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Show won't go on for Wayside Theatre

Wayside Theatre announced Thursday they are closed. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

A sign outside Why Not Antiques on Main Street in Middletown echoes the loss of the town's landmark. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Ryan Cornell and Josette Keelor

MIDDLETOWN -- Apparently, the show won't go on. By Wednesday's rehearsal of the once-upcoming production, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," at Wayside Theatre in Middletown, the board of directors had called it quits.

Board President Dr. Byron Brill on Thursday called the decision to close "heartbreaking."

"It's unfortunate news that we have to report," he said. "We're just all in a bind."

Wayside Theatre, the second oldest theater in Virginia -- the Barter Theater in Abington is older -- has, in recent years, been plagued by financial problems. In January, the board warned that the theater would have to consider closing its doors if it could not raise $90,000 in 90 days and be assured of making enough to keep the theater going throughout the 2013-14 season, which started on June 1 with the production of "Church Basement Ladies."

The $90,000 goal was reached through fundraisers and donations by the end of March.

In a news release early Thursday, Brill cited financial reasons for the board's decision. "... in light of a financial downturn beginning in 2008, two emergency campaigns and a series of low revenue producing plays, there simply was no alternative."

"I do a lot of things with different philanthropists. People have limited money to give," he said "We just didn't get enough support."

"It's almost like we had a heart attack and couldn't get life support."

Brill said they discovered on Tuesday that they did not have the payroll for staff.

"Even though we've closed the theater, the corporation still exists," he said, adding that they will still accept donations. "If people want to assist the staff, for example, in getting home. We are not bankrupt. We don't plan to go bankrupt."

Board Secretary Connie Stadler said the theater is a million dollars in debt and three consecutive plays "dramatically under-performed" in terms of ticket sales.

"We ran three shows in a row that all underperformed -- one to the tune of $22,000 less, another one almost $20,000, so we were down, you know, by over $44,000, and we have been meeting on a regular basis twice a week, three times a week. What can we do?" she said, adding that they had hoped that if they could get through the 52nd season they could put a plan into place to keep them going. "We simply didn't have the time."

Reaction to the news shocked this small town on Thursday.

Mark Brown, former Middletown mayor and owner of the nearby Why Not Antiques shop, said the theater's closing would have a noticeable effect on his business. He said that visitors who came early to the theater's plays would often drop by and take a look around his shop.

"Definitely going to have a major impact to the community," Brown said. "Great loss to the arts, to people who love live theater and we're definitely going to miss it."

He added that employees learned about the closing at a rehearsal.

"I spoke to an employee and found out they had walked in on a rehearsal and said, 'That's it. Go home. It's over. No show.'"

Brown said Wayside Theatre is a legacy left to the area from the late Leo M. Bernstein, a Washington banker and real estate developer who had a passion for theater, antiques and historic preservation.

Bernstein's granddaughter, Ami Aronson, who serves as managing director of the Bernstein Family Foundation, called the theater a "gift to the town" with a "wonderful, rich history."

She said it was heartbreaking to hear. "If he were alive today, he would be deeply disappointed. I think it's a real disservice to the town," she said.

Aronson, who heard about the closing Thursday morning, said Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates and Sandra Bullock were all stars who have graced the theater's stage.

"Enormous resources and support from the town were needed," she said. "It's not an easy undertaking to run a theater in a small town."

Another business nearby, the Irish Isle, is expecting to see fewer customers after the theater's shuttering. Located a block away, owner Brian Coughlin is bracing for a lower turnout at dinner time.

"I'm very upset about it," Coughlin said. "The way it was done, the interns and actors had no idea. Four shows left in this production. It was just very abrupt and not very professional."

His restaurant is hosting a meal and some drinks for the interns and actors on Friday.

"They're [actors and interns] left stranded. They raised money for the second time under the presumption to secure another year. So I found it very strange that they couldn't get through another month."

Coughlin said that when Warner Crocker was working as artistic director he kept everybody informed about what was going on. Coughlin said he hasn't heard from anybody since then. Crocker resigned last month.

Craig Laird, owner of Royal Oak Computers in Front Royal, is a sponsor with the theater.

He said he's also had zero contact with the board directly since Crocker left.

Laird, a fellow of the Wayside Theatre and recipient of its Leo Award, said he spent thousands of dollars in time and materials each year for the theater and pays the theater's cable bill. He was "completely shocked and disheartened" to hear the theater has closed the way it has.

"I would hope that every effort is taken to make sure this closing is necessary and, if possible, a reorganization can be made to bring this valuable institution back to life," he said.

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