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Posted January 7, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Wayside Theatre to consider closing doors

By Josette Keelor

Wayside Theatre announced Monday that it may have to close its doors if it cannot raise $90,000 over the next 90 days.

Pending the Middletown theater's ability to raise the needed funds in addition to its projected relevance in the community, it might have to reevaluate its mission, said Artistic Director Warner Crocker.

After spending much of the theater's 50th anniversary season last year raising funds to help pay off bills from Wayside's theater renovations dating to 2007, the Wayside Foundation for the Arts board of directors finds itself again in a similar situation.

"Last year's campaign was a huge success," Crocker said. "We were threatened with imminently going out of business because we had some bills that we just couldn't pay. ... We would have been out of business before our Christmas show."

In recognition of his and the board's gratitude, Crocker has appeared on stage for each production so far in the 2012-13 season thanking the theater's "golden superheroes" from the community who donated enough to keep the theater going until now.

"What we determined after the wonderful community support from that campaign was that in order for us to continue doing what we want to do at Wayside Theatre, what we believe our community wants us to do ... that in addition to our ticket sales, we really need to raise about $250,000 a year, on an annual basis," Crocker said.

"We were hoping from that $106,000 that we raised last year, that we would see about 80 percent of that come in in this year's annual campaign. ... Only about $30,000 of it came in. That's a far cry from what we were hoping for."

"And in addition to that, our fall shows ... ticket sales were way, way down. You know, our Christmas show missed projections this year by about $20,000. Which is huge."

Ticket sales, Crocker said, "only cover the first act." The theater has to make up the rest of its fundraising efforts through ad sales, business and private donations and groups that support the arts -- in Wayside's case, the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

"And it affects everything, from the shows that I pick to the quality of the support that we give to each and every one of those shows," he said. "I mean, we're about as thin as thin can be."

In a phone conversation Monday afternoon, Middletown Mayor Charles Harbaugh said the community would lose much if the theater closes.

"It's definitely a blow to the town, not just in terms of financially, but it's a tourist destination," Harbaugh said. "The theory is hopefully we can help them make their goals."

Before America's economic problems, Crocker said, bus tours to the theater, particularly for Wednesday matinees, would draw tourists looking to spend an afternoon or evening dining in Middletown, taking in a show and maybe afterward stopping for a drink before heading home.

"There would be a parade of people walking down the street," Crocker said. The theater no longer offers Wednesday matinees, and the only restaurant left in town that attracts bus tours is the Irish Isle, he said.

Also, said Crocker, "We're a risky bet geographically. Nobody owns us."

Gary Lofton, supervisor of the Back Creek District of Frederick County, said petitions for county funding would be considered based in part on "what value it might give to the community."

Of Wayside's possible closing, he said, "Obviously it will have an effect on the community. I hope they can succeed."

In his five years on the board of supervisors, Lofton said, he could not remember Frederick County funding Wayside and could not remember Wayside requesting funding.

Deputy County Administrator Jay Tibbs said Monday that the county was not aware of Wayside's continued financial problems.

While Middletown does not contribute to Wayside's fundraising, other than through advertising, Harbaugh said he personally has contributed.

"I've cut their grass for free for about five years," he said. Not everyone can give a lot, he said, but "I think there's something that anyone can do."

"Some people donate time," he added. "They're asking for help in any way they can get it."

Wayside still intends to produce its upcoming play, "Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming," due to run from Jan. 26 to March 17. For the time being, however, it will not sell subscriptions for the 2013-14 season.

"Our board started looking at this, you know, and in keeping with the promise that we made to our supporters last year, we're not gonna put Wayside Theater in that place every single solitary year," Crocker said.

"We need to seriously evaluate whether we think we can generate from this community $250,000 a year in annual support and so that we can sell the tickets that we need to sell," he said. "... or perhaps it's time for Wayside Theatre to either close its doors or reevaluate what its mission is."

Contact Wayside Theatre at www.waysidetheatre.org or at 540-869-1776.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com

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