The Earl Smith Strand Theatre on the Square could be lowering the curtain on the Atlanta Lyric Theatre after its final performance of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” on June 23.
Season ticket holders were notified recently that the Lyric plans to leave the home it’s had since 2008. However, Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin quickly stepped forward and basically said “whoa, not so fast!” The mayor emphatically added that he will strive to work out a suitable arrangement to keep the Strand’s sole musical theatre company at its current home.
Tumlin indicated that he could start working on an 11th-hour save as early as today.
The Lyric entered into a five-year contract that expires on Aug. 31 with the Friends of The Strand, the nonprofit organization that governs the multi-use performing arts and events facility.
Annual rental payments average about $100,000 to $120,000 a year, said Brandt Blocker, the Lyric’s artistic director and general manager.
Tumlin called the news devastating. The kind of crowd the Lyric’s musicals attract to the Square in the evenings is essential for maintaining a healthy downtown, he said.
“They let out at say 10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m.,” Tumlin said. “If we lose those people, then it gets maybe a bad element that hangs out on the Square. When you walk around the Square at 10:30 p.m., and you see a bunch of gray-headed people like me walking around, then you know it’s safe. And when it’s safe, you get families out there, you get people who go to the restaurants. It sends a clear message that they feel safe, so therefore it is safe, and that’s what we want.”
Tumlin said he was going to do whatever he could to convince the Lyric to remain at the Strand. He suggested possibly tapping into the hotel/motel tax the city collects and using that as a revenue source for the Lyric.
“What little brain cells I’ve got, I’m going to do what I can to keep this one afloat,” Tumlin said. “I think my citizens are going to demand it, or it’s going to be my head. I’m motivated even more than the economic impact to the city of Marietta. This is a cultural impact that is devastating.”
Tumlin spoke of Palmer Wells’ popular Theatre in the Square, a cornerstone of downtown Marietta since 1982 that closed in March 2012 because of financial troubles. The building in which that theater company was housed is also owned by the Goldstein family.
“As mayor of a city that has lost two outstanding theaters, I’m not going to go sit in the corner and cry. I’m going to do whatever I can to help,” Tumlin said.
An initial warning
Word that all was not well between the Lyric and the Strand came in February 2012, when the Lyric’s marketing director, Dianne Butler, announced at a town hall that her company was being courted by other communities.
Blocker and four of the Strand’s board members – chairman Bob Ash, attorney Kevin Moore, Marietta resident Steve Imler, and Michele Swann, CEO of The Cobb-Marietta Coliseum & Exhibit Hall Authority – tried to come to an agreement about extending the contract, but Blocker said ultimately the Lyric could not afford the terms.
“We love the Square, and please know we worked very diligently to try to come to an agreement that would work well for the company, that would work well for our patrons, but my job in leading this organization is to make sure that we can continue to produce shows for years to come,” Blocker said.
Blocker said his plan is for the Lyric to announce its new home, which will be somewhere in Cobb County, next week.
A business decision
Both Blocker and Ash said the parting between the Lyric and Strand was not bitter, but simply a business decision.
“Obviously, it boiled down to a business decision on the part of the Strand,” Ash said. “We had given some substantial concessions to the rental rate in the initial contract, and we were working hard to keep them there. That was the goal going in obviously is to keep the Lyric there, but in the final analysis, when we looked at the numbers, they looked at the numbers, they couldn’t pay what we wanted to get and, business-wise, we just couldn’t take lower than what our last offer to them was.”
The Lyric has 1,912 season-ticket holders and sees an average audience turnout per show of 400 people. On average, season-ticket holders account for about 40 percent of the audience.
Cassi Costoulas, the Strand’s marketing director, said the amount of time the Lyric booked at the Strand varies from year to year between 31 percent and 37 percent. In 2012, for example, The Lyric was in The Strand for 125 days out of the 359 it was open since the Strand is closed most major holidays. That equates to 35 percent, she said.
The Strand has bills of its own to pay. Friends of the Strand spent about $6 million on the Strand renovation, and it owes about $1.5 million left of that amount to Bank of North Georgia.
The Strand has a lease with the Goldstein family through 2056, with $0 rent due until Jan. 1, 2015. At that time, rent will be about $9,000 a month.
The Strand’s 2013 budget is about $1.2 million.
The Lyric has an annual budget of about $1 million, with ticket sales making up more than $600,000 of that amount and charitable giving and other support accounting for the rest, Blocker said.
Earl Smith, the Strand’s namesake, said the Strand will fill the void left by the Lyric with other events.
“I think we will have something that will serve that purpose because we have anticipated this maybe not working out, so the board has been working, and Earl Reece (Strand executive director) has been working on something that would fill that in and still kind of not miss a beat, because we will take advantage of kind of the dark days that we have, or days that we had a limited amount of income from them. And I think at the end of the day while there may be some disappointment, I believe we will be all right,” Smith said.
The Lyric was formed in 1980 dedicated to presenting the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Its first production was performed at Emory University. Later productions moved about to the Marist School, 14th Street Playground and the Robert Ferst Center for the Arts on the campus of Georgia Tech before moving to the Strand.
The Lyric’s final performance at the Strand is “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” on June 23.
County spokesman Robert Quigley said there has been some talk about the Lyric holding a performance at the county’s Jennie T. Anderson Theatre in August like it did last year, but there are no plans for the Lyric to have its home in any county-owned building.
The Journal also spoke with The Murray Arts Center at Mount Paran Christian School, Marietta City Schools, Kennesaw State University, Life University, Chattahoochee Technical College, Southern Polytechnic State University and the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, but the spokespeople for those groups all said the Lyric isn’t coming their way, either.
Next week’s announcement on the new venue is bound to surprise.