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June 16, 2011 

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Pasadena Playhouse Marks A Remarkable Year
Posted: June 10, 2011
NEW YORK (AP) -- If either "Baby, It's You!" or "Sister Act" win Tony Awards on Sunday, you might hear the cheers from as far away as Pasadena, Calif.

That's because the Pasadena Playhouse helped put together both musicals and a Tony for either show would cap an extraordinary turnaround for the venerable theater: After all, this time last year it was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

"It's been about the most roller coaster year that you could experience even in the constantly roller coaster profession of the theater," says Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the nonprofit playhouse.

Plagued by about $4 million of dollars of debt, the playhouse closed its doors in February 2010, laid off its staff of 37 and entered bankruptcy in May of that year. Two months later, a court approved its financial comeback plan, which included repaying subscribers.

"We did not know that we'd come out the other side of it. It was a risky but courageous decision," says Executive Director Stephen Eich. "This was a chance once and for all to right the ship."

News of the playhouse's struggles led to a $1 million matching pledge from an anonymous couple, which helped to put the theater on better footing. Epps and Eich also took advantage of the restructuring to make changes to the way the board worked.

"Every arts organization has its challenges, some greater, some lesser. But it's important I think to be courageous, brave enough, to stop and figure out how to eliminate the problems rather than just running constantly to keep the snowball from overtaking you," says Epps.

Founded in 1917, the 684-seat auditorium housed in a Spanish Colonial building was designated the State Theatre of California in 1937. It helped launch the careers of Raymond Burr, Robert Stack, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Sally Struthers.

Before its financial woes exploded, the playhouse produced "Baby It's You!" -- the story of Florence Greenberg, a Jewish housewife from New Jersey, who transformed herself into a powerful recording executive. Its star, Beth Leavel, is up for a best actress in a musical Tony.

The Pasadena Playhouse is also where "Sister Act" began its run, before it jumped to London. The musical, based on the 1992 movie of the same name starring Whoopi Goldberg, has earned five Tony nominations, including for best musical.

The notion that either musical could win a Tony while the playhouse was shuttered filled Epps with dread: "To have had the shows represented on Broadway and have the theater be closed would have been the worst possible vision that I can imagine," he says.

That hasn't happened in large part to the affection people have for the playhouse. Of its thousands of subscribers, Epps says only about 100 wanted their money back. "We found out that people really did care about this theater," he says.

The playhouse recently unveiled plans for its 2011-2012 season, which includes the premiere of a musical based on the romantic comedy "Sleepless in Seattle." And "Unchain My Heart, The Ray Charles Musical," which the playhouse staged in 2007, is scheduled to open on Broadway during next season.

"One of the biggest concerns that I had is that maybe this situation that we went through would maybe dissuade other people coming to us with new projects. Fortunately, that never happened," says Epps.

Eich says there are lessons the playhouse's ordeal can offer other arts organizations. For one thing, producers should avoid the tendency to solve problems on the fly. Second, sometimes a drastic overhaul is what donors want.

"I'm not necessarily recommending that hey, `Try bankruptcy. It works really well,'" he says. "It doesn't without a community that's behind you, without a board that's ready to work, and, in our particular case, without a donor who stepped up."

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