Final Curtain

The show won’t go on as the Pasadena Playhouse closes and considers bankruptcy protection

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/4/2010

Plagued by millions of dollars of debt, the Pasadena Playhouse announced plans Friday to close its doors Sunday following the final performance of its current production, “Camelot.”
The nonprofit company that operates the theater intends to “explore viable options of financial reorganization, including bankruptcy, to determine a responsible solution for its ongoing operations,” according to a statement issued Friday by Playhouse executives.

“It’s sad, very sad,” said Pasadena City Councilman Terry Tornek, whose district includes the Playhouse. “It has been struggling for a long time as it tried to operate under a mountain of debt. If they stay dark, it will be a huge blow to the community. They are a valued institution in Pasadena. I don’t think people are shocked, because a lot of them knew the Playhouse was struggling, but they are wistful. It’s a critical institution that people value. It’s one of the things that is great about Pasadena.”

According to Playhouse Executive Director Stephen Eich, the theater faces more than $500,000 in bills and owes more than $1.5 million on bank loans and other debts that the nonprofit company inherited from the previous operator when it took over in the mid-’90s. It was not immediately known whether 8,000 subscribers who purchased advance tickets for upcoming shows will be reimbursed. According to Eich, as of now subscriptions have been suspended and all future productions have been canceled.

The Playhouse had announced earlier that the 2010 season would include “Havana,” a musical by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Nilo Cruz, “Pastoral,” a sold-out Hot House reading written by Frank Tangredi, “Sight Unseen,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donald Margulies, and Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels.” Coward’s play — the story of two unappreciated married women anxiously awaiting a French man they each had an affair with years earlier — was expected to go to Broadway later this year.

“We have every intention of fulfilling our obligation to [our subscribers],” Eich told the Weekly. “They are the lifeblood of this organization, but right now we don’t know whether or how we will be able to reimburse our subscribers. We firmly believe it would be irresponsible to continue to operate in the same financial patterns of the past. Out of respect to the Playhouse’s venerable history, our loyal subscribers, and the many individuals, donors, businesses, government agencies, and others who have demonstrated their support for our efforts, we intend to meet this challenge head-on with strong fiscal oversight and transparency. We’re being honest about the situation in the hope that a donor will come forward.”


Hard times
How much will it take to make things better? The theater is looking for a $5 million donation to clear its debts and continue production.
Michele Engemann, chairwoman of the Playhouse Board of Directors, told the Weekly that no one was willing to compromise the quality of work put onstage.

“We don’t want it to go away, but it just needs to be restructured,” Engemann said. “The theater fully participated in the economic downturn. Despite the recession, we had a good year. Unfortunately, ticket sales don’t cover the cost of producing shows.”

Playhouse management is unable to use a recent $6 million donation earmarked for capital improvements to pay down the debt and plans to hire a lawyer to investigate other options, such as filing for bankruptcy protection. Despite the company’s debt, Artistic Director Sheldon Epps defended the theater’s operations. “We’re a healthy organization in terms of what we spend and bring in,” Epps said. “I suspect that without the debt we would not be in this situation.”

This isn’t the first time the Playhouse has closed its doors. Founded in 1917, the 684-seat auditorium housed in a Spanish Colonial building was designated the State Theatre of California in 1937. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the Playhouse helped launch the careers of Raymond Burr, Robert Stack, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Sally Struthers.

But in 1969 the theater’s owner filed for bankruptcy and the stage remained dark for 17 years. The city bought the building in 1975 and reopened it in 1986 with the help of a federal assistance grant from the US Economic Development Administration and matching funds from real estate developer David G. Houk, who was chosen by the city to renovate and reopen the theater. Eight years later, it again failed financially, but this time it managed to stay open. In 1996, Lyla White, mother of screenwriter Mike White, took over as head of the board of directors and used a major fundraising push to help keep the theater going.

In 1997, Epps was hired from the Globe Theatre in San Diego, where he was associate artistic director. “I feel like I’m paying alimony for a marriage I’m not in,” Epps lamented. “Since the mid-1990s, we’ve carried that debt that we inherited, but we’re also a successful operation. A huge amount has been sucked into debt service.”

In 2006, Academy Award-nominated actors Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne appeared in a sold-out rendition of August Wilson’s “Fences.”

In 2007, the Playhouse announced that architect Frank Gehry was donating his services to design a new, 300-seat theater to augment the main stage and remodel the existing second stage in the Carrie Hamilton Theater, which is named after actress Carol Burnett’s daughter. Burnett sits on the Playhouse board. Since September 2004 the Furious Theatre Company has been the resident producer in the Hamilton Theater, staging such shows as Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things,” Yussef El Guindi’s “Back of the Throat” and Craig Wright’s “Grace.” Furious uses the theater rent-free, but its future at the Playhouse is uncertain.

In 2009, Tony Award-winning actress Leslie Uggams starred as Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather.” Uggams told the Los Angeles Times that it would be a loss and a shame if the theater was not able to come back.

Others in the local theater community reacted much the same way.

“The loss of the Playhouse as an institution leaves an immeasurable hole in the cultural and artistic landscape and I can only pray that this is temporary, quickly remedied, and the Playhouse is restored to its necessary place in the community,” Jessica Kubzansky, co-artistic director with The Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, wrote in a memo to the paper.
“We can’t let another theater or another art institution close,” stated Tim Dang, producing artistic director of East West Players in Los Angeles. “Let there be a positive outcome that will be good for the theater, good for Pasadena, good for California and great for us all. Something creative and innovative.”


Online fundraising

Within hours of the announcement, a Facebook group hoping to save the Playhouse had sprung up asking for donations. By Monday morning, the group — which plans to raise $500,000 — had collected $8,800.

“My stomach sank when I heard about the closing of the Playhouse,” said Eric Andrist, who started the group. “It felt like I had just heard a family member was dying of cancer. I immediately started brainstorming and started the Facebook group. The membership has been growing exponentially while the pledges have come in slowly but surely. I’m now in the process of gathering items for an online auction and have a meeting to discuss a benefit concert and or a telethon.

“We’re getting donations from all over the country, [including] people who used to live here, parents of people who have performed at the Playhouse, actors living in New York. The Pasadena Playhouse is a well-known icon of theater in this country, aside from having the distinction of being California’s state theater. I think people see what’s happening here and think that if it can happen to The Pasadena Playhouse it can happen to any theater.”

‘Brutal’ meeting

The Playhouse’s financial woes became obvious in September when theater officials closed a production of “The Night of the Child,” starring JoBeth Williams, a week early in order to save money. At that time, only four employees had been laid off.

Last Thursday, 37 employees learned at what was described as a “brutal” staff meeting that they also would be let go.
“There was a deep, profound sadness in that staff meeting,” said Eich. “There was also an unspoken strength and resolve in that room to swallow this and see what we can do. This is a brutal time for the organization, but we hope a rebound is possible.”

Patty Onagan, the Playhouse’s press representative, identified three key factors that led to the Playhouse’s financial situation: the inability to obtain a multimillion-dollar donor to name the auditorium after, the absence of corporate and private sponsorship, and the current recession, which has hit Pasadena hard, forcing dozens of businesses to shutter and leaving the city of Pasadena with a deficit of more than $11 million.

Still, Eich expressed hope that the community and city government will come to the Playhouse’s aid.

“It’s up to everyone to keep it vital,” he said. “It’s unimaginable to me to have the Playhouse not operating in the Playhouse District. We hope to turn that sadness and emotion about the Playhouse closing into tangible action.”
Pasadena Public Information Officer Ann Erdman said that the city has its own financial troubles this year and will not be able to immediately assist the Playhouse get its financial house in order.

“There are no immediate plans for the city to provide assistance,” Erdman said. “We wish them well as they move forward with efforts to find solutions to their financial challenges.”

Still, Playhouse officials continue talking with city leaders in hopes of acquiring some help.

“The Pasadena Playhouse is vital to our cultural community and for the state of California,” said Engemann
in a statement released last Friday.

“In an effort to solve the financial realities of the theater, the Board concurs that the difficult financial circumstances of the Playhouse require an aggressive recovery strategy. We wholeheartedly support this decision [to reorganize financially].”

As far as Theatre @ Boston Court Co-Artistic Director Michael Michetti is concerned, that can’t happen soon enough.

“I sincerely hope Sheldon [Epps] and Stephen [Eich] will find a solution that will allow the phoenix to once again rise from the ashes and bring back to Pasadena and the greater Los Angeles area this cherished and historic theater company at a time when we need it the most,” Michetti wrote to the paper.

Reporters André Coleman and Jana J. Monji contributed to this story. For more reactions to the Playhouse closing, visit