One of Fresno’s most beloved and successful theater companies found itself fighting for its very existence this morning when it learned the city-owned Veterans Memorial Auditorium where it performs will be closed for safety reasons.
Children’s Musical Theaterworks, which has performed in the theater space of the building for 17 years, was told it has to be out of the facility by Dec. 31.
“It will put us out of business, basically,” says Judy Stene, CMT’s executive director. “I don’t really know what to do at this point.”
The bad news came on the day of the non-profit theater company’s biggest annual fundraiser. Stene made a public announcement at Saturday night’s event to the dismay of donors and supporters.
In a letter dated Oct. 12 and signed by Bruce Rudd, the interim assistant city manager and interim director of the parks and recreation department, the company was told the city will be closing the building with the exception of the main foyer and veterans museum.
Mayor Lee Brand was copied on the letter.
The decision came after an assessment of park sites and other community facilities, Rudd writes in the letter:
One of the assessments involved the Veterans Memorial Building, which identified more than $3.5 million in needed upgrades and repairs in order to bring the facility into compliance with current code and to an acceptable standard of maintenance. Of this amount, nearly $1 million is related to the stage, auditorium and related spaces. Unfortunately, the city does not have the resources necessary to make these repairs.
The theater company is preparing for “Annie,” its annual holiday musical. The show is scheduled to run Dec. 1-10. The company has a full lineup scheduled for the 2018 season.
As of Saturday night, there were conflicting details on how and when the company was informed about the city’s decision. Stene told me she didn’t learn about the city’s decision until Saturday morning when she stopped by her office at the theater to pick up her mail.
When I reached city spokesman Mark Standriff early Saturday evening, he told me that after talking with Rudd, it is his understanding that much more advance notice was given.
“We’ve been telling CMT for several months now that we were going to have them find another place because we need to do some serious maintenance so it doesn’t become a safety hazard,” Standriff told me. “We’ve been trying to tell them this day will come.”
Later Saturday evening, I asked K.C. Rutiaga, CMT’s board president, to describe the company’s interactions with the city. Her reply:
The city has never notified us of anything. The letter was the first time that we heard of anything after the last meeting we had to renegotiate our lease. That’s when we let them know what we needed in terms of space and they said they would let us know when the lease was ready. They never told us they were closing the theater. The most they ever said was that they were conducting evaluations to determine if repairs were needed. At that time we asked that if they did determine that any closures were required, that they let us know. They never replied nor did they provide notice. We have emails from us to them asking for updates with no replies.
There are also conflicting details on whether the city plans to bring the theater up to code, presumably allowing CMT to move back in at a future date.
Standriff told me that repairs will be made, but that he doesn’t know the timeline. He told me: “I don’t know how long that’s going to take, because there’s some significant work that needs to be done there.”
However, Rudd’s letter, quoted above, indicates finality: There’s no money, so the theater can’t be used.
The building was completed in 1936 and has a Monumental Moderne architectural style with Art Deco details. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
It would be difficult to find a replacement venue for the company, particularly with such short notice. “It’s truly a one of a kind venue in the city,” said Kylie Briggs, who is on CMT’s board of directors. “No other space has the same technical abilities as far as fly space, dressing rooms, etc, except the Saroyan.”
CMT is known for large productions with elaborate sets that sometimes feature as many as 100 children.
For the city, the optics of all this aren’t good. The news breaks on a day that city leaders are encouraging people to come downtown to celebrate the opening of Fulton Street — a plea, essentially, to give downtown a second chance. On that same day — if CMT’s version of events is correct — a major cultural institution that brings tens of thousands of audience members downtown each year learns that it has to pack up and leave for good.
I’m sure there will be more developments on this story, and I’ll keep you updated.
Here’s the city’s letter to CMT:
Other recent stories about Children’s Musical Theaterworks
The ‘Lion’ doesn’t sleep Friday night: Children’s Musical Theaterworks offers community-theater premiere of the Disney Jr. version of “The Lion King”
A handsome and soaring ‘Hunchback’: Children’s Musical Theaterworks offers a sophisticated and inspired take of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” that feels closer to the Victor Hugo novel than the Disney movie
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