Off the Cuff with Claiborne: Steve Schankman
When it comes to major entertainment events in St. Louis and beyond, the name Steve Schankman has to be part of the conversation. For more than 40 years, his company, Contemporary Productions, has been a mainstay in the area. While big conglomerates have their say in who you can see in the Lou, Schankman is working to ensure that fans of live music don’t have to worry.
How did a fledgling musician end up on the backstage side of the business?
Aug. 4 1968, The Temptations were playing Kiel Auditorium. It was the last show they did with David Ruffin, so it was a very memorable night. Thanks to my mentor, I was booked for that gig. I’m looking around, and there were 10,000 people there. At around $4 a ticket, that’s $40,000. I was making $120 for the show. That’s when the promoter bug bit me, and the next year, I was bringing The Grateful Dead to the Fox Theatre.
What were some of the beacons that helped guide you on your way?
The biggest break we ever got was a guy named Frank Barsalona. He founded Premier Talent Agency. There was only one office in New York, but it had Bruce Springsteen and all of the big English bands that came over in the British Invasion. We brought Yes to Kiel in 1974 and sold out two nights. A week later, we get a call that Mr. Barsalona wanted to meet us the next day in New York. My co-founder Irv Zuckerman and I were just young guys who had only been on a plane once or twice, but we booked a flight. When we got there, Barsalona told us he was impressed and would give us all of his acts in St. Louis.
Who was the best entertainer to work with, and whose call would you let go to voicemail?
The best is hard because you’ve got to look at each genre. For jazz, it was certainly Maynard Ferguson, who I managed until his death. With pop music, it’s Billy Joel. We started when his career was just beginning. Looking at rock and roll, I would have to say Journey. I’ve known the band forever. For the best, I can never name just one artist, but the other one, I can tell you immediately. July 2, 1991, Axel Rose decided it would be fun to jump into the audience and stop his show short a couple songs. It was a horrible night. People got injured. It was something I never thought I would see in my life.
If you weren’t doing Contemporary Productions, what would your career be?
I’ve always been on the boards of a lot of charities, so maybe running a nonprofit. I’d also probably be practicing my trumpet getting ready for a weekend gig. Maybe, I’d do what you’re doing and write an entertainment column. I’d be looking for something to keep me going everyday.
Why did you decide to stick around St. Louis?
My grandfather Schankman actually had the first musical conservatory in St. Louis, the Systematic School of Music. My other grandfather was bugler on horseback for the czar of Russia before he was able to escape in 1904 and came here. My roots are in St. Louis. My whole life has been on Hanley Road—from U. City High to my office to my home. My family does like to travel, but I love this town. St. Louis gave me everything that I have today.