Rialto gets boost from $15,000 Balzer challenge grant, GSU student callers

Fifteen years of the arts center celebrated by alumnus and Foundation board chair

The Rialto Center for the Arts this year celebrates 15 years at GSU with the help of students on a different stage – the GSU Call Center.

With telephones as essential props, these students reach out to potential donors. They follow scripts that challenge their listeners to help match a $15,000 pledge from longtime Rialto supporter Bill Balzer (B.A. 1998) and his wife, Peg Balzer.

Last year, donors responded to a similar pledge by the Balzers, bringing in $57,000 for the GSU College of Arts and Sciences.

To celebrate the 2011 campaign and boost the student callers, the Balzers and Rialto Director Leslie Gordon visited the call center in early November.

Desmond Johnson, a sophomore music major from Atlanta, had already experienced the value of the Rialto firsthand. As a music education/harp performance major, Johnson has performed several times there.

“I love the Rialto,” he said.  “It’s in top condition. People will notice when they listen to a performance. I was in concert there recently, with a piece for two harps, and you can’t mess up or it’s on you. I’ve performed in a lot of places and the Rialto is definitely special.”

The callers’ mission requires reliability and persistence. In speaking with hundreds of alumni and other constituents, they annually raise more than $500,000 for the university. They must be articulate and enthusiastic about their Georgia State experiences.

The Rialto itself symbolizes persistence. It has survived in the center of a city known for tearing down historic buildings.

Gordon pointed out that the Rialto has been in existence since 1916 – just five years short of a century, and in the same era as GSU’s founding in 1913.   The university’s first capital campaign raised the money to purchase and renovate the Rialto, along with the Haas Howell and Standard Buildings in the same block.

The $11 million renovation, which began in 1992, was finished in time for GSU to reopen the theatre for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

“This is $15,000 for 15 years as the Rialto at GSU,” she said of the Balzers’ challenge. “In the current funding climate, new donations are essential to our success. We know that when a ticket buyer decides to donate, no matter what the amount, they become invested in what we do.

“The fact that Bill and Peg pledged $15,000 to celebrate our 15th season as part of Georgia State, means that we are celebrating an important anniversary and gaining new friends while our educational programs can stay strong.”

Before the 2011-2012 performance season kicked off in September, GSU President Mark Becker said   the Rialto “was essential in transforming the city’s cultural landscape. Today, the Rialto Center for the Arts is firmly established as Atlanta’s home to the very best in jazz, dance, world music and so much more.”

The Balzers became involved with the Rialto initially as patrons of the Theatrical Outfit, which performed regularly at the Rialto before the refurbishing of the old Herren’s restaurant into the Balzer Theater.

They became synonymous with the downtown arts scene by making their home in the Healey Building, built in 1913, diagonally across from the Rialto. For outstanding service to the arts, Georgia State, the Rialto and downtown, the Balzers received the 2005 Rialto Pioneer Award signifying the Rialto’s groundbreaking redevelopment in the Fairlie-Poplar neighborhood.

The Balzers’ love for the arts, and public support of the arts, grew over the course of their marriage. “Peg is the cultural person,” Bill Balzer said while visiting the call center. “I’m a more public person, and she’s more quiet. She taught me how to enjoy all this.”

In keeping with GSU’s history as a campus for nontraditional students, the Balzers took classes after retirement.

Peg Balzer walked across the Rialto stage in 1998 to receive the Outstanding Student in Language Arts Award, earned while pursuing a master’s degree in Spanish literature. She serves on the Rialto Advisory Committee.

After retiring from 35 years with UPS, Bill Balzer received his B.S. in interdisciplinary studies from GSU in 1998. He serves on the GSU College of Arts and Sciences Board of Visitors and as trustee for the GSU Foundation, where he now serves as chairman.

At a Foundation retreat, “I didn’t say anything about the Rialto, because I know everyone was expecting me to, like I always do,” he said.

“At dinner the last night of the retreat, I talked about the various topics we heard at the retreat, starting with research,” he said. “By the time I got through, I had an acronym that spelled R-i-a-l-t-o. I had to slip it in!”

The Balzers topped off their visit to GSU’s call center with catered meals for the student callers. For many of them, the Rialto is synonymous with “GSU Idol,” the competition patterned on “American Idol” that is held in August.

“I went to support a friend of mine who was performing, and the Rialto was impressive,” said Yemisi Elebute, a sophomore exercise science major from Houston and a recipient of the Campus Atlanta Scholarship.

At the call center, students choose a cause among themselves to support with $5 donations. This month’s cause is the Urban Youth Harp Ensemble, which mentored Johnson in preparation for a career that took him to the Rialto stage.

The student callers are also looking forward to the Balzers’ return visit after the challenge ends June 30.

“We will write a check for you right here,” he told the callers. “This is not for show. We’ll do it right here, so we can all see the results of your work.”

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424