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Maryland Theatre Part I

February 16, 1997

By ELLEN LYON

Staff Writer

Hagerstown's treasured Maryland Theatre, home of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and venue for entertainers as diverse as Ray Charles and Billy Ray Cyrus, is in the midst of its own backstage drama today.

Looming in May is a $130,000 mortgage payment that can't be met.

Creditors have told the theater its mortgage agreement is in default because the theater hasn't done an audit that was due in September.

A local show promoter is threatening legal action and saying he won't bring acts to the theater anymore.

Four of 11 people on the theater's board of directors have resigned in the past month, citing a variety of reasons.

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And three employees have quit since October, saying Acting Theater Director Pat Wolford had made their lives miserable.

Wolford is at the center of much of the controversy, provoking criticism on issues as mundane as popcorn sales and as complex as the lack of a vision for producing reliable and sufficient income.

Wolford declined to be interviewed for this story.

Wolford, who also is the president of the the theater's board of directors, is no stranger to controversy.

Ten years ago as executive director of the Potomac Bend Medical Center in Hancock, Wolford convinced the board of directors to fire three doctors and two members of the nursing staff.

Fifteen months later, after public picketing, the loss of a federal grant and multimillion dollar lawsuits, Potomac Bend shut down and the clinic reopened under new management as the Tri-State Community Health Center.

Wolford's supporters say she attracts detractors.

"Pat Wolford, because of her aggressiveness and her ability to get things done, gets criticized," said Washington County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers.

Wolford does get credit, even from her critics, for stepping in when no one else would and for committing long hours to the daily management of the theater since June, when the board dismissed Kelley Gilbert as executive director.

Board Vice President Timothy R. Campbell described Wolford's service as "a tremendous devotion, a sacrifice on her part.

Wolford has said of her own performance: "I think the proof is in what has been done here in the last six months ... I'm out here to accomplish something and keep the theater alive."

But Hagerstown Mayor Steven T. Sager, a past president of the Maryland Theatre board, has called for Wolford's resignation, saying her hard work isn't paying off.

"The theater is going downhill fast and she is working real hard but she is unwilling or not able to make the changes that need to be made to get it back on track," Sager said.

Those changes include maintaining financial controls set in place three years ago when the theater was in a financial crisis, creating a business plan for the future and hiring an executive director, he said.

Sager applied for the executive director position in December even though the theater board had advertised only for a managing director.

The board decided to stick with the managing director's position, which would cost less. The job has yet to be filled.

"The staff is dismantled. There is no staff," Sager said. "It's more of a siege mentality."

Sager also expressed concern about Wolford mixing the roles of board president and acting director.

"Everything is in one person's hands. The one person is the check and balance," he said.

Theater finances

Sager said the theater hasn't scheduled enough shows to be profitable.

It should offer a minimum of 60 shows a year and preferably about 80, he said.

But between January and June only 22 shows have been scheduled and just four of those are in-house productions, Sager noted.

Board members, howver, say that under Wolford's leadership the theater's financial condition has improved.

When the board took over management in June the theater didn't have money for a $40,000 mortgage payment due in December, board member Jack Staley said.

By the end of the year, the payment had been made, all the bills were current and there was about $30,000 in the bank to start the new year, he said.

Staley acknowledged that since Gilbert was fired in June, the theater hasn't had to bear the expense of her $35,000 annual salary and benefits.

Wolford said in December that her company, A.B. Professionals Inc., is paying her salary as acting theater director, a donation worth $25,000. She has declined to elaborate on that arrangement.

Staley also pointed to improvements that have been made to the theater under Wolford's leadership.

The theater's nearly 1,400 seats were re-upholstered through donations and volunteer labor provided by state prison inmates, according to Staley.

Reflective numbers were affixed to the seats to make them easier to find, the lobby was redecorated and the marquee was refurbished, he said.

Signs of trouble

But the last few months also have produced some bad news for the theater.

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