Pasadena Playhouse’s impending closure brings surprise, dismay

When the five-minute bell rang Friday evening in the courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse, it sounded almost like a summons to a funeral.

The subdued crowd, which had come to a performance of “Camelot,” slowly entered the lobby, murmuring quietly in small groups. In interviews earlier in the evening, some of them expressed surprise and dismay that the theater company has decided to close its doors Feb. 7 as a result of financial hardship.

On Friday, Stephen Eich, the playhouse’s executive director, said the theater is out of cash and faces more than $500,000 in immediate bills, as well as payments on more than $1.5 million in bank loans and other debts.

He also said he didn’t know whether subscribers would be reimbursed for the 2010 season’s remaining shows.

Earleen Ahrens, a subscriber, said she spent more than $300 on tickets for the season, of which “Camelot” is the first production. She described herself as “upset” that she may never see a refund.

Staff of the theater also voiced disappointment at the day’s news -- but some of them tempered it with optimism about the theater’s recovery.

“We’re struggling with debt. We need a big benefactor like the Geffen Playhouse,” said Patrick Oliva, a volunteer house manager at the theater, whose job that day included tolling the courtyard bell.

“But we’ll come out of it,” he said. “I’m confident.”

On Friday, the will-call ticket desk provided audiences with copies of a letter from the company’s directors.

The letter said the company was “taking some necessary steps toward financial reorganization that will affect our production calendar of upcoming events.” It made no reference to the theater’s imminent closure.

Playhouse leaders have cited a drop in donations and weak box-office receipts as causes for the closure. On Friday, the audience for “Camelot” numbered 345, about half the capacity of the 684-seat house.

Joyce Osborn, a season subscriber, said she wouldn’t lose sleep over the money she spent on tickets for future shows. “I consider it a donation,” she said. “I’ve been coming for the last eight years and I’ve been very pleased with the quality of the productions.”

On Thursday, the playhouse held a meeting and announced it would lay off 37 employees as part of its reorganization.

“Most people were shocked. We were stunned,” said Kameron Lopez, a patron services associate who was told her job would end Feb. 7. She said that she moved from Utah last year and that her position at the playhouse was her first job in California.

Richard Leaman, a volunteer at the theater, said the meeting was filled with “sadness and helplessness.” He said some employees may have sensed it was coming because there had been no talk of the next scheduled production, a revival of Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels.”

Shirli Nielsen, a season subscriber, said she attended the playhouse’s acting classes when the theater was run by company founder Gilmore Brown. “It was a wonderful school and Brown was one fine man,” she recalled.

“I feel really sorry about the whole thing,” said Nielsen, who traveled with her husband, Ron, from Palm Desert to attend the Friday performance.

Miriam Mayer, a violist with the “Camelot” orchestra, said she learned the news on the radio while driving to the theater that evening.

Orchestra cellist Cameron Stone didn’t find out until arriving at the playhouse.

Both expressed shock about the closure but added that they were optimistic about the institution’s long-term prospects. “I don’t think it’ll be shuttered,” Mayer said.