Fame. I'm Gonna Live Forever.
Why a hall of fame? I don’t think I asked that question when my friend, Justin Ray Williams, first told me he'd become executive director of one. He’s got an infectious enthusiasm and earnestness that somehow has you saying “yes” without much resistance. That’s why Treasurer Dendy Brooks is around, to rein it in and keep the finances flowing at the South Carolina Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame.
The original SC Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame (unrelated to the Official South Carolina Hall of Fame), was founded in 1989. The governor was a supporter. Inductions were a national television event, novel and ahead of their time.
Then, in 2013, it burned down. Five years later, Justin and Dendy, two guys with entertainment and hospitality backgrounds who know how to make stuff happen, found themselves taking over. They’ve since spun it into a multi-tentacled entertainment organization, producing music, film, live events, and a radio show.
They stay on the move, but they took some time to answer my questions and share some of the ins and outs of trying to do big things with a small team and tiny budget. It’s an imperfect process where one thing leads to another, and constant collaboration keeps it all afloat.
Justin: Chadwick Boseman, the star of the movie Black Panther, is from Anderson County. He went down to Anderson County and bought out a theater so hundreds of underprivileged kids could go see the movie. I think stuff like that – the hall of fame is established to recognize those entertainers and those musicians who come back home that give back to the state, what they’ve done for the state, bringing recognition to the state at a national level.
So, it’s like, “Wow. I had no idea Chris Rock was from South Carolina. I had no idea James Brown was from South Carolina.” Vanna White. All of these great entertainers that have been from the state of South Carolina that people didn’t know, that they’re like, “Holy cow, South Carolina’s full of great entertainment.”
I think it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what walk of life you come from; entertainment brings everybody together. So, I think it’s important that every state has a hall of fame, whether it’s an athletic hall of fame, or a music hall of fame, or an art hall of fame, just to recognize folks because that pulls everybody together, whether it’s art or music or entertainment, whatever that is. It’s important that every state has that to bring their culture together.
Jennifer: Do people understand what you’re trying to do?
Dendy: Yes and no. A lot of times people think of halls of fame as museums, and that’s kind of what we’ve gotten, a lot of, “Where are you located? Where can I look at jackets and letters and guitar picks?” But the direction that we’re taking is more of a mobile avenue. We’re looking at events versus just having a place that you can go see some stuff behind glass.
Justin: Hopefully, one day we will have a physical building, but that takes time and money and lots of capital, lots of fundraising. So, that’s our five-to-eight-year plan is to find a physical location. Maybe work with some cities that are looking to build up their entertainment district and things of that nature. I’m not going to necessarily call it a museum, but I will call it maybe an entertainment venue that houses everything that we do when it comes to radio production, film production, entertainment production with magazines and podcasts and folks like that. We’re working with everybody in the state to get them notoriety and help them become what we would consider a hall of fame status.
Jennifer: So, it’s a mobile thing. It seems like that’s actually really effective because a lot of people aren’t necessarily going to come to the Upstate, or even people around the Upstate aren’t necessarily going to come to Greenville.
Justin: I find that to be a trend with the halls of fame. There’s a mobile Upstate history museum, and they partner with different museums throughout the Upstate. They go into places like the Greenville Convention Center or downtown Greenville. They’ll feature three or four different historical sites that don’t have physical locations. It’s kind of like the craft beer movement. It’s, “Where are we?” When it comes to museums, that sounds boring now, right? Everything’s trending and what’s new and what’s fresh.
Dendy: Because it’s not your typical museum location thing, changing the perception of people isn’t always the easiest. We gave one person our P.O. Box, and they drove around for three days trying to find this building that doesn’t exist because it’s a P.O. Box. We don’t really need a location right now. In the future, yes. We will have enough to where we can store stuff and house things and work out of, but right now, it would be more of a hindrance than a help. Being mobile keeps us in different venues. Keeps us in front of different performers and actors and so on and so on that we can —
Justin: It leverages networking.
Dendy: Yeah. So, when we’re going to these different cities, people are like, “I think I heard of it.” Then we’re like, “Here we are.” Bam. We set up. We show them what we are. We bring our soundstage and lighting and all of our memorabilia to these events, and now people can really grasp, “Okay, what is the Entertainment Music Hall of Fame? This is it.”
Jennifer: Justin, you’ve got an entertainment background, and Dendy, your background is hospitality. So, tell me a little bit about how you guys have come together.
Dendy: We met when we opened up a corporate restaurant together in Greenville. We met in training. We worked together for four years or so there. Then, during that time, just spitballing ideas back and forth, we came up with the Watermelon Crawl Festival because country song writer Zach Turner, for lack of a better term, fell in our lap after he wrote the song “Watermelon Crawl.” He and his brother had some land and wanted a festival. So, we put it on for him, and that went really well. After that we went looking for sponsors, and that’s where we came across the original hall of fame founder, David Godbold, and that kind of led us to here.
Prior to that, I spent twenty-five years in the restaurant business, but doing events. I was at Hooters for five years. I ran Bike Night Out at the Greenville location when it was doing 1,400 motorcycles every Wednesday.
Jennifer: Oh yeah, I remember that.
Dendy: When it was a big deal and everybody was doing motorcycles, that was us. So, I’ve had my hand in planning events; maybe not theatrical or movie or whatever, but when it comes to bringing people in, capitalizing on it, that’s kind of where my expertise is – the greedy side of business, so to speak.
Justin: I went to Full Sail and got an entertainment degree there. Right out of college, I went into some radio and actually, what I would consider at that time ahead of its time, digital radio. From there, I ended up in the hospitality business because the entertainment business doesn’t necessarily pay right away. So, I ended up becoming a bartender.
Through those avenues, I had a dream of opening an entertainment venue. So, in 2005, saving up all my money and pitching some of my ideas to some investors, I was able to, in 2006, open up a music entertainment venue that held about two thousand people. We also opened up a sports bar to accommodate it as well.
Jennifer: Where was that?
Justin: That was in Winter Park, Florida. So, we brought in – entertainment venue – we brought in everybody you can think of; like, one of the up-and-comers at the time was Rick Ross. So, we brought in Rick Ross at the time where you can obtain him then, and now it’s probably impossible for us to obtain him with the amount of money that he wants now. Good for him. So, we did everything from rock and roll to Latin events to hip-hop events, some country events, and stuff like that.
From there, it leveraged us into a promotions and marketing company. So, not only were we running the entertainment music venue, we started doing promotions as well. So, teaming up with theaters in the area and other local music venues to bring and promote other acts. That leveraged me into kind of the entertainment side of the business, promotions and marketing and getting that end of my career off. From there, my family was seeking a small town away from the Winter Park, Orlando area because now it’s, like, booming – Disney World and all that.
We found Greenville. So, in 2012, we sold everything we had down in the Winter Park, Orlando, Florida, area and moved to Greenville and went into a place called Blues Boulevard in downtown Greenville on the river down there. Great place.
Jennifer: It was so much fun when you and my husband, Jarrod, were running it.
Justin: That’s where we met Jarrod. He was running the manager there for us and he did a wonderful job. Then, from there, I had an opportunity to go to a corporate restaurant that opened up because what I specialized in – events and promotion – in Greenville at the time, you really just didn’t leverage that. There was the Handle Bar in downtown Greenville that was impossible to even get into. It was, like, family-owned. It was a great establishment, and they brought in great music and all, but that was really all Greenville had.
And Brown Street closed down. That was another little entertainment venue there. So, I took a corporate job. Again, if the entertainment business isn’t paying, you go back to the corporate job, right? So, that’s where I met Dendy. Then, from day one, we were kind of brainstorming events, like, what can we do in Greenville? Bring an event, find a venue, do something here or there? Then, we ran across the Turner brothers.
Anytime you have a fire, it’s devastating, whether it’s at your house or your business. The hall of fame in 2013, it was exhausted. To lose twenty-five years’ worth of stuff in a fire – all the memorabilia, the shirts, the hats, the jackets, everything gone – it was hard to fathom, pretty much, and it just took the wind out of the board. So, that’s why it’s sat idle. They were looking for the right person, the right team to launch it. I think the Watermelon Crawl kind of leveraged that into what it is now: the Entertainment Music Hall of Fame.
Jennifer: It showed them what you could do and how you can connect with the community. You both have been in what you’re doing for quite a while. That makes me curious about how do you reach people now.
Justin: So, back in 2005, it was more of like posters and flyers.
Dendy: You’d send somebody out, you’d buy them lunch, and like, “Here, hand all these out for me.”
Justin: Yes. It’s kind of your street team. Then MySpace came out. It was about, “Where’s the biggest, baddest party on MySpace?” Then, it leveraged into Facebook, and so forth; Instagram, now, and all that other stuff.
Dendy: We’re old men trying to figure out TikTok.
Justin: Right. Now, TikTok. It’s all digital now. So, how do you reach everybody, whether it’s digital radio, iHeartRadio, or Facebook or Instagram ads? We found our biggest success with the Watermelon Crawl was Facebook. The night before the Watermelon Crawl in 2019 – July 2019 – we had eight hundred ticket sales in two hours the night before Watermelon Crawl, and it was all done through Facebook. It was incredible. I was texting Dendy. I was like, “We just had one hundred sold.”
Dendy: One hundred more.
Justin: “We’re at five hundred now.” “Okay, we just reached eight hundred and it’s ten o’clock at night,” which was surprising. Three thousand two hundred people ended up showing up between all the kids that came out. I mean, it was wonderful.
We did miss some boats on the Watermelon Crawl, like we didn’t have enough stuff for the kids to do. So, I think this next year, we’re going to be adding some things for the kids to do. Face painters and balloons and more watermelon eating and seed spitting and things of that nature, I think, will be a lot of fun.
Jennifer: So, the marketing aspect and the outreach aspect has changed. What about in terms of what you actually have to bring in terms of entertainment?
Justin: You always have to one-up.
Dendy: The bar gets higher and higher.
Justin: What are you doing special or different? It’s like when we did the Carolina Country Concert here at the Pickens County Performing Arts Center. All of these local musicians we’re bringing in, even though we had one on The Voice and one on America’s Got Talent, they’re all over the town. So, why would someone pay to come see these folks when I can just go down to Joe’s pub next weekend and see him for free?
So, what we did was create an intimate setting before the show that people can purchase a VIP ticket and come in and see folks on a personal level. So, they come in, they meet them and greet them before the show, and they have that intimate VIP experience. I think what you have to do with each show is figure out what is the niche in the market and how can you be different and distinguish yourself from every other event out there.
Dendy: For example, in December, everybody and their brother is doing a Christmas show. I mean, you can check on Netflix: there’s four or five different individual singers’ Christmas specials, and then there’s the old-school stuff, and then there’s “Christmas in the Wild” now.
So, our Christmas show is featuring just one singer that wrote a song, but it’s also a story. It’s not just a bunch of songs up on stage and Merry Christmas and Santa comes at the end and that’s it. The way we’re going to produce it is going to be a little different than some of the other stuff you’ve seen out there.
That comes from both of our backgrounds because, I mean, there’s only so many ways you can make a cheeseburger from where I’m coming from. And only so many ways you can put on a concert or whatever where he’s coming from. So, it takes both of us -- and we throw out one thousand ideas to get one.
Jennifer: Are you guys on the phone or texting all day? Do you meet regularly to get the ideas together?
Justin: We do all of that. So, each week, our day is filled with meetings from 9:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. at night. Then, back to the house to do emails and follow up with folks everywhere. Then, what are we doing digitally? Social media marketing. Making sure that we’re on Facebook or Instagram or whatever that platform is to make sure that people know what’s going on constantly. So, yes, there is meetings happening every single week and because we have so many events every single weekend. Then we have the radio show every Saturday.
We have folks in different positions to make sure that happens, whether it’s the sound, stage, or lighting. Where’s that crew at? Where’s the radio producer at? Where’s this producer for this show? Where are we at with this? Where are we at with this website? Where are we at with marketing? So, yeah, we’re all over the place.
Dendy: It’s funny. He told me when we started the nonprofit, it was, “We have to keep meeting notes and minutes so that people can tell what we’re doing.” I was like, “Oh crap,” because the majority of what happens is in between meetings like in the car. Ninety-nine percent of our ideas never come to fruition, but it’s a stepping stone to lead to whatever actually does.
Jennifer: Do you have a sense of what’s going to land? How often is it that you’re talking about something and you get really excited and you’re like, “Oh, man, this is going to take,” and then it doesn’t?
Justin: Depends on which one of us you’re talking to.
Jennifer: What kind of stuff do you get excited about?
Dendy: Money. I’m the money guy. Sometimes I’ve got to pause. When he gets started he just goes. I found out about the Honky Tonk Christmas show through Facebook when I became an admin on the page and it had a date and a time and performers. I was like, “Oh, we must be doing a Christmas show.”
I’m more of a when-it-hits-the-fan kind of person. So, all this is laid back and whatever until events are going.
Jennifer: That is also very restaurant culture.
Dendy: I’ve been conditioned that way.
Justin: I really go off of my gut. If I feel something going on, I kind of run with it and I’m eighty percent right. Then the other twenty percent it’s probably because I had a bad taco the day before or something. When we get into events, I feel – it’s weird. We work with this director, Collins White, he says he feels the moment of the film. I kind of feel the moment of the event. If I feel the creativeness coming on, I just run with everything real quick and I’ll follow up the team later with everything.
Jennifer: Dendy is nodding.
Dendy: A lot of nodding.
Justin: Do I know what event is going to work and not work? I don’t know really. It’s just a gut feeling that either it’s going to win or it’s not going to win, but even if it doesn’t win, I know that we put on a great production. Whether ten people showed up or thousands of people showed up, I know that they had a great experience.
Dendy: A lot of it has to do with timing as well. So, there have been times where we’ve had thoughts or ideas that probably would have worked if the right pieces had been in place. Then there’s times where we’ve done things that probably shouldn’t have worked, but they did because the right pieces were in place. So, I mean, we can’t do it just the two of us. Like he said, the Performing Arts Center here lends us the theater sometimes because they don’t make any money if we’re not making money. They help brainstorm ideas and help with the IT aspect of it. So, there’s a lot of little pieces that have to fall into place to make things work as well.
Justin: Being in the right place at the right time matters. For instance, we were looking for a distribution outlet for Written Off, a documentary by Labs for Dyslexia. At quite a few movie theaters all we got was a person at the front desk, an admin person or something, and it leads to nowhere. Just so happens, we walked into this movie theater one day, and the southeast regional vice president’s there, and he’s like, “It’s your lucky day. I think I can help you get your films distributed amongst the thirty different theaters that we have.” Wow, that’s what we’ve been looking for.
So, now, whether or not that pans out, it’s up to us to connect all the dots together and have those meetings and make sure that this is successful. If you just think, “We’re in the right place, right time,” but you don’t do anything with it, then it never goes anywhere. There has to be pieces in place, and sometimes the pieces aren’t in place until the event takes place. So, sometimes it does get a little stressful.
Going into, like, Watermelon Crawl, if you only have fifty tickets the day before sold, you’re biting your nails, “Is this going to be successful?” Then, at ten o’clock at night, you have eight hundred tickets sold, and you’re like, “Okay, maybe this turned into something.” So, you never know what each event is going to bring.
I always say eighty percent of your events are going to be successful, and then you have your twenty percent that we missed the boat somewhere. Most of the time, if you follow the formula when marketing – producing the show correctly, picking the right date, the right time, making sure there’re not on a Clemson football game, those pieces – more than likely, it will be a success.
If it isn’t, we scratch it real quick and create something else. Put an illusion over here and then bam, you got another show going on. Haha, that’s how that works.
Jennifer: How much is it fun and how much is it stressful?
Justin: To me, it’s fun no matter what. It can be stressful, but that stress to me is fun stress. The only stress that I miss is if I’m at an event all weekend long, it becomes stressful because I don’t get to see my family. But as my little girl who’s now eleven weeks old gets bigger, she’ll be able to come along with all the events. I think that’s one of the positive things about running our own company and running the hall of fame, that it is family-oriented. Our family can come join us. I think that’s probably one of the positive things about it.
It is a double-edged sword. If we’re out of town, we can’t necessarily provide lodging for family and stuff like that. The planning leading up to it could be fifteen, twenty hours a day leading up to that event that happens on Saturday. So, the downside of it is you kind of leave out friends and family, but the positive side is that they can join you at the event and can work together.
Dendy: It’s all fun. There’s still stress involved, but it’s a different kind of stress. When you’re working for a corporate entity, it’s deadlines that other people are imposing on you, and you have really no will as far as how something happens; it’s just follow orders. With this, it’s different every single day. You get to use different parts of your brain. So, one day, it’s creative stuff: How are we going to build this? Who can we invite in? How can we perform this, produce it?
Then the next day, it’s very technical. Like we need these cameras, these vocal things. Then the next day, it’s okay, how are we going to pay for it all, and it’s budget planning. So, it’s always something different, and that’s really what I wanted when I got out of the restaurant business.
Too, like he said, when you spend twenty-five years in restaurants, a lot of the time you’re working nights. Thankfully, my wife was in the restaurant business, too. So, she knew that that’s what was going to happen. But she spent a lot of nights alone. Now, we’re done by three, four o’clock every day, and I’m home sometimes even before she is. Nights are “normal.” We get to watch TV together and eat dinner together and go to baseball, basketball practice, Cub Scouts and all the other fun stuff that families do, which I never got to be a part of before. So, yes, it’s stressful, but it’s also rewarding.
Jennifer: There are a lot of folks out there who are thinking, “Okay, I want to do something creative. I want to do something big that’s complicated and technical.” You just start to thinking about it and it gets like, “Never mind. I don’t have… whatever.” What advice would you have for somebody who has a big idea, but maybe doesn’t feel like they can really pull it off?
Dendy: Find the people who have the “whatever” because if you can’t do it, somebody else can, and it’s just a matter of negotiation.
Justin: I just tell my kids to go on YouTube and Google it. There’s got to be a YouTube video out there. How do you play guitar? Google it. I don’t know, it’ll be up there. Or if you’re in your local market, like the Upstate of South Carolina, you find folks like – we’re always looking for new talent and people that are trying to get their vision out there because we’re doing so many things, from film to music to radio to show production. Look on Google and find your local theater and see if they need help, or find the local musician, go to these shows, and if you’re a musician, you want to get out there. Musicians love other musicians.
There’s a huge film industry out there if you want to get into film. Just go to the local Film Fest or the local spoken word down the street, you’ll find these folks that are in the business and that they’re looking at probably the same goal you are and you can team up and work together on that.
There’s the Carolina Theater Association; they’re always looking for good people, so are we.
Dendy: I assure you, any nonprofit out there, if they’re like us, is more than willing to take whatever help you can get. You don’t have to be able to sing or dance or play an instrument or anything, we’ll use you.