Renovations proposed for Maryland Theatre

April 26, 1997


Staff Writer

A former Maryland Theatre stage manager is proposing an ambitious $7 million renovation plan for the historic community landmark, but some theater and city officials say it's not realistic at the moment.

John F. Macpherson Jr., of East Irvin Avenue, sent a detailed proposal to the Maryland Theatre's board of directors on April 10 which urges them to increase fund-raising and the number of shows put on in order to undertake a complete renovation of the theater.

The theater "has to be managed much more professionally for this to work. The fund-raising efforts have to be more aggressive," Macpherson said in an interview Friday.


"If things continue the way they have been going I have a bad feeling that it could close in a couple of years possibly. It may keep limping on," Macpherson said.

Macpherson, who was involved with the Maryland Theatre from 1977 to 1994, the last year as stage manager, said in his letter to the theater board that past fund-raising efforts "have been sporadic and generally insufficient to ensure the financial health of the theater."

He was fired as stage manager in 1994 for being involved in unionization activity while in a management position, Macpherson said. He called that activity a "judgment error" on his part.

"I have watched the management and board of directors over the past few years and am quite disturbed by what I've seen," Macpherson wrote in his proposal. "I must say that I have not seen a concerted effort on the part of the board and management to get the theater out of its current financial distress or to insure that such a condition will not recur in the future."

The theater, built in 1915, is aging and "approaching the point of breakdown," he wrote. "I have seen no sign that the board is raising the considerable funds that these repairs, renovations and improvements will require."

Macpherson proposes returning the theater to how it looked when it first opened, including making it a five-story building and tearing down the existing lobby and rebuilding it out to the street.

The first two floors would be lobby, the third floor would house the theater's offices and the fourth and fifth floors would be open space for rehearsals, receptions, parties and meetings, he said.

The box office would be moved back out to the sidewalk "where you can walk right up and buy a ticket," and the restrooms would be enlarged, Macpherson said.

Pat Wolford, president of the theater's board of directors, said Macpherson's renovation plan is "just beyond consideration at this point."

"It just would be undertaking a lot more debt," Wolford said. "Those are all pie-in-the-sky type things."

Board Vice President and Building Committee Chairman Tim Campbell said he hasn't had a chance to carefully read the proposal.

"It's going to take some study," he said.

"It would be great if we got $7 million to do some things but then we'd have to pay it back," Campbell said.

The newest member of the eight-member theater board, Dave Barrett president of Bulldog Federal Credit Union, said he hasn't had a chance to read the proposal but the board will talk about it at their next meeting.

"I wouldn't want to express an opinion on it at this point but it is something we're taking a look at," Barrett said.

Theater officials paid a $130,000 balloon mortgage payment in March to a group of local banks with money borrowed from Bulldog Federal Credit Union.

The theater has been plagued in recent months by a spate of resignations of board and staff members.

Hagerstown Mayor Steven T. Sager said Macpherson's renovation plans may be a possibility some time when "we're comfortable with the leadership of the theater."

"The basic concept he's talking about is a fabulous goal," Sager said. But right now "we're crawling with one foot in concrete."

Macpherson's 25-page proposal outlines cost estimates and lists 20 private foundations in Maryland that are potential donors to the theater as well as other funding sources.

He suggests that the City of Hagerstown and the state could each float a $1.5 million revenue bond and a consortium of local banks could lend the theater $1 million.

The rest of the money would come from $1.5 million or more in grants from various sources, at least $1 million in local corporate donations and at least $500,000 in local individual contributions, according to the proposal.

The bonds would be repaid over 15 years primarily through tickets sales, augmented by ongoing fundraising activities, the proposal states.

The theater would have to return to producing shows instead of just doing rentals and the number of shows would have to increase to four to six a month, Macpherson said.

In 1993 the theater housed 60 to 70 shows a year, he said.

That number has dropped considerably in the last year to about three dozen shows a year, Macpherson said.

The theater also needs to do more and better advertising, he said.

"One thing I've noticed the theater does is seldom advertise ... and when they do it's not far enough in advance," Macpherson said.

If all the renovation was done at once the theater would have to close for about a year but the work could be done in phases, he said.

He also said the theater needs to return to a full-time paid staff of ultimately about nine people.

Right now Wolford is managing the theater with the help of temporary staff, a part-time stage crew and a maintenance person.

Ultimately, the renovation would save the theater on repairs, maintenance and replacement of aging equipment and on high utility bills caused by inefficient heating and air-conditioning systems, Macpherson said.

Macpherson said he will continue to press for his proposal.

"I'm going to flog it until they tell me to buzz off," he said.

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