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$ flap in New Haven

Officials worry next season's bookings may be jeopardized

SOUTHBURY, Conn. — The Shubert Theater in New Haven, Conn., a legendary place for pre-Broadway tryouts, has become the centerpiece of a public flap over financing.

The situation became public on March 14 when New Haven mayor John DeStefano Jr. held a press conference to announce that he and city economic development officials had “taken steps to ensure the historic theater’s continuous operation” in light of a $300,000 debt from last year and a projected $750,000 deficit this year. The theater is owned by the city and leased to the nonprofit Shubert Performing Arts Center.

Caroline Werth, prexy and CEO of that org since 1992, is well along with her bookings for next season, but she now worries that some of them, including a projected pre-Broadway tryout of Neil Simon’s “45 Seconds From Broadway” in October, may be jeopardized because of the current uncertainty surrounding the Shubert.

At the press conference De Stefano announced that he “had initiated informal discussions with several premiere theater operators around the country” (among them, it’s believed, SFX Theatrical Group, Columbus, Ohio’s CAPA and Rhode Island’s Providence Performing Arts Center) and formed “a committee of community leaders who will participate in locating the Shubert’s next operators.”

The mayor made it clear that he would not renew the lease of the Shubert Performing Arts Center when it expires in November, thereby leaving it and Werth hanging out to dry, and spreading worry among producers considering bringing shows to the Shubert next season.

The mayor’s press conference took place after he received a letter from SPAC chairman Anthony P. Scillia stating the nonprofit organization could not continue operating the Shubert under its present arts center mandate without an annual subsidy of at least $1 million. The hope was that the mayor would ask the state of Connecticut for the subsidy.

The mayor’s move prompted a letter to the editor in the New Haven Register from Philetus H. Holt, a member of the Shubert’s board from 1986 to 1995. Holt sprang to the defense of Werth and criticized the mayor for not supporting the Shubert. He observed that the state regularly gives money to other nonprofit performance venues in Connecticut cities including Hartford, New London and Stamford. Holt added that when the Shubert was in financial crisis in 1995, the city did not participate in its rescue “by the state, Yale and the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.”

SPAC has held the lease on the Shubert since 1983, the year before the long-dark theater, once a leading pre-Broadway tryout house, was substantially renovated and reopened as a performing arts center that was never expected to be self-supporting. Its annual budget is now $9.5 million, and each year SPAC itself raises around $1.5 million. With a mandate as a performing arts center, it spends a significant amount money on education and outreach programs, including subsidizing tickets for many performances (a quarter of the tickets for almost all Shubert attractions are priced at no more than the cost of a movie).

Werth believes she and her staff run an efficient operation that couldn’t be any leaner or meaner without jeopardizing SPAC’s mandate to serve the community, which includes making the theater available at times to local organizations including Yale U.’s School of Music. She also believes that the mayor may well face difficulties finding anyone else to run the theater because of its comparatively small seating capacity of about 1,500.

Despite the fracas, Werth and her SPAC board are working closely with the mayor’s office to plan for the Shubert’s future. “They’re learning about a very complicated business,” Werth says, “and by now they must know that they couldn’t start to book a 2001-02 season from scratch starting this June.”

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