HOLLYWOOD — “Owning a single theater on Broadway,” says Martin Markinson, co-owner since 1979 of the Helen Hayes, “is like being a boutique surrounded by big department stores.”
Well, Markinson’s boutique is expanding, but not in Manhattan.
Instead, Markinson and Richard Willis, partners in RichMark Entertainment, have signed long-term leases on two Los Angeles theaters, the Wadsworth and the Brentwood, and have spent significant sums renovating both. Even if it doesn’t come close to putting them on a level playing field with the Nederlanders and the Shuberts, this opens up some potential coast-to-coast synergy.
The one-man show “Jay Johnson: The Two & Only!” starring the expert ventriloquist and former “Soap” star, opened last week at the 482-seat Brentwood; it will transfer to the Helen Hayes for a Broadway run opening April 3.
Also last week, Sarah Jones’ solo show “Bridge & Tunnel” opened at the Helen Hayes for a limited run, and as part of its rental deal, RichMark negotiated a right of first refusal to present the show if it comes to Los Angeles.
It’s potentially a miniature circuit, one that Markinson and Willis believe fills a significant niche in a big market. “There’s really no other 500-seat house in Los Angeles that New York producers can go to,” says Willis, who thinks the Brentwood and the Wadsworth (with just under 1,400 seats) will appeal to producers of Broadway plays and small musicals. They’re looking at the in-between type of shows, fare commercial enough to need longer runs than the season-oriented nonprofits can offer, but too small for Nederlander spaces like the Pantages or the Wilshire.
The niche exists in part because the Southern California real estate boom has laid claim to some of the city’s best known commercial houses.
The 2,100-seat Shubert Theater closed in 2002, and the 400-seat Canon Theater in Beverly Hills came down in 2004, both victims of more lucrative commercial uses of the land.
The Wadsworth and the Brentwood are unique because they both sit on the grounds of the Veterans Administration in West L.A. and therefore can’t be commercially developed (at least, not without an act of Congress). Turning them into an arts complex satisfies all constituencies.
With two L.A. theaters of different sizes, RichMark offers producers some options. As Markinson explains it, they have something to offer “a small show or a big show, or a small show that can play big.” Of the latter variety, the Wadsworth has worked well as a venue for “I Am My Own Wife” and “Golda’s Balcony,” both offered in association with the Geffen Playhouse. This week, Eve Ensler makes her L.A. debut as a performer there in her solo show “The Good Body.”
To compete with the bigger players when the right show comes along, Markinson has developed a formula that allows producers less risk and a greater potential reward. Instead of the usual minimum guarantee plus a small percentage of box office, RichMark can offer a “first money deal,” in which the producers pay no rent or advertising costs and collect a higher percentage of the proceeds from the get-go.
And for those shows yet to play the Great White Way, Markinson and Willis, the boutique players surrounded by department stores, have an avenue that can take them there.