By GUY D’ASTOLFO
When the Youngstown Playhouse was faced with its near-certain demise a couple of years ago, it needed a steady hand to steer it away from a certain closure.
It turned to Rand Becker, president of the theater’s board of directors, which is an unpaid position. Becker worked with creditors to reduce debt, cut expenses, implement austerity measures and basically do whatever was necessary to right the ship.
Under his leadership, the Playhouse was back in the black within two years and drawing record crowds.
Becker’s massive contribution had largely gone unsung — until Friday night.
That’s when the Playhouse board rededicated the theater lobby in honor of Becker and his wife, Eleanor. The ceremony was before the opening-night performance of “Scrooge, the Musical.”
Mary Ruth Lynn, executive director of the theater, called Becker to the stage and presented him with a plaque, which will be mounted in the lobby in permanent recognition of his service.
“He has been an angel to this place,” Lynn said Friday afternoon. “Had he not been on the scene, the Playhouse would have closed. We would not be here today.”
With the financial rebound also came an artistic resurgence, and audiences have taken notice. Ticket sales are up 64 percent over last year, said Lynn.
“It took a little while for people to see that we are back on the right track,” she said.
The theater’s meltdown came suddenly at the end of 2008. Faced with a debt of nearly $1 million, and badly in need of a new roof, furnace and other repairs to the building, the Playhouse canceled the rest of the season.
A lien for unpaid federal taxes was placed on the establishment in early January, and a flood caused by a broken water pipe that winter exacerbated the theater’s woes. Few insiders thought the theater would survive.
Yet by the 2010-11 season, the Playhouse’s woes were in the past, as the theater re-emerged financially sound and artistically focused.
To devise a way to recognize Becker, the board of directors met in secret and came up with the idea of naming the lobby for him. Becker did not know that he was to be honored Friday night until he was called on stage.
“This is a learning experience. The learning curve has been steep because I have spent most of my life as an audience member,” Becker said, adding that it has been a real joy to support the Playhouse.
He added he hopes it will be around for another 88 years.
Dr. John Cox, a local pediatrician, is also a Playhouse board member, as well as an actor and director. He lived through the Playhouse’s comeback and said it couldn’t have been done without Becker, a retired business executive.
“Rand is not a theater person,” said Cox. “He’s a theater lover. There was a lot that he didn’t understand about running a theater at first, but he learned it and excelled at it. Without someone of his integrity, knowledge and connections, we would not have been able to sustain the Playhouse. He jumped in and contacted bill collectors and personally financed a lot of things. He was a godsend.”