Stop what you are doing. The venerable and cherished Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn is calling out for help, your help. The announcement the week before last that the Paper Mill was in imminent danger of bankruptcy and closing its doors forever came as a shock. But was it really a surprise?
Seventy years of professionally staged productions have thrilled and entertained audiences of all ages. Never neglecting the young, the Playhouse has produced a continuing series of children’s matinees through the years. World renowned stars have graced its stage in just about every hit you can remember. The Paper Mill Playhouse has always had a special magic. There is nothing like the Paper Mill Playhouse in our state let alone the country. Therefore, we must act quickly to see that it will stay open and continue to delight children and adults for generations to come.
Some would put the blame on the large-scaled Broadway-styled productions of past decades that exceeded their budgets. Others fault the more recent, however inevitable, turnover of artistic and executive management. A steady and significant loss of subscribers and seasons with adventurous but questionably marketable shows can also be seen as contributing factors. But, what about the old adage, the buck stops here? Where is the accountability of a board of directors that apparently failed to keep on top of the financial situation and step up to the plate before the umpire yelled “game over?”
To get to the bottom of the whys and wherefores I spoke with Shayne Miller, the director of public relations at the Paper Mill. “I’ve got all the answers,” he says during a phone interview on Wednesday, April 11. I wanted facts and figures to help me understand how this financial mess happened so quickly and with so little warning. “The theater has been struggling financially for many years all the way back to the years when Angelo Del Rossi was executive producer. It was also a time when we started losing subscribers,” says Miller. The new CEO, Michael Gennaro, inherited a theater in 2004 in financial disarray.
“This season began with a budget deficit of $2.8 million. The board hoped that a capital campaign would do the trick,” says Miller, adding that a “capital campaign” is generally considered as money earmarked for upgrading and brick-and-mortar maintenance with only a portion going to cover the operating deficit this year. “But in this instance, $2 million was in line to be used to cover this year’s deficit. The sudden departure of Gennaro (in February, 2007, to take the job of executive director at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI) put the campaign on hold after the board had, up to that time, secured $1 million in pledges but only $81,000 in cash.” Since Gennaro’s departure, associate artistic director Mark Hoebee and managing director Diane Claussen have assumed his post.
I asked Miller why the Paper Mill waited so long to yell help. “We had many irons in the fire to help bridge the season but we were depending upon a bridge loan from a bank that we had been dealing with for many years. We were also sitting on property that the Paper Mill owned worth $10 million. The bank’s response, ‘We are not giving you any money,’ came as a shock to the theater’s executives and the board of directors. This put us in a panic.” Miller says that the reasons behind the bank’s refusal are not being disclosed at this time.
The Paper Mill has an annual operating budget of $17 million, but Miller says its line of credit with the bank has a $500,000 cap on it. “We found ourselves literally out of money. The choice was either to close the doors or go to the public for money. The chances of a theater re-opening once it closes its doors are slim. As of today, we have just enough money to get through Sunday, April 15, the opening night of ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.’ The county of Essex is working to get us a loan and we are hoping for some large gifts in the $100,000 range from some donors. We are literally operating day by day.”
Miller expresses his confidence that once audiences see the Paper Mill’s wonderful production of “Seven Brides,” they will also come through with donations. He says that this is a show that will appeal to the classic Paper Mill audience. “Gennaro tried a different direction, some things worked and some things didn’t work, but we are trying to mount shows that are more intergenerational and that have title recognition.”
Did the management see the warning signs and what if anything was done to prevent this and hopefully to prevent it from happening again? Miller says, “I do know that Gennaro warned the board over and over again at the beginning of the season that the theater had a $2.8 million short-fall on its $17 million budget. Historically, the Paper Mill has never been a fundraising institution, and we need to become one. We generally raise 20 percent of our annual budget. Other theaters across the country have a 50/50 split between fundraising and earned income (box-office sales). If that were the case here, we would be golden. A fundraising developer is working for us on an interim basis to get us to the next step.”
Miller says he believes that there may very well be changes on the board to insure that it will be more focused on fundraising. I ask him if it is true that every member of the board is committed to giving money to the Paper Mill. “I believe there are members of the board who still have to come through with their pledges,” says Miller.
Unfortunately I was unable to attend the Monday, April 9, rally at the Paper Mill, but Miller says, “Despite the cold weather, we had over 1,000 people show up. Over $25,000 dollars was raised just from people in the community. In addition to the performances by Broadway stars, former governors Brendon Byrne and Tom Kean Sr, and Tom Kean Jr spoke in support of the Paper Mill.”
The question remains: what about tomorrow, the next season, the long-term mission. Miller says that the payroll will be met for this week. Beyond that it is up to the public, the board, and the lending institutions to come through with enough money to insure the rest of the season.
“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” did, indeed, open April 15 and “Pirates” will (hopefully) bring the 69th season to a close. That’s good news. But, the question remains: Have we learned nothing from the financial debacle at the Crossroads Theater? It devastated a major and acclaimed theater that earned awards and national and international recognition. Crossroads is still in the throes of a seven-year recovery from bankruptcy with modest productions and a reduced season. No one ever said that keeping the right balance among box office receipts and grants and donations was an easy task, let alone pleasing the patrons, as well.
If the current staff and board members are not doing their job, then get those who can. The more difficult question, especially for the handsome and historic 1,000 seat Paper Mill is how to continue giving its devoted and mostly middle-aged and older following the kind of familiar productions they prefer while also guardedly introducing them to new work.
Right now it is important to keep the doors of the Paper Mill open. This means giving money and fast. Miller is particularly keen on the show scheduled (with our support) to open the next season. It is the world premiere of “Frankenstein: The Musical.” Now there’s name recognition for you.
The Campaign to Save Paper Mill Playhouse. You can save “The State Theater of New Jersey” by making a tax-deductible contribution. Call 973-379-3636 or donate online at www.papermill.org.