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Culture / Entertainment

Getting a Vitamin IV With Ariana Grande and Dave Chappelle — Houston’s Rock King Shares His Inside Tales

How Gary Becker’s Found New Life at Smart Financial Centre, the Arena Changing the Texas Concert Scene

BY // 11.05.18

SUGAR LAND — Sitting backstage, with an IV stuck in his arm, Gary Becker only shakes his head. When his dad told him to go into rock ‘n’ roll, he didn’t expect days quite like this.

Wild partying? Yes, he expected that.

But getting Vitamin IVs alongside some of the biggest names in comedy and music? Now, that’s wild.

“(Dave) Chappelle sits down, he’s got an IV,” Becker laughs. “And Jon Stewart walks in — and he didn’t do it. But Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande, they’ve got IVs.

“And it’s like this room full of Vitamin IV guys. It was kind of a crazy thing. It was fun.”

Backstage “parties” have certainly changed since the days when Becker was learning his craft from his father, Allen Becker, who started Houston-based Pace Entertainment and built it into one of the biggest live entertainment empires in the world. The drug scene around music is much less prevalent, much more subdued.

Now, you’re more likely to see Vitamin IVs.

“I think the artists that are coming through are smarter,” Becker says, looking back on that Vitamin IV scene from the summer. “My parents didn’t know how to teach me. (The new artists) are not doing the stuff we did. They’re just smarter.

“It’s more professional. It’s less crazy, Not to say that some of that doesn’t come through here, but there’s not that much of it. And most of us don’t miss it.

“Some of us grew up.”

Few grew up in Houston’s music scene quite like Gary Becker. He’s now president of Smart Financial Centre, the long shot of a building that’s become one of the Top 10 5,000 to 10,000 seat entertainment venues in the world (VenueNow ranks the Smart Centre No. 8 worldwide). The arena also ranks 12th in the world in Pollstar’s overall Top 200 Theatre Venues.

“We’re competing against international buildings,” Becker tells PaperCity. “Radio City Music Hall, things like that. A couple of venues in Las Vegas.

“But we’re Top 10. Little place in Sugar Land, Texas is on the map.”

Shows at Sugar Land’s showcase arena racked up 352,000 tickets sold in the venue’s first year. Its five-year goal had been to build up to eventually selling 250,000 tickets in a single year. The timeline’s been accelerated at rock star speed.

For the 59-year-old Becker, it’s the natural evolution — and expansion — of the Houston music and live performance scene. From the Houston Coliseum to The Summit to Revention Music Center and the Arena Theater, Becker’s seen it all — and his family’s helped program it all. Now, he practically lives in this still new crown jewel of a venue.

Smart Financial Centre hosted 130 shows in its first year. Becker was at 128 of them.

He credits his staff of 17 with doing much of the heavy lifting. “We probably have over 400 years of experience in the business among those 17 people,” Becker says.

The first general manager Becker hired to oversee day-t0-day operations at the arena didn’t work out. So Becker operates as the building’s de facto GM as well as president now.

Smart Financial Center
Smart Financial Centre is the 12th ranked venue in the Theater Top 200 international rankings.

Smart Financial Centre may be only in its second year of operations, but Becker’s been working on the project for a decade now. He’s still more likely to show up to a meeting wearing a leather jacket than a tie, but he knows this business like few others. He knows when he’s holding a winning hand.

“The artists love the building,” he says. “The crews love the building.”

New Age Stars

Becker admits he does not always understand the artists coming in these days. Take Latin rapper Bad Bunny.

“He’s going to be here for the third time in 14 months,” Becker says. “He was an opening act first. I’m watching him and I don’t get it. And he came back four or five months later… sold out, just sold out. And the kids know every word. And I’m sitting there going, ‘I don’t get it.’

“But I’m sure my parents said the same thing when I was doing Van Halen on the Texas Jam.”

Much of Smart Financial Centre’s early success can be attributed to classic rock and superstar comedy acts (Chappelle, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld among them). In one quick span last summer, the arena hosted Santana, Rob Stewart, Boston and Journey.

“We’re competing against international buildings. Radio City Music Hall things like that. A couple of venues in Las Vegas. But we’re Top 10. Little place in Sugar Land, Texas is on the map.”

When Chappelle came in June, he sold 17,000 tickets over three shows. Smart Financial Centre’s size (its movable walls allow the setting capacity to be set as low 3,000 and as high as 6,400) gives it a major advantage in the comedy scene.

“I think Dave Chappelle played Revention last year, sold out three shows, but that’s like 9,000 people,” Becker says of the downtown Houston venue with a 2,815 max capacity. “Here, an additional 8,000 people is lot more money for him.”

Understanding the Talent

Not all artists want to sit down and have a Vitamin IV like Chappelle, though. Part of Becker’s job is knowing how each star wants to be approached.

“Everybody wants to be treated right,” Becker says. “Some musicians… they don’t want to be seen. Morrissey’s the kind of guy who always wants to keep to himself.”

Then, there’s Tony Bennett. The legendary 92-year-old crooner  doesn’t make a fuss — and always makes time for a meet and greet with his fans.

“He’s nice,” Becker says. “He comes in, just happy to be there. No teleprompter either. A lot of our bands have teleprompters.”

In rare cases, a star becomes a friend. Sammy Hagar and Becker are genuine buddies. Hagar’s a wine fanatic — and his concert rider always includes a very specific bottle of red wine, depending on what he’s into at the moment.

Early in his career in the music business, Becker became the guy assigned to meet Hagar in Austin at the beginning of his tour — this rocker always starts his tours in Texas — and take him to his favorite wine store. From there, a friendship built.

“We’re all kind of weird,” Becker says. “We’re in a weird business that’s not the norm.”

A Second Music Life

This whole run at the Smart Financial Centre is something of an unexpected second act for Becker in the industry. When Pace Entertainment was sold to SFX and then Clear Channel, Gary Becker found himself out of the live entertainment business.

“I was out of it for 10 years,” Becker says. “I didn’t get to see anybody.”

The guy who started as a runner in his dad’s company, basically doing the gopher roles, and rose to a position of leadership would have to find something else to do. And he did. Until, Sugar Land’s city leadership came up with the crazy idea to open up a major entertainment venue in the Houston suburbs — and needed someone to help hone the vision.

“I’m just some old beat up production guy from the ’80s who knew where to put things,” Becker says. “End of the career, to get involved in a project like this, kind of gives you another little hit, another bit of excitement.”

Gary Becker, Allen Becker

Now, Becker’s 25-year-old son Morgan works for him at the arena. His now 86-year-old dad still lives nearby. And he’s engaged to a woman he met at one of those shows.

“She’s got four grown kids,” Becker says. “I’ve got two, we just took them all to the Bahamas so they could get to know each other…

“And she’s age appropriate. She’s 51.”

Becker laughs. In the big-time music business, where faded rockers often date 20-year-old models, “age appropriate” means something.

“I’m having fun,” Becker says. “She’s wonderful. I need wonderful.”

Sometimes, second chances catch you by surprise. Just like the near uncontrollable tears of a teenage girl so excited to see Dan & Phil — a pair of self-described  British Internet introverts who’ve become runaway YouTube hits — at Smart Financial that she just cannot help herself.

Hey, those teens pay for tickets just the same as the older crowd that casually walks in to see Steely Dan.

“Hopefully, they say it was better than the Houston Coliseum,” Becker says of the concert venue which used to sit on Bagby Street in downtown, where the Hobby Center is now. “(The Coliseum) was terrible. But it was fun.”

The Smart Financial Centre is fun — and decidedly better planned and put together. The shows go on — and a Becker is somehow back in the middle of it all. Even if times have changed for this rock ‘n’ roller too.

“I’m the straightest guy on the block now,” Gary Becker says, leaning back in an ordinary office chair in his modest office at Smart Financial Centre. “I’ve had two drinks total in this building….

“When I go out, I’m always the designated driver. I’m kind of boring from what I was in the mid ’80s. But still around. Still having fun. I still don’t have to wear a tie to work.”

Sometimes the best rock ‘n’roll life is the rock ‘n’ roll life that keeps going long enough to see everything change. A Vitamin IV? Sure, Gary Becker will try that. Why not? Make room Dave and Ariana, Becker is joining in.

Rock on.

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