The curtain has come down on one of the best theater-going deals anywhere: lifetime subscriptions to the Pasadena Playhouse that were offered briefly in 1994 for a one-time, $5,000 donation.
The playhouse recently finished informing nearly 200 households that had held the subscriptions -- worth up to $1,256 a year at current prices -- that they wouldn't be for life after all, but for 19 years.
Its Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010 relieved the nonprofit theater company of having to continue honoring the lifetime subscriptions, which were classified as debts canceled in the bankruptcy. But it had continued voluntarily to provide the tickets to members for two additional seasons before pulling the plug at the end of the just-concluded 2012-13 season.
David DiCristofaro, vice chairman of the Pasadena Playhouse board, said in a written statement that the "sensitive matter" of rescinding a sweet deal was handled by having the theater's subscription services manager personally call each lifetime subscription household to explain the change. "On the whole, many of these subscribers were understandably disappointed at losing this program that they had so long enjoyed," he said.
All were offered paid subscriptions for the coming 2013-14 season at an extra discount, DiCristofaro said, and about half accepted. The regular subscription price is $117 to $314 per ticket for a five-show season, depending on location, and whether the subscriber picks weeknights or weekends, previews or regular performances. Tickets in one row that offers extra legroom cost $516.
The $5,000 donation that conferred lifetime privileges in 1994 was the equivalent of $7,859 today. Playhouse spokesman Joel Hile said that some of the lifetime subscriptions were for two tickets per household and others for four, but records were incomplete and it wasn't clear why they differed, or how many tickets were involved in all.
Dean Laws, one of the former lifetime subscribers, had contacted The Times recently because he felt the playhouse could have handled the deal's end better, ideally with a direct communication from the board.
He said it would have been easier to accept had the free tickets stopped coming at the time of the bankruptcy. Their continued flow, he said, became "a teaser" that made it seem as if the lifetime subscriptions would remain indefinitely in force.
But overall, Laws said, "I can't complain too much, having used the subscription for 19 years. That's a pretty good return on five grand."
The retired advertising company owner recalled that in late 1993 or early 1994, the playhouse contacted him with the offer: "They were in dire straits and basically the pitch was, 'If you give us $5,000 we will give you a lifetime subscription for four seats and you can leave it in your estate and give it to your kids.' "
The playhouse survived that crisis -- a complex situation stemming from the collapse of the commercial theater company that the nonprofit playhouse board had contracted with to produce its shows. The hired producer filed for bankruptcy in 1995 and the playhouse began mounting shows itself. It launched its current era in 1997 with the hiring of artistic director Sheldon Epps.
Debts the playhouse had to assume as a result of the commercial producer's 1990s bankruptcy lingered on its books and were a factor in the financial crisis that hit the company in early 2010, prompting it to close for about eight months while it went through bankruptcy.
DiCristofaro said the playhouse, which seats 658, continued to provide lifetime subscribers with free tickets on a "guest" basis during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, even though legally their perks had ended when the Bankruptcy Court approved the theater company's reorganization plan in 2010. He said the playhouse wanted "to cultivate its relationship with these patrons with hopes they would continue to support and donate to the organization in the years to come."
The question of when to finally pull the plug on the deal "has been on the board's and staff's agenda … since reemergence from bankruptcy," DiCristofaro said, and "this year the board has decided to fully abide by the plan given by the judge …. Although the playhouse did build goodwill by continuing this program until this year, [it] needed to follow the guidelines of the court by ending the program."