Applause: Chris Heinbaugh: Act 3

Posted on 25 Aug 2011 at 5:00pm

Former TV newsman Chris Heinbaugh left the mayor’s office to return to his roots in the arts community

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Being near the stage (including the iconic Wyly Theatre) is nothing new for the former mayoral chief of staff; Heinbaugh once made his living as an actor. | Photography by Arnold Wayne Jones

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Applause Editor

Chris Heinbaugh will not soon forget his first day working for the AT&T Performing Arts Center as its external affairs director. A “patio session” live music show preceded the opening night of Billy Elliot at the Winspear, the Mavs hosted one of their home games on the way to the NBA title, and there was an after-party at Jorge’s where he needed to make an appearance. All without an assistant. Jorge’s is where he is sitting now, margarita in hand, after work.

All that might sound like the kind of first day that might also be your last, but for Heinbaugh, it was completely manageable. As the openly gay chief of staff to Mayor Tom Leppert (and briefly Mayor Dwaine Carraway), Heinbaugh was a fixture in the media, at council meetings and throughout the community; Day 1 at ATTPAC was just another example of doing what needs to be done.

“You hit the ground running in both jobs,” he says with a sly smile. “People ask me, ‘Do you miss City Hall? Do you miss the politics?’ There’s still politics in what I do, interacting with the city, the chambers [of commerce], other arts organizations.” He shrugs and takes another sip of his margarita.

Now, instead of working for the man who runs a huge city, he work for an entity that manages, operates and programs the Wyly, Winspear, Strauss Square and Sammons Park (there are no plans for ATTPAC to operate the City Performance Hall currently under construction, “though we are supportive of what they want”) — also a breathtakingly expansive job.

But working for an arts organization isn’t as far a cry from Heinbaugh’s prior life as it may seem. Before he started working for Leppert, Heinbaugh was on-air talent for WFAA-TV. Although he was hired to be a political reporter, Heinbaugh says he made it a condition of his employment that he got to dip his toe occasionally in arts coverage to “keep my creative juices working.”

“Ray Nasher was one of the first stories I did when I moved here,” he says. “He got me a full tour of his house and he was so passionate about every piece — every piece had a story. And the [performing arts center] was something I started covering immediately. It was a great way to get to know the arts community.”

That was back in 2000, and Heinbaugh ended up in Dallas almost by accident. After 18 years in television journalism, he was ready to quit and start a different career when WFAA tapped him. The flagship station of the Belo Corp., being asked to work for Channel 8 is to TV journos what being called to the majors is for a minor league pitcher:The juiciest plum in his profession. He couldn’t turn it down.

But even journalism was a second career in itself. In a prior life, Heinbaugh received his college degree in theater from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and made his living (barely) as actor for more than a decade.

“That was a long time ago,” he sighs. “Although there’s an episode of Divorce Court out there with me in it. Every so often I still get a residual check for two bucks.” (He also appeared as a bachelor on The Dating Game and won the vacation with the bachelorette, though it was platonic and they stayed in separate rooms.) Eventually Heinbaugh craved the regularity of a steady paycheck and went back to school to study journalism.

Now all those careers are behind him, though his position at ATTPAC didn’t come as a surprise to him, or even feel like much of a change.

“The job was something on my radar,” he admits. Even before Leppert’s sudden resignation as mayor so that he could run for U.S. Senate, Heinbaugh planned to switch careers, and something in the arts seemed a natural extension of both his theatrical and political lives.

“I loved all the things going on in the city, from the Calatrava bridge to the Performing Arts Center, so now I just get to be an advocate.”

Heinbaugh works for ATTPAC, which is a separate entity from the Arts District neighborhood, headed by Veletta Lill.

“I work closely with Veletta,” he says. “I’ve known her since I’ve lived here and she has such a great appreciation for the arts community and the gay community.”

They work together in trying to turn Downtown into its own destination, with sunset movie screenings, outdoor concerts and festivals. Something is working.

“When I moved here there were maybe 200 people living Downtown; now there are 7,000 to 8,000,” he says. “Museum Tower is coming. It’s just a matter of time.”

But he also know what really will serve the ATTPAC is the programming at the halls.

“What’s the real challenge for the resident companies is, they have this tremendous space and the question is, what do they do with it? I think [Dallas Theater Center artistic director] Kevin Moriarty has pushed the envelope, and that’s good for the arts. That’s what’s really exciting. And we’re getting the word out.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 26, 2011.

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