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PLAYHOUSE REVIVAL



Published: Sat, August 6, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



First of a two-day series.

By L. CROW

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

WHAT CAN YOU DO with a community playhouse on the brink of collapse, deep in debt, in need of repair and desperately in need of an audience?

In the case of the Youngstown Playhouse, you have a "Renaissance Season" where you combine new leadership, a sympathetic and supportive public, talent, much determination and probably just a smidgen of good luck.

And you survive.

The past

In June 2004, the Playhouse, located off Glenwood Avenue, was in such a mess that there didn't seem to be a way out. Bentley Lenhoff, retired executive director from 1965 to 1985, received a phone call at his home in Michigan. He was told that he was badly needed to come back and turn things around. He arrived on July 2 and met with four of the six board members, plus a few other concerned people. Lenhoff had a plan in writing, which included creating a board of 24 to 30 people.

"I told them they would be losing control for a few months," said Lenhoff. "Everyone seemed fine with this and happy to have me back."

Lenhoff returned to Michigan to tie things up there and further formulate a plan, with intentions to return in August. However, he was persuaded to attend the annual board meeting on July 17.

Daunting situation

When Lenhoff arrived that day, he had begun a survey of the state of things.

"No shows had been chosen for the upcoming season," he said. "It was a hot, sticky day, and the air conditioning wasn't working. But what I remember most was the silence."

Lenhoff began to take inventory of debt and found more than five pages of creditors. Dominion East Ohio wanted to shut off the gas. There were phone bills, electric bills; staff hadn't been paid. Repairs to the building needed to be made.

Jobbers, such as directors, choreographers and others had not been paid. The contractor that had done construction work was still owed money, and bills for office furniture had not been paid. The liquor license had not been renewed, which would have cost only $200 to $300 and could have been sold for $15,000 to $25,000.

At the meeting that evening, Lenhoff noted that only five board members and three others attended. He remembered the days when all season ticket holders were invited to contribute ideas. He found that there were only 25 season ticket subscribers. The previous season had totaled 270.

"They were then cool to cold toward me, like they were having second thoughts," Lenhoff said. "They wanted me to 'work with them,' rather than take control. Meanwhile, I had confirmed 20 new board members, who were rejected 'because they had not completed the biography form.'"

When Lenhoff was barely given permission to speak, he decided he had made a wrong choice and left to pack his belongings.

Turn of events

What happened next may have been the crucial factor that has enabled the Playhouse not only to stay alive, but to actually begin to thrive again.

A group of concerned people, including actors, directors, tech workers and volunteers, got together and became the S.O.S. (Save Our Stage) group. Determined to not allow the collapse of one of the oldest community theaters in the United States, they persuaded Lenhoff to stay.

Anthony Donofrio, who was recently re-elected Playhouse board president, said Lenhoff was absolutely the person to save the theater.

"He's the only person who could have done what he did. He's a ball of energy -- very intense -- he works and works," Donofrio said.

Donofrio said Lenhoff's 60 years of experience in arts and theater, his 20 years of experience in running the Playhouse, his aggressive promotion of the theater and the quality of the productions helped to fill seats once again.

"He doesn't take the credit, but if it wasn't for him, the doors might have shut," Donofrio said.

Pride in shambles

When Lenhoff finally assumed his role as executive director, he got more than he bargained for. What he thought was a $188,000 debt turned out to be much more.

"By mid-September, the debt was up to $250,000," he said. "People who were owed money started coming out of the woodwork. The archive room was in shambles. Financial records were missing. There were no lights in the parking lot and under the canopy, and live wires were hanging. Trenches had been dug for the new sewer line and were never covered. The contractor, A.P. O'Horo walked off the job because he had not been paid, while another contractor who installed the canopy out front, was paid in advance. There were breaks in the sidewalk and mounds of gravel."

A look at the costume shop brought heartbreak and dismay to Lenhoff and others devoted to the Playhouse.

"Thousands of dollars worth of costumes filled three or four Dumpsters," said Matthew DiBattiste, who served as an assistant to Lenhoff during the 2004-2005 season.

"The reason given was that they were 'old and stained.' Our costume shop was the envy of any local theater. It was phenomenal. We could tux a cast of forty to fifty people. We had an authentic flapper costume from the twenties. A few of the tuxes remain, and some of the World War I and World War II military costumes."

And there were other issues as well. Lenhoff inherited a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement.

Planning stage

Plays for the upcoming season needed to be chosen, directors secured, and there needed to be an audience that wanted to see them. An audit needed to be done, but the auditing firm was owed $6,600. With all the renovation work that had been done, including the building of the new office space, nothing had been done to fix anything in the theater, such as broken seats. And for three years, reports had failed to be filed retaining the theater's non-profit status. (This has since been cleared up.)

Lenhoff and his army of volunteers and supporters set to work chipping away at the mountain of problems. Lenhoff also began issuing executive director reports to keep everyone informed of the progress. The first one is dated Sept. 9, 2004.

One of Lenhoff's first tasks was to choose a season of audience-pleasing productions, for both the main stage and youth theater, and to begin soliciting season ticket holders by sending out 10,000 mailers, plus 2,800 mailers to teachers and administrators to fill youth theater seats.

Cast of characters

Fund-raisers were in the planning, and large financial donations from individuals started pouring in, too. "These people were the real heroes, and we had so many," Lenhoff said.

"These donations didn't come from wealthy patrons but from ordinary people who just wanted to help." One retired teacher gave $2,500 for "whatever." Another couple people kicked in money to pay for a much-needed audit. Another donated workers and equipment to start fixing the parking lot, and the local pipe fitters union came to try to fix the toilet problem.

"From theatergoers to actors to philanthropists to volunteers who were willing to do anything from unclogging toilets to stuffing envelopes, this was the biggest and most dedicated cast I have ever seen," Lenhoff said.

He also began asking creditors for forgiveness of debts and prepared a budget. And the Playhouse Web site was now up and running.

Progress reports

By the time the January report was issued, two main stage productions had taken place.

"Brighton Beach Memoirs" averaged 124 seats filled per performance, and "A Christmas Story," 181. (The theater seats 555.)

Other improvements mentioned in the January report were of even greater significance. More than $42,000 was donated in December for the Community Support Campaign. More than 50 percent of the debt had been reduced, paid mostly to the contractor, A.P. O'Horo. Kadey and Paul Kimpel were in the process of organizing the flood of donations for the costume department.

The Playhouse began attempting to secure a beer and wine license. Many plumbing problems were fixed, and plans were drawn up for an addition that would provide more room for rehearsals, performances, classes and brunches.

In late January, Lenhoff issued another report, this one to the ticket holders. The number of season subscribers had increased from 289 to 1,410. All but one of the pre-show brunches had been sold out, and "Broadway And Ol' Blue Eyes," which played in the Moyer Room, was a huge success.

"Unfortunately, we had to turn away several hundred who wanted to make reservations," Lenhoff stated in his report.

"All current bills have been paid. We have enough money in the bank to finish this season, and plan for an expanded season next year."

By the Feb. 7 report, "Breaking Legs" had just completed a successful run, averaging 257 per show. Lenhoff set a goal to increase ticket holders to 2,500, with Doug Everett and Lynn Kirkwood handling the ticket campaign.

Main stage production dates were set, totaling seven for the upcoming season, up two from the 2004-2005 season, and the price range for single admission tickets was raised from $10-$12 to $12-$15.

Forum Health agreed to be a corporate sponsor for a youth theater production, for $3,000. Sis Soller and others were planning "Arts Alive" as a fund-raiser, and other fund-raising projects were in the works.

And Lenhoff began applying for grants from local foundations, such as the Youngstown Foundation for capital improvements, notably, the much-needed addition. Doug Everett, president of the Aberdeen Corp. had drawn up the plans for the structure.

Financial reports for March showed that $77,366.55 of the debt owed had been "forgiven;" $59,828.89 had been repaid, leaving a balance of $72,879.88. A balance of $44,659.90 was in the playhouse checking account.

Looking toward the future

The Playhouse ended its "Renaissance Season" in the black, a far cry from where it began.

Seating continued to improve, with "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" drawing an average of 302 per show, "Moon Over Buffalo," 373, and "Smokey Joe's Caf & eacute;," 404, not far from capacity.

Season ticket holders now number more than 1,923 and continue to increase. The lawsuit over copyright infringement was settled. The Playhouse agreed to pay $16,000, which has been done.

The $3,200 owed to the auditing firm has been paid, leaving outstanding debts of $1,800 for office chairs, purchased by the former administration, and about $50,000 still owed to A.P. O'Horo.

Plays and directors for the upcoming season, both the main stage and youth theater have been chosen, and Lenhoff has programs in place for continued improvement and expansion of the Playhouse.




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