Includes a quote from THS Executive Director Richard Sklenar
Will Murphy Theatre’s lights go dark?
Oct. 12, 2010, 3:14 p.m. EDT
wilmington news journal 1 bro 20090526
By JOHN CROPPER
For the better part of a century, the iconic marquee lights of the Murphy Theatre in downtown Wilmington have cast their glow over Main Street in one way or another.
They invite newcomers to the center of town. They welcome home those who have left and remain an homage to the man whose name they spell — Charles W. Murphy, who was said to have loved only one thing more than his World Series winning Chicago Cubs: Wilmington, his home town.
Nearly 92 years later, the Murphy still dominates the downtown streetscape, but times have certainly changed. Industry has come and left. Population increases and new development have stretched the city into an oblong corridor, challenging the idea of downtown as the city’s center. And to top it off, massive job loss here has kept local residents from spending money on non-essential costs like entertainment — costs like seeing a show at the Murphy Theatre.
To be sure, these factors have affected every downtown business and non-profit organization, some more than others. And the Murphy has weathered economic hardship in the past. But after 10 years of budget problems, a deteriorating infrastructure and lackluster ticket sales, Murphy officials fear the lights could go out if something doesn’t change.
“The Murphy is a mainstay in this community,” said Dan Mongold, president of the Murphy Board of Trustees. “It is a backbone. We have to get people, a migration of people, back inside, and that takes operating funds. The question is: how do we fill the seats?”
Mongold and Trevor Shoemaker, the theater’s director, explained the Murphy’s funding woes as a Catch-22: to appeal to wider and younger audiences, the two would like to book more “big-name” acts, they said, but those performers demand hefty performance fees, often times in advance. And if the theater takes a risk and the show flops, the high cost of attracting that act would be difficult to recover from, Shoemaker said.
“If those shows aren’t popular and don’t sell well, you’re in big trouble,” he said.
Increasingly, the biggest costs faced by the theater are utility bills and upkeep of the aging building, Shoemaker said. In 2009, U.S. Rep. Mike Turner helped secure a $250,000 federal grant to help renovate the theater’s failing heating system and repair a leaky roof. When it comes, none of the money will go toward operating costs, which Mongold said is a common misconception.
“People think we’re rolling in the money after that grant, but we can’t use a dime for operating costs,” he said. “And everything comes back to that. Operating, operating, operating.”
For the past seven years, the average annual costs for the theater have been approximately $172,000, Shoemaker said. The theater’s average income over that same time frame — with ticket sales, membership dues, an endowment fund, sponsorships and donations — is about $162,000, a shortfall of $10,000 to $12,000, each year.
“We’re down about 20 percent overall,” Mongold said. “But that’s not in one area like ticket sales or donations. It’s down everywhere.”
The numbers beg the question: how does an organization pay the bills after years of operating in the red?
“That’s a great question,” Shoemaker said. “I’ve been here for three years, so I can only speak to my time here. We’ve usually had loan extensions or someone finds the money somewhere, which helps fill the void.”
There have been financial bright spots in the organization’s recent history: for many years, the annual Christmas show sold-out every night of a two week run. The ticket office has no problem selling-out the “bread and butter” shows like Phil Dirt & Dozers and the Renfro Valley Show, Shoemaker said. And in 2003, the theater brought in $188,000 in income. But that same year, the cost of keeping the doors open totaled $198,000 — leaving the theater, again, $10,000 in the hole.
As a non-profit arts organization, though, the Murphy is not alone.
“The big money just isn’t there for arts organizations right now,” said Richard Sklenar, executive director of the Theatre Historical Society of America. “Everyone is hurting. Unfortunately, people are out of work and they’re not spending money to go out and see a live show.”
“When I talk to other theater owners, everyone is feeling the same pinch,” he said. “This is not unique to Wilmington. It’s a sign of the times.”
A Center of Community
When the theater opened in 1918, it wasn’t long before church services, graduations and weddings were filling the seats when the traveling shows and celebrity performers weren’t.
Throughout the fifties and sixties, when first run movies would debut on the Murphy’s screen, families would file-in on the weekends and the downtown would be abuzz with nighttime activity.
“We have several generations of people who remember the Murphy as the place to go,” Mongold said.
In 1985, the original owners of the Murphy decided to put it up for sale, and for two years the future of the once-booming theater remained uncertain. Then, in 1987, the city of Wilmington bought the theater by selling bonds to finance it, and once again it became a facet of the community.
Shoemaker and Mongold said they want to rekindle the theater’s role as a community center, opening its doors for more weddings, business events and community productions. Now that the downtown is experiencing a revival with the help of Main Street Wilmington, the Buy Local first campaign and others, Shoemaker said he sees the Murphy as a part of that change.
“We want to be a big part of that,” he said. “We like to think that when people come for a show, they’ll shop at the local businesses and eat at local restaurants. But things have changed. When we were young, downtown was where everything happened. It was the only place you went. Now, kids go in the opposite direction. It’s not a tradition to walk into the Murphy like it used to be.”
Therein lies the problem, Mongold said: There’s a generation gap between the people who grew up watching movies and performances on the Murphy’s stage, and a younger audience which is more likely to spend its time and money at a mall or movie megaplex.
“We have to find a way to get [young] people behind those doors,” Mongold said. “That gap needs to be bridged. Once it is, the future of the Murphy will be solid.”
To make up for annual losses in revenue, Shoemaker and the rest of the Murphy Board of Trustees are planning a membership and donation drive to convert casual ticket buyers into theater members.
“If every person who buys a ticket to one of our shows donates $35, we’ll be fine,” Shoemaker said.
The 2010-11 show schedule, which is slated to be released this month, will include a “wider variety of music” than in years past with hopes of attracting a new, younger audience. The “bread and butter” acts will return this year, Shoemaker said, in addition to two comedy shows and a tribute concert to “an historic rock band.” And both the board of trustees and Shoemaker are seeking corporate sponsors to help fund bigger acts, he said.
“We’ve been doing this for 100 years, and we want to be doing this for 100 more,” Shoemaker said.
Sklenar, the director of the Theatre Historical Society, said he’d be surprised if they weren’t.
“That building has been standing there with those canopy lights blazing over Main Street for 85 years,” he said. “Things will get better.”