Risk and Reward At Palace Theater

                                         Story By John Murray

   Waterbury is openly wrestling with what it wants out of the city-owned Palace Theater on East Main Street.

   •  Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary has demanded that the theater produce more shows to help stimulate economics in downtown Waterbury.

   • New leadership on the Palace Theater board of directors has challenged theater executive director, Frank Tavera, to take greater risks in booking more shows and keeping the lights on.

   • Community leaders in Waterbury have called the Palace Theater an elite club for the rich and powerful residents of suburbia, and are calling for more community access to the theater, and greater cultural diversity in programing.

   • The management team operating the theater, the Palace Theater Group (PTG), is under fire for not providing quarterly financial statements to the Waterbury Board of Aldermen.

    • Waterbury’s Corporation Counsel, Linda Wihbey, is looking over the 2004 lease between the city and PTG to confirm that the operating group has met its contractual obligations to the citizens of Waterbury.

   In what appears like a virtual eruption of issues inside the Palace Theater, one thing is clear – status quo is not acceptable.

    Frank Monteiro is the vice-chairman of the Palace Theater’s board of directors and said for the past ten years the Palace Theater lived by one simple rule, “Don’t lose money.”

Frank Monteiro is vice chairman of the Palace board of directors.

   Monterio, who recently retired as the chief operating officer at MacDermid Performance Solutions on Freight Street in Waterbury, said the “don’t lose money” approach doesn’t work.

    “The question is do we have an expense issue or a revenue issue, and in my personal opinion we have a revenue issue,” Monterio said. “We need to have the lights on more.”

   CEO of the Palace Theater, Frank Tavera, said there has been a dramatic shift on the Palace Theater board of directors, and he has been challenged to take risks. “There is an incredibly delicate balance to taking risks and making sure the theater doesn’t run a deficit,” Tavera said. “Some on the board are conservative, and some are risk takers. We are trying to find a balance.”

   Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary has met several times with Dr. Peter Jacoby (chairman of the Palace board of directors), and Monteiro.

   “We all thought the Palace Theater should be presenting more shows,” O’Leary said. “There is room for improvement, and new leadership is setting the bar higher.”

   Monteiro said he and Jacoby pushed to have longer-running shows, and this past November the Palace Theater staged Phantom of the Opera for two weeks. The Phantom sold 22,000 tickets, and 10,000 were first time visitors to the Palace.

   “We made capital improvements to the theater so we could stage Phantom,” Monteiro said. “We did not meet our projections (24,000 tickets), but local businesses did very well, and we drew people from out of state to see the show. That model can work in Waterbury.”

   Mayor O’Leary said he has been approached by restaurateurs and downtown merchants who “are not shy about telling me they want the theater open more,” O’Leary said. “When there is a show the restaurants are packed. We need the lights on.”

Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary views the Palace Theater in terms of its economic impact on downtown, and he is demanding more.

Connecticut taxpers shelled out $30 million for the complete restoration of the Palace Theater in 2004. The project was championed by Governor John Rowland, a Waterbury native.

Frank Tavera is the executive director of the Palace Theater Group, and was its leader when the theater reopened in November 2004.

   The Waterbury Observer sat down with Frank Tavera and Sheree Marcucci (marketing and communications director at the Palace) on February 22nd to better understand the complexities of operating a performing arts theater. Tavera explained that there are two types of theaters;

   •  A community house that has no union and specializes in local ballet productions, symphonies, community theater and can be rented out by promoters to stage musical concerts. Broadway productions do not perform at non-union houses, Tavera said.

   • A union house attracts national touring Broadway productions. The Palace Theater, and theaters in Bridgeport New Haven and Stamford are all contracted with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees local #74. Nothing can be performed on the main stage of the Palace Theater without union employees; no plays, no concerts, no community events, nothing.

   If the Palace Theater tried to stage events on the main stage without members of IATSE #74, Tavera said the union would picket outside, and the theater could be blackballed by Broadway productions. “It would be contentious,” Tavera said. “Once the local union is in, they are in.”

   There were 150 union workers utilized to stage the Phantom of the Opera in November. “They were trained electricians and prop guys,” Tavera said. “It can’t be you and me putting on the show. That’s dangerous.”

   Monteiro said he has had experience negotiating with unions while running MacDermid, and said there might be an opportunity in 2019 to negotiate with the union when its contract expires.

   “Both sides have to eat and there should always be a little something on the table,” Monteiro said. “It’s not fair to say that the unions are the problem, but we can’t have deals that hamper our ability to keep the lights on.”

When the Palace Theater is open the local restuarants do a brisk business. The $30 million restoration of the theater was justified as an investment in economic investment. Mayor O'Leary believes  the local economy needs the theater to be open more to further help restraunts like Diorio's, San Marino, La Tavola and D'Amelio's (pictured here).

   Tavera said the Palace Theater is dark every Monday, and for the entire months of July and August. “Theaters are historically dark on Mondays,” Tavera said, “and we tried booking shows in the summers and were creamed. People want to be outside in the summer.”

   Tavera said when you take away 111 days of summer, holidays and Mondays, there are 254 “useful days” to use the theater. Tavara said there were 101 days the main stage was tied up in technical dates and performances, 30 days that the Waterbury Arts Magnet School used the theater (per contractual agreement), 63 days of non-theatrical special events, and 30 days used for trivia nights, a jazz series and ACTJAMS productions.

   “Out of the 254 possible useful days we had something going on at the Palace for 224 days,” Tavera said. “That’s 88%.”
  
Blast From The Past
   Community activist Andy Michaud launched a social media campaign a month ago demanding that the Palace Theater open its doors and become more accessible to the Waterbury community. Michaud has called the Palace Theater an elite club for the wealthy and powerful individuals who live in suburbia.

   “It’s a private club,” Michaud said, “and regular Waterbury people are not in it.”

   Michaud has posted a photograph of a dark Palace Theater on his Facebook page the entire month of February (except for the one night a show was produced there). The former two-time mayoral candidate has been a relentless critic of the way the Palace Theater is run.

Community activist Andy Michaud wants the Palace Theater to show movies, stage local musicals and  become more accessible to the local community.

   In a recent Facebook post he wrote,” Went to the Sacred Heart girls’ basketball game and ran into an old friend. He asked me why am I going after the Palace Theater Group so hard? Am I looking for a job? Am I looking for show tickets? Am I looking for money? All good questions.”

   Michaud told his friend what he wanted;

   • I want to see the Black community celebrate their heritage. I want to see Timmy Maia on stage with Family Connection, and I want to see the Zion Baptist gospel singers spreading the good news on a Sunday afternoon.

   • I want to see my Puerto Rican brothers and sisters celebrating 3 Kings Day. I want to see Hispanic heritage celebrated, and I want to see salsa music on stage.

   • I want to see my Jewish neighbors watching Fiddler on the Roof on the big stage.

   • I want to see the Muslim community use the theater for prayer and recognition.

   • I want to see rock and roll shows with my old high school classmates.

   • I want to see Donna Bonasera and the Connecticut Dance Theater put on their performances with the kids.

   • I want to see the people of Waterbury inside that theater. It’s simple; I want to see the lights on.

      Michaud was an outspoken champion of efforts to reopen the Palace Theater in 1993 when then-Mayor Mike Bergin planned to have the city purchase the building for $2 million dollars from Dom Temporale, rehab it for another $2 million, and get the Palace back online to attract people into downtown Waterbury.

   Bergin’s proposal was captained by Frank Davino (the former director of Urban Renewal in Waterbury) and it passed the Board of Aldermen by a 14-1 vote in December 1993. A group opposed to using taxpayer dollars to purchase the theater collected enough signatures to force the issue to referendum.

Frank Davino spearheaded the effort to re-open the Palace in 1994 and has now called for the theater to be open 12 months a year. Davino wrote on one of Michaud's posts, "The Palace needs to be open to all people regardless of race, color or creed if they have the talent and ability to present a great entertainment portfolio. The people of Waterbury and the entire region must join together to reinvigorate the Palace."

   Utilizing free cable access television, Michaud produced weekly “Palace Specials” for months touting the historical significance of the theater, and interviewing community leaders in the run up to the contentious referendum.

   The Republican-American newspaper strongly opposed Bergin’s plan to re-open the Palace Theater, and The Waterbury Observer (just a few months old) was a supporter. For six months a war of information between the Observer and the Rep-Am erupted as the Palace Theater turned into a battleground.

   Bergin, Michaud and Davino wanted non-stop community activity inside the Palace Theater. They wanted concerts, high school graduations, community plays, movies and regional theater. There was no talk of Broadway productions or union contracts. The Palace Theater was going to be Waterbury’s thumping heart, and would be open to all.

   Voters in a referendum shot down that proposal on June 28th, 1994, and the theater remained dark for a decade.

   Enter John Rowland.

Former governor John Rowland was a powerful force in his hometown and helped trigger moe than $300 million in economic development  along East Main Street. The Palace Theater was the gem Rowland shined with a $30 million restoration investment with taxpayers money.

   Elected the youngest governor in Connecticut history in November 1994, Waterbury native John Rowland quickly pledged to use his muscle in Hartford to renovate the Palace Theater. The process took several years and was ultimately packaged in a $300 million downtown project that included moving the UConn branch downtown, and building a magnet arts school attached to the Palace Theater.

   In the Summer of 2001 Democrat Larry De Pillo was the heavy favorite to be elected mayor of Waterbury. Central to De Pillo’s campaign was a promise to stop Rowland’s $300 million East Main Street projects (including the Palace) and conduct public hearings. De Pillo accused the governor of cutting corners to rush the projects to fruition, and said the people of Waterbury had not had a say.

   Frustrated by De Pillo’s threats to halt construction, Rowland wooed a reluctant Michael Jarjura (who had publicly stated he had no interest in ever running for mayor) into a primary collision with De Pillo. Rowland, a Republican, endorsed Jarjura for mayor and campaigned for him.

   The primary was held on September 11th 2001, the day the World Trade Towers were attacked, and Jarjura won by 14 votes.

   In 2001 the fight to restore the Palace Theater directly altered the political history of the city. In the ensuing years both Rowland and Jarjura admitted to the Observer that the campaign had been about stopping Larry De Pillo.

   Jarjura went on to serve as mayor for 10 years, and De Pillo has run for mayor six more times, never coming closer than the 14 vote margin on September 11th.

   What Mayor Bergin attempted to accomplish with $4 million in 1993, ballooned to a $30 million restoration project of the Palace Theater with plans for full-scale Broadway plays being staged in downtown Waterbury.

   With the $30 million restoration project the mission of the Palace Theater changed; Frank Tavera was hired to bring Broadway shows into downtown Waterbury, and build a subscription base that could sustain theater operations.

   The Palace Theater reopened in November 2004 with Tony Bennett performing, and Waterburians were in awe. The Palace was back, but it was quickly apparent that the new Palace and the old Palace had little in common. While the new theater did indeed attract world class Broadway productions of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Fiddler On the Roof, Miss Saigon and Les Misérables, the exorbitant costs of renting the theater and paying union workers squeezed out many community groups and promoters looking to book shows on the main stage.

   Donna Bonasera runs the Connecticut Dance Theater (CDT) in Watertown and produced several shows at the Palace Theater in 2004-2005. “We had a fabulous first year performing the Nutcracker, and producing Romeo and Juliet with Shakesperience,” Bonasera said. “We brought 10,000 kids into the Palace Theater. The second season the Palace changed their approach and it was no longer cost effective to perform there.”

   Bonasera said it is very difficult for non-profits to utilize the Palace Theater. “The expenses are very high and the risk is too big to take,” she said.

   Concert promoter Keith Mahler, a Waterbury resident, said the Palace is not a viable venue for most non-profits. “If they can’t afford the union fees and can’t fill the seats then it’s the wrong place for them,” Mahler said. “Personally, I have had a terrific experience working with the Palace Theater.”

   Mahler is bringing David Byrne of the Talking Heads to the Palace Theater on March 9th and the show sold out in days. “We bring four or five shows a year into Waterbury,” Mahler said, “but the concerts are fillers for the Broadway shows.”

   Mahler said the criticism of Frank Tavera is a lot of noise. “There is nothing wrong with the Palace operations and Frank Tavera has been an excellent steward of the theater,” Mahler said. “Frank knows his business, which is Broadway, not rock and roll.”

   Mahler has heard the call for Tavera and the Palace to produce more shows, but believes the people making those demands don’t understand the complexities of show business.

   “Competition is fierce in Connecticut,” Mahler said. “The Palace is competing with the two casinos, summer music festivals, the Meadows, and the Oakdale. You can’t simply call up a group and book them. It’s not that easy.”

   And then it comes down to risk. “Exactly who is going to take that financial risk,” Mahler asked. “Being cautious is not a bad thing.”

The Cultural Divide
   Geraldo Reyes, Felix Rodriguez and Tito Batista met with staff at the Palace Theater a decade ago to address the lack of Latino shows being staged inside the Palace. “More than 30% of Waterbury is Hispanic and the Palace was offering us very little,” Reyes said. “We were given a long explanation about the union and the high cost of bringing shows to the Palace, and how it wasn’t going to work.”

   During the first few years after the theater re-opened in 2004 several Puerto Rican entertainers were booked at the Palace, and Reyes said the events – Eddie Palmieri, La India and Gilberto Santa Rosa – were all well attended. “In the past five years,” Reyes said, “Nothing.”

   In a separate conversation, a staff member at the Palace told Reyes that Latino shows were not booked because Latinos sneak in their own alcohol.” Disappointed at the lack of cultural offerings, cultural insensitivity, and a perceived drop in the quality of Broadway shows being delivered, Reyes cancelled his season’s subscription to the Broadway series.

State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr. said the Palace Theater is pricing the local community out. Reyes called it "discrimination by exclusion."

   When Tavera was told about the Hispanic leader’s experience with his staff, he was disappointed. “We have not done a good job reaching out to the local community,” Tavera admitted. “We need guidance about what performers the market will bear. We have a white guy making decisions and I need help in educating myself about what the local community wants in the theater.”

   When the Palace booked The Color Purple the communications director at the theater, Sheree Marcucci, did extensive outreach into black churches and organizations, but the local black community “did not come out and support the show,” Marcucci said. “We are putting on shows that tell the stories of the masses, but the masses don’t come.”

   There is a disconnect between Waterbury’s Latino and African-American communities, and the Palace Theater. Tavera said historically performing art centers around the country are supported by an “Anglo audience”, and that demographics in suburbia are affluent and white. Tavera said that performing arts centers like the Palace are able to stay afloat by a formula of 50% ticket revenue and 50% contributions.

   “The individuals that give are the individuals who frequent the Broadway series,” Tavera said. “Our goal has been to build long-term relationships with people who love the venue. Concerts are one and done.”

   So has the focus on money and demographics left Waterbury residents – the owners of the Palace Theater – on the sidelines? Has the Palace Theater become a private club for the elite in suburbia?

   “Maybe we have been focusing too much on the demographic we believed would support the theater,” Tavera said, “and that the risks we should take now are with the local community.”

   Reyes laid out a challenge to Tavera and the Palace staff, “They need to make it cost effective to engage Waterbury,” he said. “Pricing the local community out is discrimination by exclusion.”

   Perhaps Tavera can begin re-examining his decision to keep the theater dark in July and August, and work with community leaders in Waterbury to develop a plan to use those months to take risks to engage a culturally diverse audience. Perhaps Tavera can reconsider his decision to have the Palace Theater dark for 52 Mondays out of the year. Yes, there is historical precedence on Broadway to go dark on Mondays, but Waterbury isn’t Manhattan, and every option needs to be on the table to contribute to a resurgence in downtown Waterbury.

   “We do need to focus more on the community and we need a clear vision and someone to guide us,” Tavera said. “And we will have to do so cautiously.”

   One angle largely missing from the discussion is who actually owns the Palace Theater. While every chairman of the Palace Theater board has been an influential white businessperson in Waterbury, they also all live in suburbia.

   Tavera took exception to anyone criticizing where board leadership lives, but the cold hard fact that half the city of Waterbury has been priced out of a theater they own, is troubling.

   Donna Bonasera from CDT said, “if the community owns the theater then everybody should be using it. The theater is not just a Palace for kings and queens, it should be for everybody.”

Donna Bonasera from the Connecticut Dance Theater.

   Bonasera believes that a community roundtable should be created to bring various stakeholders together to brainstorm audience development, and to explore how the Palace Theater might become more available to non-profits, educational performances and multi-cultural programing.

   “The Palace Theater has to be for everybody,” Bonasera said. “You can’t have such a treasure and not share it.”

It wasn't economics that closed the Palace Theater in the 1980s, it was a fire next door at the Rectory Building which caused structural damage. The Temporale Family brought in rock and rollers Bruce Springsteen, Yes, Bob Dylan, The Who, Kiss, and showed movies and closed circuit boxing matches to pay the bills.

   So what’s is going to be? If Waterbury kicks out the union there will be no Broadway shows and the demographic that currently attends plays, and pledges donations, will begin to vanish.

   •  The board of directors is challenging Frank Tavera to take greater risks, but what will those risks be? And what happens if the risks don’t work and the theater starts piling up loses?

   • Will Tavera focus more on the Waterbury community and bring a more diverse selection of shows to the theater?

   • Can the Palace Theater survive as a non-union house by being vigorously engaged in Waterbury?

    Right now there are lots of questions, and few answers. Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary said the Palace Theater was one of his top priorities when he was elected in 2011. “I was quickly swamped with a proposed hospital merger, recruiting new businesses into Waterbury, Waterbury Next, and working on the Freight Street corridor,” O’Leary said, “but now the Palace is back as a top priority.”

   O’Leary who is known for his blunt talk and aggressive demands, issued this warning. “We’re never closing the theater,” O’Leary said. “If the current management team can’t attract shows that make money, then we need a new management team.”

   Frank Tavera hears the message loud and clear. “I was hired with a specific mission and goal and have been following that recipe,” Tavera said. “And now the mission is changing. Could we do better? Sure. Can we expand our offerings? Sure.”

   Tavera has been caught off guard by the sudden scrutiny on theater operations and said, “this is a great conversation as long as we are all fully aware of the financial risks, and move forward with our eyes wide open.”