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Theater gets a favorable review



Published: Tue, February 22, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Major challenges are looming for the community theater.

YOUNGSTOWN -- After a liberal dose of "vitamin B-entley," the Youngstown Playhouse is showing serious signs of revival.

Wrapping up a whirlwind six months as the Playhouse's executive director, Bentley Lenhoff gave a progress report, a pitch for the latest production and a reality check on the future.

So far, Lenhoff said Monday, the organization has reduced its debt from $215,500 to $74,230, nearly all of which is owed to the construction company that worked on the building off Glenwood Avenue.

At the same time, the theater has been averaging 255 patrons per show, up from 47 the previous year. And the number of season tickets sold went from 25 when Lenhoff took over to 1,433.

The staff has been expanded from two to 10, and volunteers are too numerous to count, he said.

"The prognosis was bankruptcy," Lenhoff said of the condition when he took over the Playhouse in August. "Now, it's pretty darn good."

Targeted advertising

Lenhoff is hoping cartoon characters he created with the help of Warren artist Rick Muccio can market the Playhouse to a broader spectrum of the community. "Joe & amp; Flo" made their print debut Sunday in an advertisement in The Vindicator.

Joe, admittedly "an Archie Bunker-type," according to Lenhoff, represents guys who readily go to a bar or bowling, but who bristle at the thought of going to the theater.

Through the adventures of Joe and his wife, Flo, Lenhoff and Muccio hope to educate people "in a light-hearted way" about what the Playhouse has to offer. For instance, when Joe complains that his mother-in-law can't climb steps, Flo points out that the Playhouse has an elevator, so she won't have to.

But the scene is not all rosy, Lenhoff said.

Paying off the debt left the Playhouse strapped for cash in its operational areas. Even with generous donations from individuals, more revenue from tickets and some generosity from creditors, the money is tight.

"Every time people read about us doing better," he said, "they think everything is OK."

They're not OK yet, he said, but they're far better than they were.

Part of the theater's problem comes from major renovations to the building concluded last year. Using a federal grant, extensive work was done to extend plumbing, heating and lighting and to build offices, but then a second grant fell through.

Work ended when the money stopped, and many of the utility extensions ran nowhere, with electrical wires hanging bare in some areas. The "capital improvements were capital crimes," Lenhoff said.

Strapped for cash

The Playhouse has worked to right some of the problems, using funds from its operational budget, which leaves it cash-strapped.

And now the theater faces two other major projects: repairing the roof and an expansion plan.

The leaky roof will set the Playhouse back $25,000, he said, and is a crucial matter that should have been taken care of before any other construction was done.

The expansion project will cost an estimated $164,500, Lenhoff said. It would take space created by the earlier construction and make a smaller arena stage with room for classes.

But the roof will take precedence, he said.

'Part of the process'

"We're getting ready for our 81st season ticket drive," he said. "It will be in mid-April to mid-May, but we're preparing now."

Two additional shows are planned, one in the main theater and one in the youth theater. The Playhouse is trying to get rights to "White Christmas" for a four-week run at the holidays and "Chicago."

But for people like the cartoon character Joe, Lenhoff admits, the question may remain: Why go to the theater?

Lenhoff thinks he has the answer. "For not much more than going to the movies," he said, "you go to a live show. You're part of the process," participating in a sometimes not-so-subtle way through applause or laughter or, worse, with silence.

And that, he said, is where live theater or music or dance provides something you just can't get from a TV or movie screen.




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