Penn State

Tales from the backstage: Bernie Punt set to retire from the Bryce Jordan Center

BJC’s Bernie Punt shares what he’ll miss most about the job

Bryce Jordan Center director of marketing and sales Bernie Punt reminisces about the 23 years he's had in the position and what he's going to miss.
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Bryce Jordan Center director of marketing and sales Bernie Punt reminisces about the 23 years he's had in the position and what he's going to miss.

When Paul McCartney’s handler asks what your venue can do that no other building has done before, answering can be an intimidating task.

But Bernie Punt — the Bryce Jordan Center’s director of marketing and sales for the past 23 years — delivered an on-the-spot answer that McCartney’s team thought was brilliant.

Punt recalled the story Thursday as he and his signature curly, dirty blonde hair walked through the bowels of the BJC — eight days before he retires.

“This was probably the most national publicity we got,” Punt said of the October 2015 concert. “This sold out immediately, but I was nervous about it because it was a really expensive ticket. I was told by the promoter, ‘Paul sells out.’ ”

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Walking down a hall at the Bryce Jordan Center filled with photos from past shows, Bernie Punt shares a story about Paul McCartney performing there in 2015. Punt is set to retire after working at the BJC for 23 years. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Punt eventually interviewed for four hours with McCartney’s manager and production team after they flew in from England. That’s when McCartney’s handler took time to remind Punt “who you’re dealing with.”

As Punt tells the story, McCartney’s handler reminded Punt about one of McCartney’s concerts in Brazil in front of about 200,000 people. The show was one of the largest crowds McCartney ever performed in front of and his handler thought it was “the greatest thing ever.”

But after the show, McCartney said he’d noticed two empty seats in the crowd and told his handler it better not happen again, Punt was told.

“And he goes, ‘That’s who you’re dealing with,’ ” Punt said. “So I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m not intimidated at all.’ ”

So what was Punt’s master plan to bring McCartney to Happy Valley? Hot air balloons.

The strategy was to launch four hot air balloons at the same time in State College, Altoona, Williamsport and Harrisburg with each containing a clue that, when pieced together, would let Pennsylvania know McCartney was coming.

“They’re like, ‘It’s ... brilliant. We’ve never done anything like that,’ ” Punt said.

The team then called McCartney to get his thoughts on the plan, came back and said, “Paul likes it.”

Two days later, Punt and the BJC got the show. It sold out within an hour. The balloons, by the way, never took flight because Punt said there were too many variables.

That story was one of several Punt told as he reminisced on his Hall of Fame career.

Pearl Jam

If a major tour wants to visit the BJC, but Penn State’s Career Day is already scheduled, Career Day takes precedence.

Academic events, including Thon, are the top priority, followed by basketball. Tours are the “lowest on the hierarchy” when it comes to scheduling, Punt said.

While not uncommon, it has forced Punt to say “no” — something he never wants to say — on various occasions, including to Pearl Jam.

The BJC’s relationship with the rock band started out very well. State College was the last stop for the band on the first leg of its 2003 tour.

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Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder and guitarist Stone Gossard perform before a sell-out crowd at the Bryce Jordan Center, Saturday, May 3, 2003 Centre Daily Times, file

As vocalist Eddie Vedder closed out the 23 songs on the set list, he decided the band would make it “one of the longest ever shows they had.” Three encores and 18 songs later, the show ended at about 1 a.m. and was the longest of their career at that point.

“We had a chance. Pearl Jam wanted to come back like a year or two year later, maybe three or four years later, they wanted to come back and close another tour out here,” Punt said. “And we already had something booked. We had to tell ‘em no. They’ve never been back. It just kills you.”

Michael Jordan and 9/11

The Philadelphia 76ers used to practice at the BJC and would also host exhibition games. That included the 2001 season when Michael Jordan came out of a three-year retirement and joined the Washington Wizards, who were scheduled to visit.

Punt and the BJC ultimately launched the marketing campaign for that event on Sept. 10, 2001.

“The next day I’m like, ‘We’re gonna sell this thing out. I’m so excited,’ ” Punt said. “And on the morning of 9/11, we start selling tickets. And then all of the sudden, our ticket sales started slowing down. One business manager goes, ‘Have you seen what’s going on?’ And I remember walking into his office and watching the second airplane go into the building. That’s when the whole world stopped.”

Shortly after, one of the game’s promoters called Punt and asked how the sales were.

“I was like, ‘What? How can — what? Do you see what’s going on?’ All of the sudden I heard her, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Punt said. “It was like, ‘We’re not dealing with basketball right now.’ ”

As 11 a.m. approached, a career fair was set to begin and both the students and businesses were prepared to proceed. That included a few professionals who worked at the World Trade Center and traveled the day prior.

“There were like empty tables and they were just crying. All their colleagues, they were discovering they’re gone. That photo invokes that memory of that day and then seeing the career fair and the impact that 9/11 had on sports and entertainment from that day forward,” Punt said, pointing to a photo of Jordan dribbling in front of a sold-out BJC crowd on Oct. 22, 2001.

Billy Joel and Elton John

The BJC has one “really big” star dressing room. It’s lavish, has nice furniture, plants, the works. The other star dressing room, however, is a locker room with pipe and drape.

“There’s a big difference between the two,” Punt said.

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Elton John and Billy Joel greet each other before their concert in a sold -out Bryce Jordan Center On Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2002. Centre Daily Times, file

So when Billy Joel and Elton John visited during their Face to Face tour, he was tasked with deciding which artist got which room. Normally, it’s settled with a coin flip.

That didn’t happen.

“Billy walks in, looks at the locker and goes, ‘Yeah, rented furniture, yeah, yeah.’ He walks in and goes into the other dressing room and he goes, ‘Oh, this is Elton. This is all Elton. He’ll love this. I’ll take the locker room,’ ” Punt said. “It made our lives a lot easier.”

Taylor Swift

Teaching introductory facility management classes at Penn State is what Punt is going to miss the most. He’s been doing it for the last 16 or 17 years and would occasionally select a few to be interns.

He’d introduce students to the “world of entertainment marketing,” allow them to garner experience and network before they had to launch their own career.

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Bernie Punt shares a story about Taylor Swift coming to perform in the Bryce Jordan Center as he walks down a hall a of the building filled with photos from past shows on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

One of those former interns is Taylor Swift’s tour manager, who he worked with to bring the Reading-born singer to State College in 2009.

“That was a very special night when she returned,” Punt said.

‘Walking with Dinosaurs’

Punt was a marketing consultant for the national tour of “Walking With Dinosaurs: The Live Experience” — an interactive show with animatronic dinosaurs that cost $20 million to produce.

The final State College show was Easter Sunday, 2008. Punt memorized virtually every line of the 90-minute show because of his involvement from the beginning, but “something was off” during that final show.

One scene was supposed to have a young dinosaur battle an elder and emerge victorious. That didn’t happen, though, because the young dinosaur lost power.

The Australian paleontologist tried to stall and joke about the situation, but nobody else knew it wasn’t part of the script except for Punt.

After the show moved past the mishap, it reached its crescendo — three velociraptors attacking a baby Tyrannosaurus rex before the mother surprises the crowd and saves her baby.

But, like the young dinosaur earlier, the mother lost power.

The paleontologist decided he had enough of the mishaps and went back stage to find out what was happening. The problem was he didn’t turn off his microphone.

A string of F-bombs erupted into the crowd — on Easter Sunday.

“These parents, louder than the dinosaur, grabbing their kids, marching to the box office, they want their money back,” Punt said.

After Punt’s boss told him to “do something,” he ran backstage and told the paleontologist his microphone was still on, to no avail.

“He goes, ‘I don’t understand with you Americans. It’s just a word,’ ” Punt said, imitating an Australian accent.

The end of a career

Punt takes things personally. He knows it’s part of the territory, but he also knows it can catch up with you.

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Bernie Punt talks with Andrew Silsby, left, Stanley Okoye and Justin Jacobs before performing artist Drake’s concert at the Bryce Jordan Center in April 2010. Centre Daily Times, file

“Imagine doing the best you think you can do and the client that you’re working with is never completely happy. That can wear you down,” Punt said. “What reverses it is the excitement when you get a show and announcing it — everybody gets excited.”

And when the show arrives or the artist comes out, he can’t wait for the split-second before they come out onto the stage and there’s an electricity in the air.

“That’s my drug. That’s what’s cool,” Punt said. “I still get charged on that — thinking about it.”

That includes “Paw Patrol” — his last show.

“I wanted to hear — we had three shows — and that last show, I gotta hear it. I gotta stand off to the side,” Punt said. “And you hear all the little kids for their first live performance and you hear, ‘Mommy! Daddy!’ And I’m just like, ‘That’s it. That’s awesome.’ ”

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Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.

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