Coconut Grove’s a.d. steps aside amid crisis

Mittelman ankles post during monthlong standoff

Coconut Grove Playhouse producing artistic director Arnold Mittelman escalated a monthlong standoff with the theater’s board of directors Tuesday with a terse, one-sentence message: “Unfortunately your continued wrongful breach of my employment agreement has forced me this day to vacate my position.”

Mittelman’s response is the latest in an ongoing financial and administrative crisis at South Florida’s largest and best-known regional theater.

On May 8, locks were changed when the bulk of the staff was laid off after operating funds apparently ran out between March and early April, on the eve of the company’s 50th anniversary season finale. The theater was briefly shuttered amid reports of a $4 million-plus deficit.

Longtime a.d. Mittelman, along with five other employees, remained in place, but the board stripped him of any administrative duties.

In mid-April, he brushed off the suggestion that he should resign, saying he wanted to help the theater’s recovery.

That apparently changed with Tuesday’s missive, and Mittelman has refused to comment further.

Board vice president (and appointed spokeswoman) Lynn Martenstein said the theater chief subsequently told her the letter, copied to all board members via email, was in effect a resignation, though the wording specifically characterizes the departure as less than voluntary. Mittelman’s contract, which runs through 2008, remains in effect, she said.

Mittelman has been the playhouse’s chief operating officer since 1985, with the title of producing artistic director. The latest compensation figures on public record, from 2003, indicate Mittelman’s base salary was $190,000 at that time. Asked if he is seeking to force a buyout, Martenstein said he hasn’t broached the subject.

The financial crisis apparently had been brewing for years, and losses due in part to Hurricane Wilma’s fallout added to the hefty carryover debt. .

As of Tuesday, there was no staff at all, only Mittelman in what amounts to an ex-officio stewardship, and his assistant as an unpaid volunteer.

A “chief interim officer” from Berger Singerman, a local law firm hired by the board and which specializes in restructuring troubled organizations, moved on-site Monday. Martenstein said Mittelman is “cooperating fully” with the firm’s appointee.