over programming, and she was passionate enough to see The Seasons through its lean years.
What did she mean to the organization?
“I think everything,” he said.