A long history of financial struggles has finally condemned the fate of the Prince Music Theater.
In May, the sudden death of Herbert Lotman, the chief fundraiser and chairman of the theater’s Board of Directors, left the small theater without a stable source of funding. In July, the Lotman family made a call for donors to support the historic performance venue and attempted to raise $1.6 million to continue programming for the 2014-15 season. Without any offers to take over the cultural institution, the Prince Music Theater will close its doors indefinitely on Nov. 30.
The nonprofit American Music Theater Festival, founded in 1984, adopted the Prince as its home in 1999 where the organization began to produce new music theater events. Douglas Wager, former director in residence at the Prince and associate dean of the Center for the Arts at Temple, said a shaky business model has always troubled the organization.
“The financial situation at the Prince when I got there in 2003 was much more dire than they had led me to believe,” Wager said, remembering the crumbling financial state of the Prince when he moved to Philadelphia to direct “It Ain’t Nothin But The Blues.”
AMTF launched a capital campaign to raise money to renovate the theater in 1999, but was unable to collect all of the money that had been pledged, Wager said. In order to move forward in operations, a balloon mortgage was taken out to pay off the builder’s loans.
“They had been hitting a major stumbling block with the mortgage they took out and were paying a significant amount of their income to debt service,” Wager said. “The shows that were being produced were being financed by a line of credit from the bank against box office potential income, which is not a good way to run a theater.”
The theater was funded on a “literal show-to-show basis,” which Wagner called an unattainable method to sustain financial stability. Co-founder of AMTF, Marjorie Samoff, took on full responsibility of running the theater without a managing director – an uncommon practice – because the theater couldn’t afford the payroll.
Wager left the Prince in October 2004, despite three successful productions at the theater, including “The Great Ostrovsky,” for which he was nominated for the Barrymore Award for Outstanding Direction of a Musical.
“The best thing I could do [to help] them was to resign my position so that they didn’t have to pay me anymore – they couldn’t afford it,” Wager said.
So, Wager worked his last three weeks at the theater without pay.
After the economic crash in 2008 and saw the rise of the savings, loan and mortgage crisis, the Prince went down with it. The theater filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
“It was a perfect storm,” Wager said. “At the precise moment where the Prince needed the most help was the moment where it was harder for anybody to get help in the not-for-profit arts. Where both getting audiences and getting grants and foundation money was getting harder because there was less of it around. The problems that the Prince faced were the problems all not for profit arts organizations were facing, but they had more stable business models in place.”
Enter Herb Lotman, who breathed life into The Prince Music Theater in 2013 when he organized a new ownership panel that would pull crowds back into the empty theater. Under Executive Director James E. Hines, the Prince re-opened with a successful 2013-14 season.
“Part of the plan was to restore the business and we successfully achieved our goals,” Hines said. “The critical part of the plan moving forward involved Mr. Lotman spearheading a fundraising campaign. Unfortunately, his death did not allow that to move forward. His business relationships were key for the institution’s success as they were integral for completing our first year.”
The theater’s new success has been attributed to an expanded genre in the arts. Hines curated over 200 performances in his first season, including theater, cabaret, music, comedy and film presentations. The Curtis Institute of Music and The Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus secured residencies in the theater that extended into the 2014-15 season.
The final performances at the Prince Music Theater before its era comes to an end will be held from Nov. 20-23. Curtis Opera Theater will perform a double bill titled, “La scala di seta/Gianni Schicchi.”
“The Prince Music Theater is a wonderful venue for opera, and has provided a home for [us] since 1999,” Jennifer Kalland, senior director of public relations and patron engagement for Curtis, said. “The closing is especially poignant for Curtis, since we gave the first opera performances at the Prince after it opened under its new name, with ‘Don Giovanni’ in April 1999. We’re sad to see this fine theater closing, and its loss will certainly be felt among the arts and culture institutions of Philadelphia.”
Brianna Spause can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org