By Bill Hirschman
The Plaza Theatre in Manalapan declared bankruptcy and closed its doors Oct. 17 on the day that it was poised to begin its third season.
Meager season subscriptions and $50,000 in bills persuaded founder and artistic director Alan Jacobson to consider bankruptcy and to close the 246-seat theater in the Plaza del Mar shopping center at 262 S. Ocean Blvd., which once had been home to Florida Stage.
Oct. 17 was supposed to be the opening night of Exceptions to Gravity, starring acclaimed New York artist Avner the Eccentric, but it was canceled because of poor ticket sales.
Jacobson wrote in an email that the cancellation “has severely hurt our cash on hand and cash flow, and although we don’t have that much debt, we do not have the funds to continue at the moment. We have done everything in our power the last three months to seek out donors and raise money, but our efforts have been unsuccessful. We fought up until we just couldn’t fight anymore.”
He planned to ask other theaters to honor the subscriptions already sold as the Caldwell Theatre Company did when it closed in Boca Raton.
“We are committed to making certain ALL of our paying customers are taken care of,” the theater said in an email Oct. 23. “We are working with another theater in the area who will be honoring ALL tickets purchased for the Plaza Theatre 2014-2015 Mainstage Season, including all single-ticket purchases for the 2014-2015 season, subscription and groups.”
The email did not say what theater the company was working with, but said it would release further details later.
“This is heart-breaking. We didn’t start a theater company to not be in it for the long term, and we have worked very hard to make things work.” Jacobson said. “We had come to the point that not only did we not take a salary the first year, we had deferred our salary this year,” he said.
“The agonizing thing for me was less the going out of business; the more agonizing thing for me was having to tell people I had hired that they no longer had work.” He had hired most of the talent for the coming season for anticipated shows like the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit version of Phantom and Richard Greenberg’s Broadway hit play The Assembled Parties.
In fact, a few people who did not want their names used complained that this had damaged them because they had passed up other jobs on the prospect of work at the Plaza. Most other theaters in the region have solidified their casting for the season.
The Plaza offered an eclectic slate each year aimed at an older mainstream audience. It encompassed straight plays like Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, large musicals like Charles Strouse/Stephen Schwartz’s Rags and many musical revues like You Made Me Love You, based on the music of Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice.
The quality varied from thoroughly entertaining to lackluster, but several shows earned standing ovations and Plaza shows produced Carbonell nominations for best ensemble for I Love You You’re Perfect Now Change and best actor and actress for Driving Miss Daisy for Harrier Oser and John Archie.
The theater had been flush with money in 2013 after it mounted a spoofy hoot by Jacobson called Waistwatchers The Musical, he said. It played to 20,000 patrons and was repeatedly extended. “We could have run it for a solid year,” he said. But he put it on hiatus over that summer so the theater’s student conservatory could present two shows, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and William Mastrosimone’s Sleepwalk, examining teen suicide.
Even this past season, sales were respectable for Rags, about immigrants at the turn of the century, and Life on a Diet, a one-woman comic memoir read rather than performed by its author, Renee Taylor, although critics and many theater professionals were distinctly dismissive of both.
“But we burned through money during the season, because sales were disappointing for several shows”, he said, including I Love You You’re Perfect Now Change, Dirty Blonde, about Mae West, and Cougar, a Waistwatchers-type musical, among other offerings. Through the summer, the ticket sales ran $100,000 short of expectations.
Jacobson, a businessman as well as an artist, said, “Your intellect tells you one thing, your heart tells you something else. Our staff said, ‘We’re gonna do well.’ My gut was telling me, no, but my heart was trying to believe it.”
Facing the $50,000 debt plus the need for a nonexistent $100,000 in cash flow against a $1.2 million annual operating budget, he closed up shop.
Jacobson said many factors played into the demise. One was the location of the theater. When he was trying to attract donors, he found that the residents of Boca Raton and Palm Beach did not view Manalapan as their backyard.
“If we had been in the Poinciana Playhouse (in Palm Beach) we’d have had money coming in left and right,” he said.
The Plaza may still have a legacy. Recently, Jacobson’s wife, Melissa Bohrer Jacobson, and General Manager John Lariviere organized a theater program for autistic students called Puzzle Players. They still hope to conduct that program at some area schools.
And the second email from the company said the Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Conservatory “will continue to provide classes for adults and children, including our current classes in Bak/Dreyfoos audition preparation, our Adult Cabaret Workshop, and our Musical Theatre Production Workshop of Into the Woods, which will take place at a new location.”
Despite the regrets, Jacobson is still proud of the Plaza. “I’m proud of the fact that we produced good work. We didn’t produce cutting-edge work, but we produced work that the audience loved. I’m proud that I paid fair wages to the actors, that I hired good people. I’m proud of the fact that I took really good care of people, and I guess I’m proud of the fact that we gave it a shot under difficult circumstances.”