The Boch name spreads to the Theater District
Ernie Boch Jr. was a teenager when he attended his first rock concert at the Wang Theatre — known then as the Music Hall. It was the early 1970s, and Cat Stevens and America were a hot ticket.
Also in the audience that night was a fresh-faced Josiah Spaulding Jr., who years later would run the Wang. Boch, as everyone knows, grew up to run his family’s auto empire.
Decades later the two guitar-playing executives would meet and strike up a friendship — now a partnership — over their love of music.
On Thursday, Spaulding will reveal that the Boch family has purchased the naming rights to the Citi Performing Arts Center, which operates the Wang and Shubert theaters and where he serves as CEO. Starting Nov. 1, the historic venues on Tremont Street will be known as the Wang Theatre at the Boch Center and the Shubert Theatre at the Boch Center.
“The main reason I did it was because of Joe,” Boch, 58, explained in an interview at the baroque-style Wang Theatre. “This theater is near and dear to my heart, but it’s the work that Joe does with the community. This is a living, breathing theater.”
By that, Boch means that the Wang and Shubert are not just venues for concerts and shows in the evening, but promote music education and the arts by day. That matters to Boch, who runs his family’s multibillion-dollar dealership business but is also a trained musician who started the charitable foundation Music Drives Us, which funds musical opportunities for the underserved.
He hopes the sponsorship means that both organizations can grow their outreach programs with the belief that the arts creates a civilized society.
“We’re not here to make rock stars,” said Boch, CEO of Boch Enterprises in Norwood. “We’re out to make better people.”
The deal marks a return to the way it was in this town, the search for local patrons rather than corporate giants whose fortunes and loyalties may shift through mergers and strategic changes. Citigroup, for example, sought naming rights as it was opening up branches in Boston in 2006. Last year it decided to close its local retail operations and withdraw its support for the Wang and the Shubert theaters.
This time around, Spaulding wanted to forge a longer-lasting relationship, perhaps one that could span generations like the one with the Wang family, whose $4 million gift in 1983 saved one of the theaters that was renamed in their honor. Computer pioneer An Wang and his wife Lorraine have passed away, but a son, Courtney, serves as vice chairman of the board.
“The Boch family is not changing,” said Spaulding. “Why not make a long-term commitment?”
If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that securing corporate sponsors for the arts is no easy feat in this town. After years of generosity, companies are shifting how they spend their marketing and charitable dollars. Just take a look at the struggle to find funding for the Fourth of July fireworks concert on the Esplanade, First Night, and the Outside the Box music festival.
The terms of the multiyear Boch agreement were not disclosed, but the family plans to support the theaters longer than Citi did. The banking behemoth offered a lucrative sum to have its name on the marquees, with recent payments ranging from $1.1 million to $1.6 million a year, according to federal filings.
On the face of it, Boch and Spaulding are an unlikely pairing. The car magnate, with his flowing locks, is ever the energetic salesman, while the nonprofit CEO, by comparison, comes off as patrician.
But the two have much in common. Both are the sons of local prominent families that instilled in them a sense of community. Spaulding’s father, also Josiah, was a politically active lawyer who founded the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, and his mother, Helen Bowdoin Spaulding, was the president of the New England Aquarium. Boch is a third-generation auto dealer; his late father, Ernie Sr., was famous for his series of wacky TV commercials.
Above all, these two scions share a passion for music. Both had bands, cut albums, and toured briefly. But over the last few years, they struck up a friendship, whether working together with the Eagles’ Don Henley on a charitable project or enjoying another Cat Stevens concert at the Wang. Boch’s foundation has also supported the summer jobs program at the Wang and Shubert.
Spaulding said dozens of companies expressed an interest in underwriting the Wang and Shubert. Other individuals also took a look, but he still described the environment for underwriting of the arts as “tough out there.”
Boch made national headlines last summer for being a vocal supporter of Donald Trump back when the Republican real estate mogul was seen as a long shot.
Trump even attended a rally hosted by Boch at his Norwood mansion.
Boch, a Republican, continues to back the candidate, but said he has no plans to thrust his own politics on others.
“That’s not what I do,” said Boch. “Vote for anybody you want — but vote. You have to vote.”
A year ago, the biggest drama on Boston’s performing-arts scene revolved around its future. In a span of several weeks, Huntington Theatre Co. faced losing its longtime home, Emerson College weighed redeveloping the 115-year-old Colonial Theatre, the Boston Lyric Opera decided not to renew its lease at the Shubert, and Citi said it was dropping its theater sponsorship.
And just as quickly as the plot thickened, the story lines became clearer. Over the summer, Huntington Theatre Co. inked a deal to remain in its space, and this week the Globe reported that Emerson may reopen the Colonial as a theater.
Perhaps the biggest relief is from Mayor Marty Walsh, who campaigned as a champion of the arts. He will be there at the Wang on Thursday in a ceremony to unveil the Boch Center logo.
“Some of the fears a year ago sparked a renewal of the arts in our community,” Walsh told me. “I think it was needed.”
Boch stepped up, but no doubt the city’s arts scene will need more patrons like him.