Sep 22, 2013

September 22, 2013: Adrift on the Wreckage, Accountant In the Corridors, Why the Arts are Subsidized

I had been swimming in the dark shark-infested waters for what seemed like months, sending out resumes like so many messages in bottles hoping that some word of my predicament would safely reach the hands of a rescue party.  In September of that year, my wife about to give birth, word reached me that the local theatre group was searching about for someone to manage the old house.  I quickly ripped off a resume and within a short time received my response.  An interview was quickly arranged and in one of the conference rooms at the old First Security Bank, I was introduced to Monroe MacPherson and the rest of the theatre board.  Mac, as Mac would, did most of the talking, relating his vision for what the group intended this facility to be.  Mac wanted the Theatre to be a cultural venue, bring live stage performances to the community as well as exhibiting Hollywood’s yearly productions.  I was assured, by all present, that there was uniformity in the group, that they all saw the same vision, and that there were no internal divisions and disagreements within the group.

 I had always been skeptical of committees.  A camel, goes the old yarn, is defined as a horse assembled by a committee.  It wasn’t long before the fracture lines began to emerge and foremost was a clear division between the Chairman and his group and the Treasurer and his group.  This schism quickly ossified into the operations as the newly minted “assistant” manager, who had been passed over for the appointment, aligned herself with the treasurer and I became the representative of the Chairman.  What followed was a year-long tug of war.

 It began with the treasurer assuming the position than befits any accountant-in-chief: the task to watch every nickel and dime.  This is a laudatory function and quite necessary to the operation of any business.  But it is not sufficient.  In this case the questioning of expenditures translated itself into insisting that the theatre get several bids on a new furnace.  Now a local furnace contractor had already given us an estimate.  Boilers are not grown on trees and you simply cannot get one off the shelf and install it.  Each installation is peculiar to each building and the demands put on it, especially for an auditorium seating roughly a thousand souls.  Professional steam fitters are required as well as specialized equipment.  Moreover, Mr. Steele was on the Board and like several other local contractors on the board or closely associated with it, was offering to do the installation below cost, donating labor and materials to the cause.  Nevertheless, our accountant demanded further bids. The upshot was that it was already late in the year.  I suggested we close the operation over the winter and concentrate on raising more funds.  No one on the board would hear of it.  So it transpired that we wasted nearly 3 months as we got the bids only to decide to do what we were going to do in the first place.  But before the heat was finally turned on, in early January of 1986, we had been reduced to running salamanders—large propane heaters—in order to heat the building.  These machines are loud when you have to have ones large enough to heat that kind of space.  So they have to be shut off at show time.  Besides they emit a strong odor of propane.  The public, then, was greeted upon entering the lobby with the odor of gas and, after finding their desired seats, would sit through a performance as the temperature in the auditorium would slowly or, depending on the outside temperature, not so slowly fall.  By the time the credits were on the screen one could see one’s breath and one rubbed one’s cold runny nose.  As with hiring an accountant to run Butterfield, this is what happens when you allow an accountant to enter the corridors of power.  Accountants are there to tell you how much money you have, and if you don’t have it perhaps give you some idea where you can get it.  Accountants should never be allowed anywhere near meetings and rooms where serious operational or policy decisions are made.

 That being said, the resulting struggle played itself out over the ensuing months.  We enjoyed some marginal successes bring in (after the heat was on) an old vaudeville revival show, the Grand Rapids Symphony, the play “El Capitan” and one or two other performances, selling the season as a package as well as individually.  It was during this time that I had to instruct the board that there are reasons why the arts are subsidized.  You cannot operate a venue along these lines without public assistance.  Accordingly, we worked to secure funding from foundations and state of Michigan grants for the performing arts.  With these subsidies, the theatre turned a modest profit.

But there were nowhere near the revenues coming in the box office to fund the renovations.  The theatre group had raised enough money to replace the screen, projection and sound equipment, but the auditorium was in need of upholstery, over 1000 seats, and repainting.  A new roof had to be put on, the Marquee rebuilt, new restrooms built to replace the inaccessible originals located off the balcony upstairs.  The demands of the renovation, wholly underestimated by this group of hard-headed conservative businessmen, caused further stresses within the board.  In my time at the helm, we got the place open, put on some live shows, began regular playing of films and began getting estimates of repairs.  While several of the board members offered free labor and materials to repair the electrical circuits throughout the building, and fix the heating, other board members worked to get contributions for other capital improvements.  Meanwhile I worked with the City Manager to secure grant money to repaint the building and rebuild the Marquee.  By the middle of summer, after nearly a year of holding the place together with chewing gum and bailing wire, the internal divisions within the organization were at a breaking point.  One morning Mac came to see me.  We repaired to our usual haunt at the downtown restaurant and, after some general observations regarding the politics within the theatre group, asked me if I would come to work for him at the radio station.  He knew I wanted off this raft, and it was a way of saying welcome ashore.   


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