Theaters Break a Leg; Sponsors Break the Bank

Will The Curtain Still Rise in 2009?

In the 1930's, the economy was in the tank, yet there was a star still shining.  Theaters.

"I must tell you that in my lifetime, I've never gone through anything like this," said Michael Price, Executive Director of Goodspeed in East Haddam.  "The economy's in a tough place.  But if history repeats itself  - people will want to escape what's going on down the street."

Goodspeed's most recent show - Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas - packed the theater with many sold out shows, despite snowstorms.  More than 80% of all seats sold, said Price.

The loyal remain, said Price.  This year, as many as 9,000 different people will contribute between $50 and $10,000 to Goodspeed.

"We're seeing in our renewals for next year an increased number of contributors," he said.  "We're only down 200 subscriptions so far, and there's still time left."

Yet the upcoming season could still be a difficult one.  That's because of the toll the economy has taken on corporate sponsors.

"We have no idea what's going to happen there.  You have a sense that it's going to be very tight and quite different," he said.  "There are consolidations in banking and insurance.  They depend a lot on investments in market, which has been off 30-40%.  I assume we're in for a rocky road."

The Bushnell in Hartford is experiencing the same problems, said Elizabeth Ray who handles fundraising.

"We've been in a non-growth market corporate-wise for a while," she said.  "And to make things more difficult, everyone's approaching the same donors.  It's very competitive."

It's a one-two punch.  More theaters looking for money, she said, and less money in the market.

"Many of the corporations are being hit financially.  And many of our sponsors are the financial institutions," she said.  " We're thrilled with the companies that have stayed with us and we're so appreciative.  We're doing all we can to retain them.  There's no better donor than a repeat donor."

Ray said in terms of private contributors, The Bushnell is also hurting. 

"Like others, we've lost a good amount of money.  20% didn't renew, and of the 80% who did, some decreased their gifts.  We lost about $215,000."

The good news is that many helped out where others couldn't.

"We were lucky to have raised $112,000 in increased gifts or new money.  With that said, we're still off $103,000."

To compensate, The Bushnell has expanded it's volunteer base, which is helping pursue new sponsorships.  They're also in a hiring freeze.

But the irony of our tough economic times is that more people are staying local.

"People aren't traveling," she said, "so they're staying to enjoy our shows."

Price said it's the same thing for Goodspeed.

"We're getting ready to deliver.  We've got a great season," he said.  "It starts with 42nd Street and goes on to Camelot, two shows that might end up on Broadway."

He said like other theaters in the area, they're ready for whatever comes their way.

"Bottom line, we're in good shape and very optimistic about the future," he said.  "But like everyone else -- we just don't know."

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