Theater owner tells Potomac Playmakers that lease will be thrown out

April 08, 2011|By KATE S. ALEXANDER |
  • The Academy Theater is shown Wednesday in Hagerstown. Jim Johnson, the Potomac Playmakers' attorney, said last week that the Academy Theater's owners have rented out the stage to other groups for dates that conflict with those already reserved for The Potomac Playmakers.
By Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

The Potomac Playmakers theater company has been informed that it might soon need to find a new home, a company representative said Friday.

Lynn Rial, board member and spokeswoman for the volunteer theater company, said she received an email Friday from an owner of the Academy Theater in Hagerstown, saying that it was only a matter of time before its five-year lease with the Playmakers, signed in 2008, was "thrown out."

"Your lease will be thrown out and the Play makers will no longer have a theater to perform in. It's just a matter of time that this happens," Academy Theater owner Michael L. Guessford wrote in an email to Rial, who provided a copy of the email to The Herald-Mail.

Guessford copied the theater's other owner, Milton N. Stamper, on the email, according to records provided by Rial.

Guessford and Stamper own the Academy Theater Banquet & Conference Center through their limited liability corporation, City Theater LLC.

City Theater LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Dec. 1, 2010, a move that forestalled a foreclosure auction that had been scheduled for the theater on Dec. 2, 2010.

"I am not sure how our lease can be thrown out before it goes through the bankruptcy court," Rial said.

In his email, Guessford referred to a new "plan" for the theater that the court must rule on. He said the corporation filed for Chapter 11 to reorganize and restructure its debt.

"But I assure you, the Play makers are not in that plan," he wrote.

In a response to Guessford's email, Rial wrote: "It seems that the courts ruling will be the deciding factor."

When reached by phone Friday, Stamper declined to comment on the issue, and Guessford did not return multiple calls for comment.

Attorney John Burns of Greenbelt, Md., who represents City Theater LLC, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Relations between the theater and the playmakers have soured over a number of issues, particularly scheduling conflicts, according to representatives of the theater group.  

Jim Johnson, the theater company's attorney, said last week that the Academy Theater's owners have rented out the stage to other groups for dates that conflict with those already reserved for the playmakers.

"We believe that the landlord is not living up to his end of the bargain," Johnson said previously. "We are to have exclusive use of the first-floor theater at certain times, and he's scheduling other uses that conflict with the schedule we provided last July."

Most recently, the theater was rented to St. Maria Goretti High School during times when Rial said the playmakers had scheduled to use it for rehearsal and to build a set for an upcoming production.

Fire marshal inspection

Drama surrounding the theater continued to grow this week after a Hagerstown fire marshal visited the theater twice during rehearsals for Goretti's production of "The Pirates of Penzance."

Students from Goretti were scheduled to perform at the theater Friday, today and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

Rial said Guessford contacted her Tuesday and said that the fire marshal was coming to inspect the theater that day.

After contacting the fire marshal's office, Rial said she learned that no inspection was scheduled. However, after Rial asked to be educated on the process, a deputy fire marshal walked through the building Wednesday and asked Rial to meet him for an inspection of the building Thursday at 2:30 p.m., because he had found violations.

Playmakers board member Blaine Smith said he and Rial went to the theater Thursday to meet with the fire marshal. Instead, they met with upset parents from Goretti.

"He (the fire marshal) was unable to get out of his vehicle for what was going on," Smith said. "The parents were upset and understandably so."

Smith and Rial attempted to talk to the parents and explain why a fire marshal walked through a rehearsal Wednesday and returned Thursday, he said.

"We tried to get our point across, but I am not sure we were able to," Smith said.

Debby Marinelli, a parent of students involved in the play this weekend, said voices were raised in the parking lot.  

"I don't know her name, but she was screaming at me," Marinelli said. "Don't get me wrong, I did scream back."

'Blemished reputation'

Marinelli said the incident Thursday pushed the patience of parents who felt the children were being bullied by the playmakers.

She said it has been as if the theater group has thrown every obstruction in their way in the short time Goretti has been preparing the production.

The owners of the theater, however, have been very accommodating, said Vickie Noe, a Goretti parent.

When Potomac Playmakers took away their lighting and sound equipment, the theater owners went out of their way to help find equipment for Goretti to use, Noe said.

Both Smith and Rial said they were contacted by the theater's ownership and told to remove their lighting and sound equipment to allow for Goretti's production.

Goretti does not have its own theater, and Noe said the parents who help organize the play would consider using the Academy Theater again if they did not have any problems with the Playmakers.

Smith said he was upset and surprised by the events of this week.

"I'm not happy that our organization seems to have gained a somewhat blemished reputation through these events," he said.

Rial said the Playmakers never intended to put Goretti or the fire marshal in the middle of the dispute with its landlord.

However, as a result of actions by the landlord, Rial said the Playmakers have lost a half month's usage of the theater, which they've already paid $2,000 in monthly rent to use.

"You have not honored the lease that you signed," Rial wrote to Guessford. "We are asking for no more or less."

Guessford wrote in his email to Rial that City Theater LLC has struggled to pay its expenses, and that from now on it has decided to rent to groups on a daily basis, which lets the owners lease the space to the entire community without tying it down.

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