Management Dispute Brings High Drama to the Starlight
Starlight Amphitheatre manager Tim Pinch last week threatened to sue the city of Burbank if he is fired, heating up a long-festering conflict about whether Pinch is the best person to rejuvenate the city-owned outdoor theater.
The ultimatum issued by Pinch on Friday is the kind of dramatic twist that might have played well during a production on the Starlight’s stage, which was unused all but six nights of this year’s 6-month season.
On Thursday, city officials notified Pinch, 35, that they will recommend to the Burbank City Council that he be fired. The officials cited, among other things, his inability to provide “broad and varied entertainment” and to provide details to the city about his partnership with a Beverly Hills entertainment firm.
But the recent failures were only the tip of the iceberg, city records indicate.
During the 3 years that Pinch has run the theater, city officials have sent him numerous default notices for failing to pay bills on time and not maintaining adequate insurance on the Starlight.
City records show that he has been reprimanded by Burbank officials for providing inaccurate audience estimates and keeping sloppy business records.
In addition, he has promised to put on shows that never materialized or were abruptly canceled. Pinch presented 13 shows in 1986, 11 in 1987 and only 5 shows this season. Most featured local performers, not the famous entertainment names city officials craved.
The lack of shows exacerbated the city’s long-running problems in its attempt to turn the Starlight--once called Burbank’s “white elephant"--into a profitable theater providing popular entertainment.
Richard R. Inga, Burbank’s Parks and Recreation Department director, complained about Pinch’s “lack of professionalism” in letters to City Manager Bud Ovrom.
As early as November, 1986, Inga wrote about problems with Pinch. He said Pinch worried more about minor maintenance problems than about managing and promoting the Starlight.
“Perhaps by next season, if there is one, Mr. Pinch will develop a more mature, professional attitude in his business relationship with the city, and all of these problems will become a thing of the past,” Inga wrote. “Wishful thinking?”
From Pinch’s point of view, the problems had been solved by this year, and he recently told city officials that he wanted to renew his contract.
“As we approach the end of the 1988 season here at the Starlight Amphitheatre, I am encouraged by the renewed excitement with which we move ahead into the upcoming seasons,” Pinch wrote in a Sept. 28 letter to Inga. ‘In light of our accomplishments over the past two years, we look forward to a bright and rewarding future here at the Starlight Amphitheatre.”
But in an interview, Inga said, “Tim’s contract has been one of the more difficult contracts to administer, and this department administers more than 50 concession-consultant contracts.”
The city’s obvious unhappiness with Pinch as a promoter and operator during the 3 years he ran the Starlight raises questions about why officials did not take action sooner to remove him.
Despite its difficulties with Pinch, the city had no grounds to fire Pinch until now, officials said.
“Our frustration with the contractor was not a basis to terminate the contract,” said City Atty. Douglas C. Holland, who added that the city could fire Pinch only if he violated specific provisions of his contract.
Holland said Inga went out of his way to improve relations with Pinch.
“Rich tried his damnedest to work as hard as he could to try and make this relationship a success,” he said. “Rich and his people went above and beyond at times to work with Pinch.”
Advice and Patience
Inga said he often provided Pinch with advice and was patient with him during his scheduling and financing difficulties.
When Pinch was appointed by the Burbank City Council in 1985 to run the theater, he had never run an entertainment facility. His previous business experience was running Tim Pinch Recording, which he said provided audio services for television and radio specials, as well as for concerts featuring rock groups such as the Jacksons, the Police and the Eagles.
“There was hope, understanding and appreciation that we did sign up a fully inexperienced novice,” Holland said.
Although staff members had recommended against hiring Pinch, Holland and Ovrom said the council was impressed with Pinch’s energy and enthusiasm, and wanted to give a chance to someone just starting out.
At the time, the city was appealing a $4.8-million judgment resulting from a lawsuit brought by a previous Starlight Amphitheatre manager who argued that the city had unfairly prevented him from staging rock concerts.
According to his contract, Pinch was required to pay annual rental fees to the city for 3 years of either 5% of his gross receipts or a minimum of $15,000 in 1986, $25,000 in 1987 and $35,000 in 1988. The city spends $25,000 annually to maintain the Starlight and its grounds on a hillside northeast of downtown.
In addition, he was required to pay for police and fire personnel on duty at the Starlight during events.
The city issued Pinch his first default notice Sept. 16, 1986, for non-payment of $6,000 in rent and $4,537 in police traffic-control expenses. Another default notice was issued in October, 1986, for an additional $3,000 in rent and an additional $4,659 for fire and police personnel on duty during Starlight events.
With each notice, Pinch was given 30 days to pay or be judged in breach of contract, which meant that the city could start termination proceedings.
Those bills were paid before the 30-day notices expired, but Pinch was issued another default notice in February, 1987, for not increasing from $15,000 a letter of credit for that year’s $25,000 rental payment by Jan. 30.
Pinch’s contract required him to keep a bank account, verified by a letter of credit, equal to the amount of rent charged for the amphitheater.
Three more default notices were issued in November and December, 1987, for non-payment of rent, fire protection and police expenses totaling $16,601. The money was paid by Feb. 1, but a non-compliance notice was issued in February because Pinch failed to increase the letter of credit for 1988’s $35,000 rental payment by Jan. 30.
Pinch did increase his rental account, but it was verified a day after the deadline. Inge notified Pinch in writing that the missed deadline put him in breach of his contract with the city. He also told Ovrom in a memo that he was not taking action to terminate the contract but could do so in the future “if determined appropriate.”
City officials notified Pinch on April 28 that he had not been keeping appropriate business records and had not developed a proper accounting system for Starlight revenues.
Pinch last week downplayed the default notices. “It requires attention, but it doesn’t mean a material breach of the contract. Every time there was a notice of default, I always cured it within the allotted time. I never let it go to a material breach. All my bills are paid.”
On Aug. 26, Pinch was sent another default letter over construction of temporary audience seating on Starlight grounds without Inga’s permission or proper building permits.
In the letter, Inga called the construction “a serious violation of your promise. Not only was it done in disregard of the terms of the agreement, but it also demonstrated your disregard for the laws of this city adopted for the protection and safety of the public.”
With all the run-ins between Pinch and the city, Holland acknowledged that the city could have drafted a tougher contract that would have allowed the city to take stronger--and earlier--action against Pinch.
But the contract was drafted so that it would give him reasonable time to resolve financial setbacks, Holland said. “It was as fair as possible under the circumstances,” he said.
He said that although Pinch’s difficulties seemed to develop into a pattern, “you have to look at things like this in terms of seasons, not in weeks or days. We had to look at a completed season. It would not have been fair to evaluate his performance until the third season. This gave Tim a fair opportunity to show what he could do, and now the time has come to terminate the relationship.”
Cited in the city’s termination notice were Pinch’s tardiness in presenting the letter of credit earlier this year, the seating-construction violation, his failure to present “a broad and varied program of entertainment,” and his failure to provide enough information about a partnership between Pinch Productions and Weintraub Entertainment Group.
City officials received a letter from Pinch in June that announced he had entered an agreement with the Weintraub group to bring major acts to the Starlight. The city contended that the move represented an illegal agreement with a third party because Pinch had not sought prior approval from the city’s parks and recreation director.
Despite the city’s termination notice, Pinch said, the city cannot bring the curtain down on him.
He said he views his contract as a 6-year agreement, not a 3-year contract, as city officials do.
“I have a 6-year lease on the Starlight,” he said. “The city is under the impression that it’s their choice to continue or discontinue. The council believes it’s their option, but it’s my option.”
Pinch has an automatic 3-year renewal clause to operate the Starlight if he adheres to city requirements for administering the theater. But Holland said that clause is insignificant because Pinch breached his contract.
Pinch said he plans to appeal the termination notice to the City Council. He said the agreement between his firm and Weintraub would assure the city of quality entertainment. He said his energy had gone toward negotiating with Weintraub and not with staging shows last season.
“The city can have everything it wants,” he said. “They can have world-class entertainment, and they’ve got everything to gain. I’ve made money, the bills are paid, everyone is happy. Now they’ve got a black-and-white offer.”
In his threat to sue the city if the City Council votes to fire him, Pinch cited the city’s $3.8-million settlement in December, 1986, with Cinevision, the concert promoter that had won the $4.6-million judgment from the city.
Cinevision sued the city because it said the city’s ban of rock artists violated the promoter’s First Amendment rights. As a result of the lawsuit, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered the city to pay $4.6 million to the promoters.
When asked what the grounds for his lawsuit would be, Pinch said: “Are you familiar with Cinevision? Are you familiar with First Amendment rights? There are the same issues here.”
“I’m sorry to hear Tim talking like that,” Ovrom said. “We bent over backward to try and make it work. But based on our experience with Cinevision, we knew whatever agreement we had would have to be protective of the city’s interests and taxpayers’ interests.
“Anybody can sue anybody,” he added, “but I think we’re on solid ground.”