Bentley, as they say, is back, and he faces a daunting task



A bit of folk wisdom holds: Be careful what you wish for; you may get it.
A month ago, Bentley Lenhoff expressed a wish to return to Youngstown, a wish that he be given the opportunity to return the Youngstown Playhouse to its glory days. Those were the days, more than two decades ago, when Lenhoff ran the Playhouse.
Actually, Lenhoff's wish was expressed more as an ultimatum. He would return if the Playhouse board gave him absolute control over hiring, firing, play selection, fund raising, volunteer recruitment -- virtually every aspect of the Playhouse's operation.
His supporters rushed into print with an ad, "Bentley is Back." But the board balked at his demands. Instead of returning, Bentley quickly exited the Youngstown stage.
Now, Lenhoff and his supporters have gotten their wish.
Several board members have resigned, Lenhoff has been invited back -- indeed, he was welcomed back last night at a sort of heal-the-wounds reception -- a new annual meeting of the board has been scheduled for Sept. 9. The validity of the July 29 annual meeting was being challenged by some Playhouse members, and a law suit had been threatened.
Over the past three years, a $320,000-plus debt has been reduced to under $190,000, which includes $82,000 owed on
construction that was undertaken during that time. The combination of a grant through the city and the forgiving of a
$140,000 bank loan were the two biggest items involved in that reduction.
The Youngstown Playhouse board may have squandered its last best chance for a revival of a community institution by
rejecting an offer from Bentley Lenhoff to return to Youngstown and to run the Playhouse as he did during some of its
most glorious days.
A majority of the members of board apparently do not see it that way. They believe that Lenhoff's demand for three
months of total autonomy in putting together a new season of plays, hiring and firing at will, revitalizing the children's
theater, soliciting pledges from benefactors and attracting season ticket holders was too much to ask.
The board may be right. Lenhoff described himself as an autocrat and the prospectus he submitted to the board had its
quirks.
Beyond that, it is quite possible that Lenhoff, who headed the Playhouse for 20 years beginning in 1965, would have
found that Thomas Wolfe was right, you can't go home again.
Youngstown today, and its theater scene, are not what they were in the '60s, '70s and '80s. There are fewer people, less
foundation money, more competing theater groups and changing lifestyles.
All that makes bringing the operations of the Playhouse up to the standard of its recent $2 million federally funded facelift a
daunting task.
But it was a task that Lenhoff, at age 74, was willing to tackle. In the week that Bentley was back, to use the short-lived
catch phrase, he had solicited potential new board members, put together a game plan for luring season ticket holders back
to the Playhouse and claimed to have gotten commitments of monetary support for an institution with debts that outweigh
its meager endowments.
What now?
In rejecting Lenhoff's offer to return to the Playhouse as long as he was given the authority to do virtually anything he had
to do -- short of adding to the Playhouse's potentially crippling debt -- the board has placed itself in an unenviable
position.
It must now outperform Lenhoff.
It must marshal the kind of community support Lenhoff would have gotten. It must demonstrate to potential benefactors,
ticket buyers and the community at large that it can put on a season of plays that will excite traditional theater goers and
even attract people more inclined to stay at home watching a DVD play on their television screens.
In short, whether history would have shown that Lenhoff could have revived the Playhouse or not, history will now
record whether the board that rejected him saved the Playhouse or oversaw the demise of an 80-year-old institution.
Adapt or die
There really is no middle ground. The Playhouse must find a way of attracting support, of either recarving its exclusive
niche in the Mahoning Valley theater scene or reaching some accommodation with its younger competitors, of entertaining
a new generation of people, or it will die.
The Playhouse cannot carry its debt indefinitely. Even if the board could tap into the two endowments it has to wipe out
the debt -- something some board members seem inclined to do -- that alone would only delay the inevitable. It is like
eating the seed corn. A 500-seat theater cannot continue to operate with 50 or 150 theater goers at a performance.
If the board has a better plan than Lenhoff's for saving the Playhouse, if board members have benefactors more willing
than Lenhoff's to throw their support behind the revitalization, if they have a better way than Lenhoff of creating a buzz
about what the future may hold for the institution they oversee, now is the time for them to speak up.
ulpla =-r Thehas gotten his wish. fl stahstrueartisticboard two yVe cautionoA celebration was set for 7 p.m. today at the Youngstown Playhouse on Glenwood Avenue to welcome back Bentley Lenhoff as executive director, ending a stalemate between the Playhouse board and the Save Our Stage Committee.
At a board meeting Monday night, Lenhoff was hired back for $1 per year. He will announce a comprehensive plan Thursday for the Playhouse.
Board members resign
The resignations of two board members, Ida McLaughlin and Mary Jane Karam, were accepted at the meeting. McLaughlin had served as president of the board since the resignation July 29 of former board president John Maluso. The remaining five board members are Atty. Anthony Donofrio, Lois Thornton, Glenda Whitehouse, Michael Jordan and Richard Woolford. They appointed Donofrio as interim president and have scheduled a new annual meeting of Playhouse members at 7 p.m. Sept. 9 at the Playhouse.
Regarding tonight's celebration, Donofrio said, "We'll be toasting the past and the future. We will come together as one group whose only goal is to preserve and strengthen the Youngstown Playhouse.
"As a board, we inherited an organization that was deeply troubled and have worked very hard to resolve the current controversy," he said.
Tonight's gathering was to include members of the Save Our Stage Committee, a group that had sought the resignation of board members and the installation of Lenhoff as executive director. The board earlier this summer rejected Lenhoff's offer to return as executive director to deal with major financial problems facing the long-established community playhouse.
In a statement this morning, the SOS Committee said that it was "very pleased" with the resolution of the situation and that "it signals the beginning of a new era in Playhouse history." The committee also said it looks forward to the return of the actors, technicians, financial supporters and loyal audience members working together with Lenhoff to "return the Playhouse to the respected and responsible status that it deserves."
Threatened to sue
The SOS group and some season ticket holders were threatening to sue the board this week unless it agreed to hold another annual board meeting, saying the July 19 annual meeting was illegally held.
Lynn Kirkwood, who would have been the plaintiff in that lawsuit on behalf of about a third of the membership, said this morning that plans for the lawsuit have been dropped.
Lenhoff, 74, who moved back to the Valley from Harbor Springs, Mich., to assist the Playhouse, said he was grateful to the Save Our Stage Committee for the attention it brought to troubling issues affecting the Playhouse. He said the current board inherited countless problems, including financial instability.
Lenhoff previously led the Playhouse from 1965-85.
The new director is urging people to attend a performance at 7 p.m. Saturday planned several weeks ago as a benefit for the Playhouse. The performance will showcase some of the actors, singers and dancers who have appeared or who will likely appear on the stage in the future.
Tickets are $10 and can be purchased by calling (330) 788-8739. Tickets also may be purchased at the door Saturday evening.

Subscribe Today

Sign up for our email newsletter to receive daily news.

Want more? Click here to subscribe to either the Print or Digital Editions.