Michael Tait is retired, but he’s working every day, usually beginning at 7 a.m.
He arrives at a building that bears his name, conceptually, but not literally. Mickey’s Black Box is the newest addition to the sprawling arts campus of Rock Lititz, and if Tait had his way, it wouldn’t open for another year.
Nevertheless, the doors will open to the public on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 29 and Oct. 30, for a stage production of “The Rocky Horror Show.”
74, standing in the middle of his Black Box. “To finesse things like I want, it could be another year. You look at it and think, ‘Oh, I can change that bit, or change this.’ There’s a huge amount to do still. I wouldn’t have booked these shows, because I’m in no rush. They’re in a rush to get going, I’m not.”
The “they” that Tait refers to is, well, everyone else involved with Mickey’s Black Box. Tait hired his friend and Live Nation employee John Stevenson to run the venue on a corporate level. Stevenson, recognizing the enormity of the task, brought in his Live Nation peer Andrea Sweeney to help with venue’s management. The chain linked once more when the duo hired Dylan Evans, who previously worked with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and helped design the team’s Golden 1 Center as the venue’s general manager.
“Mickey has this vision of how beautiful this venue will look, down to him building the bars, because he wants the bars to be a great experience for people,” Sweeney says over the phone. “His attention to detail at every aspect of this venue has been so incredible. It’s a testament to Mickey that it’s more of a slow opening to make sure everything’s right before we are just booking like crazy.”
Mickey’s Black Box is just that – a large, 10,000 sq. ft. black box theater that can be formatted in endless ways to conform to whatever an event calls for.
The space was designed entirely by Tait, working from decades of experience in the upper echelons of the live entertainment industry. With a maximum cap of 600 people and with roughly 300 seats, the venue can accommodate a packed house for a rock band just as easily as a small ballet recital, with the help of gigantic black curtains used to conceal excess empty space.
What makes Mickey’s Black Box different from just about every other event space in the area is that Tait is offering the venue to essentially anyone with a good idea, if they don’t potentially mind doing some heavy lifting along the way.
“The idea — well, my idea — is that we’re not going to promote shows,” Tait explains. “The idea is that you rent the building, and then you decide, do you need extra services? Do you want bartenders, light guys? You can rent anything you want, or not. A little acting company, for instance, that has their own little team of production people, and maybe they’re not able to go to the Fulton or anywhere else, well, where do they go? They can rent this place cheap, but they have to sell their own tickets, usher their own seats, turn on the lights and sweep the floor when they leave, and then they get it cheap.”
“All I want to get paid is the cost of opening the doors. Now, I don’t know how that is going to work, because the cost of opening the doors is more than you’d think. But if anyone wants to promote a show, they can rent the building and do as much of the work as they want, or we’ll do whatever they don’t want to do, and they’ll pay for it.”
This concept underscores what Tait told Esquire Magazine in its April 2020 issue, that the venue will exist to “foster the arts that aren’t looked after.” The idea for the venue came to Tait in the Spring of 2019, when he read an LNP article about local actor Camilla Schade’s one-woman show “Bones,” which was about her bout with terminal cancer.
In that Esquire article, Tait estimated that he had paid $5 million in cash for the venue, but when asked again a year later, he says that that price has increased.
“I’m not much for borrowing,” says Tait. “I built everything with money earned. Younger people now, they go and borrow and expand, I’m more traditional. If need be, if I change my mind, I could lock the door and just walk away and forget it. I’m trying to get rid of worry in my life.”
‘Top of the line’
Though it is technically independent from Rock Lititz as a business, Mickey’s Black Box benefits enormously from its position on the campus. For example, Clair Brothers provided the venue the latest and greatest in sound equipment, which can be added to or subtracted from, depending on the size of the event.
Of course, to the general public in Lancaster County and beyond, the name Rock Lititz also carries with it the intrigue of national acts popping by to work on rehearsals and stage shows for massive tours. This past September, Mickey’s Black Box hosted a private event for 200 people featuring musical entertainment from Carlos Santana and Earth, Wind & Fire, in town to work on their “Miraculous Supernatural” tour.
“Yes, 200 guests, and the place looked empty,” Tait says. “You need a lot of people to fill this place. But for instance, if you have a show with only 100 people, you can put a curtain across the back here and close it right down.”
Promoter Brandon Gepfer, who booked shows at the Chameleon Club in Lancaster city and has since started booking at Tellus360 and at spaces in Berks County, will book concerts at the Black Box with his Big Fan Presents organization. The first of these shows is Harrisburg natives Fuel on Saturday, Nov. 27.
“The way the building is, it’s going to be top of the line, and production will be second to none,” Gepfer says. “My goal is to bring the national bands, and then have the strong local openers that can bring the event home. And these bands are going to get to play in a space that they’re not used to. It’s going to be incredible for these local artists toplay a stage that is this amazing.
“I also feel like there’s going to be cool stuff there, whether it’s private and you don’t hear about it until after it’s happened, or some random artist is popping up and they want to play a quick show,” Gepfer says.
Stevenson says that his and Sweeney’s focus is on booking popular music, with a goal of reaching 80 to 100 shows per year. As with several other properties on the campus, an outdoor microphone is placed near the road that leads to Mickey’s Black Box so that Warwick Township officials can monitor excess sound. Engineers can monitor the sound from the inside as well, lest the rocking is too hard.
“If it goes into the red, there are legal ramifications, but we don’t intend to do that,” Tait says. “Not on purpose, at least.”
Retirement projects come in all forms, whether it be fixing up an old car, learning a new language or perhaps devising a multi-million-dollar event space that features no outside signage.
“People ask me, ‘Where does it say Mickey’s Black Box?’ and it doesn’t, and I’m not sure that it will,” Tait says, looking up at his creation from outside. “I figure, if you can’t find it, you shouldn’t be here.”