Editorial: City needs a champion to fill theater seatsThe city of Menlo Park is learning that it is not easy to make money in the entertainment business, even if you own rights to 55 days of space in a snazzy 492-seat theater.
Ever since the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center opened in 2009, the city has hoped to develop its minority interest in the school facility into at least a break-even program. But so far, its investment of $2.6 million, about 15 percent of the total cost of nearly $30 million, has failed to pay off. During the 2011-12 season, which ends this week, only 36 of the 55 available days were booked in the theater, the best showing so far, after seeing only 11 days used in each of the two prior years.
Councilman Rich Cline, who was serving on the Parks and Recreation Commission when the deal was struck, said more analysis could have been done.
"I don't recall anyone ever saying, 'this is how much it costs to run a theater like this,'" he told the Almanac. "It's one area that wasn't really considered as well as it should have been."
More due diligence was needed at the time, without question, but now that the city is in the theater business, its options are limited. To turn the problem around will require hiring a professional manager, rather than depending on city staff members who have no experience in the entertainment business.
As reported in last week's Almanac, the cities of San Ramon and Campbell successfully operate large theater venues, charging rental rates comparable to the M-A PAC. San Ramon shares a 600-seat theater with a local school district, much like the city's deal with the Sequoia Union High School District. Campbell outsources management of an 800-seat theater, but has a vibrant group of supporters who help defray rental costs for local nonprofits. It also donates $26,000 annually to help support the theater.
A similar approach could work in Menlo Park if the City Council approves hiring a contractor to write a business plan and bring in events that could fit into the theater's complex schedule. It is no small feat to work around all the black-out dates for events in the school calendar, which is complicated even more by an agreement with Atherton to limit traffic impact in neighborhoods near M-A.
Years ago Menlo Park supported a lively Menlo Players troupe that performed at the 300-seat Burgess Theatre, a space now occupied by one of the city's swimming pools. The theater dated back to World War II, when buildings at Dibble Army Hospital were converted to civilian use. Burgess Theatre was one; it survived until a major structural component cracked and the structure was torn down in 2002. The Players survived for a few more years, but no longer perform.
The city's investment in the M-A theater was, in part, to make up for losing Burgess Theatre, although dreams of attracting a community troupe to perform in the large venue have not come true. Now it will be up to the City Council and other city officials to reach out to local businesses that might want to help sponsor a concert series or other performance that could draw a regional audience.
The city needs a champion who knows the theater business and can find patrons to fill its seats 55 days a year. It will be a tremendous challenge, but one that could help the city's bottom line and provide local residents with quality entertainment for years to come.