Donors spare Colony Theatre from imminent closure by answering plea for help

Burbank’s Colony Theatre will not be closing its curtains this season after roughly 200 supporters answered the company’s plea for help and pulled together $50,000 in donations, operators said Tuesday.

“It just flooded in — the checks and the letters and online donations,” said Artistic Director Barbara Beckley.

Pinned to a wall near the theater’s front entrance was a collection of handwritten and typed-up letters full of heartfelt comments and memories from theater-goers across the Southland.

“This incredible theatre must be saved,” one supporter wrote.

“I have great memories here, including meeting my husband,” another theater-goer penned on a yellow sticky note.

Less than two weeks ago, Beckley and Executive Director Trent Steelman announced to more than 6,000 supporters that the theater was facing dire economic straits — the two had wiped out their personal savings, maxed out their credit cards and even forgone their salaries for months to keep the theater open.

Unless the theater raised $49,000 in two weeks, it would have to suspend its upcoming show, “The Morini Strad,” indefinitely, the company warned.

But after the strong outpouring of support, the show will go on, with the “The Morini Strad” scheduled to open Nov. 14.

The theater can also now cover performance costs and catch up on a $4,000-past due utility bill.

But the Colony isn’t completely in the clear. An additional $500,000 must be raised by the end of the year to continue operating.

The funds, Beckley said, will partly go toward funding marketing and development managers, who will write grant proposals and develop relationships with foundations and donors.

“A significant chunk of that will ensure our future,” she said.

Over the last two years, the theater has seen a steady decline in subscribers and single-ticket sales. In 2010, for the first time in the theater’s history, a production did not reach its single-ticket sales goal, Steelman said.

He had figured subsequent performances would make up for the shortage.

They didn’t.

In fact, he said, they “fell far short.”

“We were just never able to make up the ground that was lost,” Steelman said.

Since that 2010 show, single-ticket sales have plummeted by more than 20%, he said, which is especially bad for business since that’s the pool from which the theater generates new subscribers.

To get over the economic hurdle, the theater last year cut rehearsals from five weeks to four, laid off three full-time staffers and their part-time janitorial and administrative employees, shaving 17% from its $1-million operating budget.

But the company still couldn’t cover its costs.

When a promising donor fell through last month, Beckley and Steelman turned to longtime Colony patrons for help.

“We’re very heartened and hopeful,” Beckley said. “We seem to mean a lot to a lot of people.”

Meanwhile, the Colony is not looking to the city of Burbank for a bailout, Steelman said.

“That is not what we view as part of the solution,” he added.

The theater leases the Burbank Town Center-owned building from the city for $18,000 a year. The city, in turn, leases the building from the mall.

“We are completely up to date with all our obligations to the city,” Steelman said.

The 270-seat theater, which puts on six contemporary and classic plays and musicals a year, moved from its 99-seat Silver Lake location — where it had operated for 25 years — in 2000.

Now what’s called an equity theater, the company runs under union contracts. Actors pocket $274 weekly for every eight-week run — the pay is “three times below market rate,” according to Beckley — and receive benefits and pensions.

“None of that applies when you’re in 99 seats,” Beckley said.

In the Silver Lake theater, actors paid membership dues to be in productions and received just $15 for each performance.

In addition, the theater now hires five independent contractors to handle set design, lights, sound, props and costumes.

If the theater can’t raise $500,000 by the end of this year, the theater will likely close its doors temporarily to continue fundraising efforts.

That would be “calamitous,” Beckley said, as the theater would likely lose a large chunk of subscribers.

“The long-term ramifications of that are far greater than what we’re facing right now,” Steelman said.

Despite the “painful and draining” financial crisis, the Colony has been producing some of its best work, Steelman said. It’s been nominated for nine Ovation awards this year, including the coveted Best Season.

“It has been really artistically gratifying,” Steelman said.

Staff writer Mark Kellam contributed to this report.


Follow Alene Tchekmedyian on Google+ and on Twitter: @atchek.


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