The Maryland Theater avoids lowering its curtain after financial troubles

April 09, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- The Maryland Theater, which dates to the days of vaudeville and silent movies, is on solid financial ground after nearly closing its doors more than a year ago because of money woes.

"This time last year, we were hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt," said Kelley Gilbert, the executive director who was hired after financial problems came to light. "Things are going very well now. We are current on all payables and paying bills every 30 days."

Douglass C. Reed, theater board president, said this is the first time the venerable theater has operated in the black in a dozen years. He credited fund-raising efforts, new financial controls and a new staff -- under the direction of Ms. Gilbert -- with turning the theater's financial troubles around.

Theater officials discovered a severe money shortage in the fall of 1993 after the director of seven years resigned. The shortage was attributed to the use of money from the sales of advance tickets to cover operating expenses, overspending to book acts and substantial losses on top-name acts such as pop singer Dionne Warwick.

To keep the ornate theater open, board members borrowed $40,000 on an emergency basis from the city of Hagerstown, obtained a $210,000 mortgage from area banks and launched fund-raising activities. The loan from the city has since been repaid.

Besides implementing new financial controls and regular audits, the theater has automated its database and installed a new computer and phone system to expedite ticket sales, Ms. Gilbert said. She said the theater has had some successful shows and sold about 12,000 tickets during January and February. Attractions included Pam Tillis, who was the Country Music Association's 1994 Female Vocalist of the Year, and Grammy nominee Diamond Rio.

"The past year has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears," Ms. Gilbert said.

The 1,400-seat theater is turning its attention to increasing corporate and individual membership. Ms. Gilbert said officials hope to raise $150,000 this year. The money, she said, is needed for seat and backstage repairs and a new roof.

"This is a charitable organization," Mr. Reed said. "We fill a mission in the community. Ticket prices pay for various shows but do not cover the operating costs of the theater. We've been very successful in educating the community about that. The community has been very supportive, but we still need their donations."

Since it opened in 1915, the theater has entertained thousands of spectators for films, stage shows and one-night stands. Bob Hope, Anne Murray, B. B. King and Jay Leno have performed there.

The theater was designed by renowned theater architect Thomas Lamb, who also designed the original Madison Square Garden and the Strand in New York.

Hagerstown Mayor Steven T. Sager said the theater is "an integral part of our downtown revitalization efforts."

The theater's 70 to 80 shows a year help the city's growing restaurant area.

"In a larger sense, the theater is a major cultural institution in Western Maryland and the four-state area," he said.

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