Second act for M-A Performing Arts Center
• Menlo Park may partner with Fox Theatre management to book acts.
Menlo Park may turn to an outside partner to get the most out of the city's $2.6 million investment in the Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center (PAC).
Catherine Carlton, who served on the Parks and Recreation Commission before winning a seat on the City Council this November, said her research into Bay Area event venues uncovered a local connection — Eric Lochtefeld, who owns the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, grew up in Menlo Park and attended Menlo-Atherton High School.
A potential partnership resulted from their conversation: With 492 seats, the PAC offers a mid-sized venue that fills a gap in Mr. Lochtefeld's business, while he has the expertise to refer performers to the PAC as well as handle promotions and ticket sales, according to Ms. Carlton. The center could also provide a rehearsal space for Broadway by the Bay performers, giving students a chance to learn alongside theater professionals.
"Some of the really big promoters won't necessarily be a good fit, since Fox handles the administration and they already have really tight connections with groups like Ticketmaster. But for some independent acts, comedians and things like that, then this is the appropriate fit," Ms. Carlton said, noting that specific details of any arrangement have yet to be worked out.
Mr. Lochtefeld said he's turned down offers from other cities to take over their venues because the company has its hands full hosting 150 events a year at the Fox, but he has a soft spot for his hometown. "My wife and I cannot assure the City of Menlo Park that promoters we refer will book shows or that we will promote and produce our own shows in Menlo Park, but Cat has done a terrific job of paying attention to what is going on, reaching out to us, and laying the foundation for us to do business in that venue," he said in an email.
Menlo Park shared the cost of building the center with Menlo-Atherton High School in exchange for 55 days of rent-free use during the school year, and unlimited access during school vacations. But as the Almanac previously reported, the city only averages between 11 and 36 days of use per year since the theater opened in 2009.
In 2011 the city briefly experimented with another agency, Prime Time Entertainment, to provide sound equipment, event coordination, and staffing. But the association fell apart without sufficient marketing by the city and a dearth of available PAC dates.
Scheduling remains challenging. "We had one opportunity come up already, but it conflicted with a school event so we couldn't do anything with it," Ms. Carlton said. Still, a new manager in charge of scheduling onboard at the PAC may help, and the school is also trying to publish its schedule earlier so the city can plan its own use.
To help address the issue of costs, in October the city announced a new grants program to award $500 to $1,000 each year to up to five community groups to subsidize rental of the theater. Staff has recommended that the first round of grants go to the Menlo Park Chorus; Kepler's Arts/Lectures, the new nonprofit events arm of the iconic local bookstore; Menlowe Ballet; Western Ballet; and West Bay Opera. The Parks and Recreation Commission was scheduled to vote on the recipients on Dec. 19, but did not have a quorum, according to Commissioner James Cebrian.
He sounded enthusiastic about potentially working with the Fox Theatre, saying the commission has been exploring public-private partnerships. "Though it is early in the process, I am very optimistic that Cat's work to bring the Fox Theatre and the city together will result in a fruitful collaboration."