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Pasadena Playhouse latest venue to issue an emergency fundraising call

September 30, 2009 | 11:07 am


The Pasadena Playhouse isn't about to close its doors, but its new executive director, Stephen Eich, said that it needs a "cash infusion" of more than $1 million by year's end to begin the coming 2010 season confident that it can improve the "hand to mouth" existence it has fallen into since the economy soured.

Eich, who left a similar job at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse in 2008, said the main problems at the Pasadena Playhouse are a long-term inherited debt of $1.4 million that it has been carrying since 1994, and a more recent drop in donations since the economy tanked a year ago. Now, Eich said, the playhouse needs to raise money quickly to cover $500,000 to $600,000 worth of bills and get out from behind the eight ball as it starts the new season.

And if anyone can ante up a quick $3 million or so, he or she will get to name the venerable theater's auditorium.

After spending his first three months on the job assessing the theater's finances, Eich said Tuesday, "as an organization we decided we needed to go out with a comprehensive message and describe where we are...rather than pretend everything is rosy and OK."

The toll so far: four employees have lost their jobs, and to save money, the playhouse brought the curtain down a week early on the run of Charles Randolph-Wright's "The Night of the Child," starring Jo-Beth Williams as a woman who goes to Brazil seeking release from a family tragedy. The play had been scheduled to end Oct. 4, but closed over the weekend.

In going public with its financial problems, the playhouse joins a long list of area arts organizations that have made special public calls for donations to fill budget holes caused by the poor economy. Opera Pacific fared the worst, declaring bankruptcy and closing last fall after no deep-pocketed savior stepped forward; the Museum of Contemporary Art says it has made a strong reversal after raising $60 million since December, half of it from art collector-philanthropist Eli Broad.

None of the region's big nonprofit theater companies has been spared. The Geffen Playhouse and South Coast Repertory issued emergency fundraising appeals earlier this year and reached their goals. In June, Center Theatre Group laid off 12 of its 120 fulltime employees, and the Laguna Playhouse has abandoned expansion plans and instead sold the office building it had long envisioned as a second performance space.


Eich (pictured) said he's found "no sign of ultra-overspending" as the Pasadena Playhouse, with an annual budget approaching $8 million, tumbled into deficit last year. "There's no blame to it," apart from the economic downturn, he said, along with the lingering debt that goes back to loans the playhouse agreed to take over in the early 1990s when its building's then-owner declared bankruptcy.

"I feel like I've been paying alimony for a marriage I was never in," said Sheldon Epps, who arrived 12 years ago as artistic director.

Epps hopes that "Baby, It's You," a musical about early '60s record company boss Florence Greenberg that features a song-list of period hits, will give the playhouse a box office boost and extend past its scheduled Nov. 6-Dec. 13 run. Half of the six shows next year are musicals, starting with the season-opening revival of Lerner and Loewe's "Camelot."

Partly due to its more pressing needs, the playhouse has put off the planned renovation of its second stage, the Carrie Hamilton Theatre. Architect Frank Gehry has pledged to donate his design work in honor of his long friendship with Carol Burnett, mother of Hamilton, who died of cancer in 2002 at age 38. Epps said that another reason for delaying the project is the theater's hope of one day acquiring its rented building from the development company that owns it. It made less sense to make immediate improvements to a building it doesn't own now, but someday might, he said.

The playhouse's financial statements through 2007, the last year available, show that it was able to lift annual fundraising from about $1.5 million a year to $3 million to $4 million a year starting in 2004, when it began saving for the renovation. It had set aside $3.3 million for the project by the end of 2007, but money raised for construction isn't supposed to be used for general purposes, such as unpaid loans and bills, without the donors' OK. Eich said that there are no plans to tap the construction fund to pay operating expenses.

Another long-term ambition is to create a rehearsal and performing space across the street in a former furniture store; Epps said those plans depend on the timetable and design proposals of a private developer that owns the building and is willing to reserve part of it for the playhouse.

First, there's the more pressing matter of raising money to pay the bills.

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Pasadena Playhouse courtyard; Stephen Eich. Credits: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times; Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times