Update: CMT and city hope to find solution to Memorial Auditorium safety issues
Leaders of Children’s Musical Theaterworks are breathing a little easier as the week comes to a close. A panicky last weekend had them wondering if the longtime company was going to be out on the street after the first of the year.
The situation isn’t yet resolved, and there are still safety considerations to address at the city-owned Veterans Memorial Auditorium, where the company has performed for 17 years. But in a Wednesday meeting that both CMT and city officials describe as productive and positive, there were signs of possible short-term fixes that could mean the company would stay in its performance space for the already announced 2018 season. It depends on whether CMT can avoid using equipment and infrastructure that a new city assessment identified as unsafe.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” city spokesman Mark Standriff told me by phone on Friday. “The most important thing is that the children in the shows are not subject to any danger. My number one concern is safety.”
A few minutes later, in another call, CMT board president K.C. Rutiaga agreed. “We’re hoping we can go on stage and keep our season and dates in 2018,” she said. “CMT doesn’t want to expose any children to unsafe conditions, either. We’ll be having a meeting on Tuesday with the city to determine that what we’re actually using is safe. ”
As for the long-term, one thing is for certain: It’s going to cost a lot to fix the auditorium. How and if that happens depends on the City Council and the community. (Note: If you’ve got a bunch of money and want a theater named after you, this could be your chance.)
Here’s a recap of events:
The issue: CMT executive director Judy Stene picked up a letter last Saturday informing her that the city will close the theater on Dec. 31. The notice came after a city-sponsored assessment concluded that more than $3.5 million is needed for “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.” The letter said the company would need to vacate the premises, including its extensive costume storage facility. (The separate National Legion of Valor veterans museum, which occupies a different space in the building, was not affected.)
The impact: Both Stene and CMT board president K.C. Rutiaga were stunned. Though they had long known that repairs were needed in the 81-year-old facility — and, indeed, stories have circulated in the theater community for years about the building’s lack of maintenance and potentially unreliable conditions — they never thought the company would be asked to vacate, particularly on such short notice. CMT has already booked its dates in the theater for the 2018 season. Other groups regularly use the theater as well, including Fresno Pacific University, Bullard Talent and University High School and several dance companies. The loss of the Memorial as a performance space could be a key blow to the local theater community; few other venues in town have the fly space, stage size and dressing rooms to accommodate the large productions favored by CMT and others.
The optics: As I wrote in my initial story, it looked terrible for the city to be celebrating the opening of Fulton Street and a revitalized downtown on the same day it was telling one of its biggest downtown performing arts organizations that it was out of a home. Furthermore, people at CMT were surprised when city officials were quoted as saying that the theater company had known for months it would have to vacate the building in stories that broke Saturday in The Munro Review and Fresno Bee. In the Bee article, assistant city manager Bruce Rudd was quoted as saying that CMT’s lease was changed from long-term to month-to-month because “they failed to pay their rent (on time).” His statements directly contradicted what the CMT leaders told me, and they were concerned their organization’s reputation in the community had taken a big hit.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the past few days:
The Wednesday meeting: Rudd, Standriff, Stene and Rutiaga met together and discussed the city’s report and the implications not only for CMT but for other groups that use the facility.
The lease: I should mention that the company has had two different concurrent financial arrangements with the city. The first is a lease for the office and costume storage area. CMT signed a 10-year lease for these spaces in 2006 at the amount of $1 a year, and when that lease was up, Stene said the company tried to get the city’s parks department (which oversees the building) to respond to requests to draw up another lease but could never get a response. (She provided me with copies of emails showing this.) The company also rents the auditorium at a daily rate for the time a production is up and running, and also pays an amount to the city per ticket sold. (Rehearsals are held at the Sierra Vista Mall.) While CMT did arrange for a short-term payment plan for its rental balance with the city several years ago, that balance was quickly paid off, Stene said.
The concession: At the meeting, the city shifted positions from what was stated in the original letter about all property having to be removed by Dec. 31. There will be no problem with allowing the office and costumes to stay, regardless of what happens with the auditorium itself, Standriff told me. The city also is amenable to signing another long-term lease to cover those parts of the building, he said.
The safety issues: For the first time, CMT learned what is actually wrong with the auditorium, and the serious stuff has to do with the theater’s rigging system, which is used for lights that have to be moved and focused for each production. Other issues: There are problems with the fire curtain, there’s concern that a catwalk high above the stage has no guard rails, and there are issues with the system of pulleys in which scenery can be “flown in.” Some of the fly lines are unsafe and shouldn’t be used.
CMT’s initial response: Though more input from its technical staff will be needed, Stene and Rutiaga indicated at the meeting that through the years, the company has figured out which of the antiquated equipment in the auditorium should be off-limits. “We’ve been aware that some of the fly lines are unsafe for years,” Rutiaga told me. They also said that the company uses its own lighting equipment rather than the house system. (Update: Rutiaga asked me Saturday if she could reiterate “that while we were aware of the safety issues, we were actively working around them. I just don’t want people to think we knew and chose to use those items. Mainly the bad fly lines. We do use some lines, but not the defective ones.”)
The role of Standriff: Much of the Wednesday meeting was a fact-finding mission for Standriff, who coincidentally has extensive experience in theater (he ran two professional companies in an earlier career) and knows what goes on behind-the-scenes. He wanted to know in detail how the company uses the theater. “Here’s my hope: That we go to look at the theater together on Tuesday, and if we’re looking at how things are used, we might be able to find a way to use the space without putting any adults or children in jeopardy,” he told me. “Is there a way for us to work out something from a production standpoint so they can at least get the shows in for the 2018 season, and also to make sure that ‘Annie’ (CMT’s upcoming holiday production, which opens Dec. 1) is going to be safe, too? Our aim is to try and see if we can keep them in here through the 2018 season if not longer.”
Rutiaga told me: “It was nice having Mark there. He really knows a lot about theater, and that makes all the difference.”
The other repairs: The city’s assessment estimated the cost for repairs to the theater, including a new rigging system, to be in the $1 million range. The total $3.4 million estimate to upgrade the entire building included a new heating and air conditioning system, compliance with American Disability Act standards, improving the restrooms, etc. The actual structural integrity of the building is not an issue, however.
The conflicting timeline: As far as the city’s initial response to the crisis is concerned, Standriff said that initial statements to the media about CMT knowing months ago it would have to move were incorrect. “Bruce apologized for the communication issues,” Standriff said of the Wednesday meeting. “His comments were based on what his understanding was from city staff. As he and I started diving into things, it was evident to us that we weren’t as direct as we needed to be in our concerns and the possibility that we might be closing down the theater.” (And, it’s hard to be “late” on a $1 a year lease payment, which turns out to be little more than 8 cents a month.)
Rutiaga told me: “I’m glad they clarified that the statement about the rent payment being late was incorrect.”
The money issue: Of course, even if the city determines that the auditorium could be used in such a way in the short-term to continue performances there, that doesn’t solve the larger problem of repairs. This is a larger question of the city maintaining its facilities and infrastructure. Tens of millions of dollars are needed for needed renovations to city-owned parking garages, the baseball stadium, police/fire communication system, city parks, and the biggie: fixing city streets, Standriff said. In a perfect world, the city would have been putting money into Veterans Memorial Auditorium every year to keep it safe and up to date. Paying for that deferred maintenance will now become a political issue.
Looking ahead: A lot still rests on Tuesday’s planned meeting at the theater, which will include city officials and members of CMT’s technical team. But regardless of the short-term outcome, it’s likely that CMT and other groups will have to find a way to raise at least some of the money to repair the theater — or convince the City Council to do so. “Eventually the theater will need to be completely remodeled,” Rutiaga said. “Either they’re going to have to allocate money or find a donor.”
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