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White knight rides to rescue

Cleveland nonprofit presenter takes over troubled theaters in New Haven, Chicago

CHICAGO — Doug Kridler, the capable, charismatic and expansion-minded CEO of the nonprofit Cleveland Assn. for the Performing Arts, is taking on the 800-pound gorilla of legit presenters, Clear Channel Entertainment.

Founded in 1969 to restore a dilapidated old movie palace in Columbus, Ohio, and initially strangled by a high debt load, CAPA caught the industry’s attention with the news last month that the Shubert Theater in downtown New Haven, Conn., a storied Broadway tryout house, would be coming under its control.

CAPA might seem laughable competition for an entertainment powerhouse such as Clear Channel Entertainment, with its scores of road houses and amphitheaters. But it’s fast emerging as a slick and powerful national presenter able to outbid and undercut its rivals, while assuring nervous local bureaucrats that its aim is not profits but merely the good of the local community.

If a venue is failing — like the Shubert in New Haven or the Chicago Theater in the Windy City — CAPA has become the organization to call.

In Chicago, Walt Disney Theatricals found itself stuck with a venue unsuitable for big tuners. Bailing out on what was once going to be its Midwest flagship, it gave up the rest of its lease on the theater to CAPA. Aside from a few missteps in the early days, CAPA has generally made the barn of a place work.

In New Haven, Shubert Performing Arts Centers was drowning in more than $1 million worth of debt. Beating out Dallas Summer Musicals and Professional Facilities Management of Providence, R.I., for the contract, CAPA was happy to step in.

“We think all the ingredients are there at the Shubert,” Kridler says. “It’s a theater and a downtown worth fighting for.”

A media-savvy figure once mentioned as likely to run for political office in Ohio, Kridler likes to use such language. Since he has no shareholders to worry about, he argues that his job is to save urban entertainment venues across the U.S. by making them economically viable.

“Our mission statement is all about the revitalization of the urban core,” Kridler says with his typical missionary zeal. “We see running theaters as a means to an end. We want to bring about fruitful connections between artists and audiences.”

Known for being hands-on almost to the point of obsession, Kridler personally books all the acts in all of his venues. He argues this serves his organization.

“Any arts group,” he says, “benefits from a curatorial approach and a signature.”

If CAPA continues to expand, its for-profit rivals may start crying unfair competition. For even as CAPA enjoys all of the tax and other benefits of working in what it says is an ever-expanding public’s interest, it now will be able to effect economies of scale as it programs a growing chain of venues including the Ohio, Southern and Palace Theaters in Columbus and the Chicago Theater in the Windy City.

“We’ve developed a core competency,” Kridler says. “It makes sense to apply (that) to other markets.”

Kridler says having a central administration already in place will save at least $500,000 “up front” in New Haven. At the same time, CAPA will also enjoy a $456,000 operating subsidy from the city.

Until now, CAPA has largely avoided going head-to-head with Clear Channel by not presenting full-blown legit seasons in any of its venues. Clear Channel rents CAPA venues in Columbus but controls its own slates of touring Broadway shows. In Chicago, CAPA has offered some second-tier legit — such as the American Repertory Theater’s tour of “The King Stag” and the upcoming non-Equity version of “The Music Man” — but it leaves the major Chi road fare to the Clear Channel/Nederlander conglomerate.

“So far, we have had a very happy relationship,” says Scott Zeigler of Clear Channel. “It has been pretty extraordinary watching Doug as a conservator of theaters and developer of audiences. He knows the niche that he needs to fill — and he’s a very interesting and effective manager in a piece of the business in which we do not play.”

But after New Haven, the sandbox may be getting a bit more crowded and competitive. At the Shubert, CAPA is taking its first leap into big-time Broadway. “It is a bit trickier in New Haven,” Zeigler, who has his own series in the state, admits.

But with only about 1,500 seats, the Shubert obviously is not a viable venue for the massive road shows that lead Zeigler’s Connecticut skeds.

“That theater cannot do guarantees of more than $300,000 a week without some kind of subsidy,” Zeigler says, noting Clear Channel passed on the chance to run the venue, just as it passed on “The Music Man,” which CAPA will present in Chicago. “Ninety percent of our revenue comes from ticket sales,” he says. “The Shubert needs a nonprofit.”

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