Larry Payton: Celebrity Attractions founder dies at 64
BY TIM STANLEY World Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
2/20/13 at 8:18 AM
Larry Payton, the innovative entertainment entrepreneur who built Tulsa's Celebrity Attractions into one of the most successful presenters of Broadway shows in the country, died unexpectedly Monday night at Saint Francis Hospital.
He was 64.
Funeral services are pending.
According to family members, Payton died of complications related to pneumonia, for which he had been admitted to the hospital.
Payton's last public appearance was in January, to announce Celebrity Attractions' 2013-14 season and to welcome the production of the "Jekyll & Hyde" musical to Tulsa.
"For 30 years Larry's dream of bringing laughter, smiling faces and stirring hearts through live entertainment has touched lives. ... The lights of Broadway are dimmer today because of the loss of Larry Payton," said Ed Payton, Payton's brother and Celebrity Attractions chief operating officer.
Larry Payton founded Celebrity Attractions out of his home in 1983, while still working as director of activities at the University of Tulsa's Allen Chapman Activity Center.
The first show he presented was "Cotton Patch Gospel," which told the story of Jesus Christ through country music and a uniquely Southern vernacular.
It was a show that brought together two important elements of the budding impresario's life - his religious faith and his love of live theater.
In 1989, Payton entered the business full time and began developing his company into a leading presenter of Broadway touring musicals, bringing such landmark productions as "Cats," "Les Miserables," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Wicked" and "The Lion King" to Tulsa.
Payton was also a producer of a number of Broadway shows, including "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which earned the Tony Award for Best Musical, and the Cathy Rigby production of "Peter Pan," which returns to Tulsa March 5.
Payton officially received his Tony Award for "Millie" in 2002, presented to him at a press conference by Tulsa Mayor Bill LaFortune.
"Larry was a truly amazing gentleman and great, great friend and partner," Cathy Rigby said.
"He flew with us to Neverland for the past 20-plus years. He was always there to be supportive whenever there was a need and always spoke of his faith and family with great love and passion. His humanity and devotion to making this world a better place will be his legacy."
John Scott, longtime director of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, became a close personal friend of Payton's, watching as he went from offering "a series of one-nighters to weeklong shows and from there to multi-week runs for the bigger shows."
"The growth was just phenomenal and it was a real treat to see it. I don't think most people know the financial risk promoters like Larry take on."
"We at the PAC feel his loss very deeply," Scott added. "And his reach went far beyond the Broadway world. He made everyone he knew feel very special."
Finding shows to bring to Tulsa and the six other regional markets his company services kept Payton on the road frequently.
He was interested in theater of all kinds, not just blockbuster shows, and liked to keep his offerings as family-friendly as possible, even occasionally asking producers to tone down certain scenes, a request he said they rarely objected to.
A longtime active leader with Tulsa's Parkview Baptist Church, Payton also enjoyed encouraging and promoting religious-themed stage fare, and was a producer for the biblically based touring show "The Rock and the Rabbi."
He also brought to Oklahoma the four plays in the "Greater Tuna" series, co-written and performed by Jaston Williams and Bartlesville native Joe Sears.
Sears praised Payton, noting that with the fun and laughter of "Tuna," he "helped bring thousands of Oklahomans into the live theater when they might never had done that."
Among other notable achievements, Payton was a producer for the 1999 revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," which earned Broken Arrow native Kristin Chenoweth a Tony Award and helped launch her career.
Jack Eldon, a vice president with Disney Theatrical Group, worked with Payton on such projects as "Beauty and the Beast," the national touring production created in Tulsa in 1999.
"Everyone at Disney Theatrical is terribly saddened by the news," Eldon said. "Larry was a consummate professional and made everyone's lives richer through his dedication to bringing the best of Broadway to the many markets of Celebrity Attractions."
Beyond the theater, Payton was a board member of Lifeway, the largest Christian retailer in the country.
He had also been actively involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes since college and was a board member for the state chapter.
Among his awards, Payton was the Tulsa Metro Chamber of Commerce's 1997 Small Business Person of the Year, and in 2006, the Broadway League presented him its Outstanding Achievement in Presenter Management Award.
"Beyond his business contribution, Larry's legacy will continue to impact through the work he did in his church and community," his brother, Ed, said.
Payton was a graduate of Ritenour Senior High School in St. Louis and Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., for which he was also a board member.
Payton's survivors include wife, Kay; two children, Drew and Laura; and his brother, Ed.
World Scene Writer James D. Watts Jr. contributed to this report.
Original Print Headline: Celebrity Attractions founder Larry Payton dies at 64
Tim Stanley 918-581-8385
Larry Payton speaks last month at the Performing Arts Center in Tulsa during the announcement of Celebrity Attractions' 2013-14 season. CHRISTOPHER SMITH / Tulsa World
Larry Payton, founder and president of Tulsa-based Celebrity Attractions, died unexpectedly on Monday. He was 64. Tulsa World file