By Seth Burkett Staff Writer | Posted: Saturday, March 28, 2015 12:15 am
The Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts is looking to other historic theaters for guidance on how to revive interest in its downtown Decatur performance space.
First up: The Franklin Theatre in Franklin, Tennessee, a theater that boasted more than 635 events last year, including about 75 self-produced concerts for which it filled nearly 95 percent of its seats at an average ticket price of about $50. “I would venture to say they’re open every day, doing something,” Princess Board Chairman Ellis Chenault said. The Princess had events about 150 days last year. Decatur City Council members have criticized the nonprofit group that operates the city-owned theater on Second Avenue Southeast, saying the theater’s iconic neon marquee is too-often dark, casting a shadow over the rapidly-developing district rather than lighting it up and drawing people downtown. They said the group’s annual $80,000 appropriation is in jeopardy if it does not put a solid operating plan in place. “I believe that we can increase the theater usage to an additional 100 days with great success,” Chenault said. “I think the theater is capable of so much more than we’ve accomplished in the recent past.”
Chenault, former board chairman Bill Briscoe, friend of the theater and retired Judge David Breland, program chairman Ron Simmons, and local musician and sound engineer Chris Kemp traveled to Franklin this month to tour the theater and talk with its staff. “Our takeaway was, of course: We need to do better. But we’ve known that for a while,” Chenault said. “We know it’s not going to happen overnight, as much as we would like for it to, but we just have to start somewhere.” Chenault said he hopes to visit several other theaters during an April trip to Florida. Franklin Theater Director Dan Hays said the 300-seat theater — less than half the size of the 677-seat Princess — has a $1.5 million budget — nearly triple that of the Princess. But only about 15 percent, or $225,000, comes from donations, while the rest is made on rentals and box office and concessions sales, Hays said. The theater is owned by the nonprofit Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County. It receives no government funding, Hays said. About half the Princess’ $675,000 annual budget is contributed by the city, county and other donors, Chenault said.
Executive Director Lindy Ashwander is set to retire April 30 after nearly 30 years with the theater. Chenault said he doesn’t know who will fill that position. 3 key areas Chenault said the Princess will concentrate on three key areas of programming in the future: theater, music and movies. “We’re not going to get away from our theatrical roots,” he said. “We’re still going to have our professional series. We’re still going to be doing events ourselves and for other people who want to rent. … We’re going to keep with those roots, but branch out to do other things as well.” The Franklin Theatre was formerly an independent movie house. The Heritage Foundation took it over after its closure in 2007. Following an $8 million renovation and “reinvention,” it reopened about three years ago with a new business model, Hays said. “We continue to be a movie house, but our primary focus is on being a live music venue,” he said. “It’s a matter of being willing to take risks, of course. That’s a big part of the music business. At the end of the day, it’s not what the artist needs and what we need — it’s what people are willing to pay.” Hays said the theater aims to book original, high-caliber, high-integrity artists in a variety of genres. “We don’t just do country or rock or what have you — we do all types of music, whether it’s jazz, classical or bluegrass,” he said. “Every show that we do isn’t a success, but selling 95 percent of our tickets means that we’ve gotten pretty good at understanding the market and bringing in talent that is going to work.”
Hays noted that Franklin, about 20 miles south of Nashville, the “Music City,” is geographically positioned to draw excellent artists, while also having a population affluent enough to support ticket sales. The Princess is attempting to capitalize on its position between Nashville and Birmingham. Chenault said he hopes to have a “Nashville South” at the Princess that would be a reasonably priced fundraiser and a showcase of up-and-coming artists from Nashville. Princess organizers are reaching out to people with connections to the music industry for help, he said. “We’re looking at a lot of musical (acts) that would feel right at home here,” Chenault said. “That’s going to require an upgrade to our sound system, because really good artists are going to want a really good sound system.”
About $2 million of the Franklin Theatre’s revamp budget was spent on state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment to make it a first-rate music venue, he said. Chenault said the Princess delegation also learned some things from the theater’s “extremely well thought out and professional” concessions design. “There was a separate beverage area upstairs, so if you were seated upstairs you didn’t have to walk back downstairs to get a beverage. Convenience of the patrons was in their mind when they designed the theater,” Chenault said. Chenault said the Princess has never focused heavily on concessions, but is trying to change that mentality.
About 450 of Franklin’s events each year are movies — something Chenault said he has always wanted the Princess to feature. He conjured an image of young adults and children who have never passed beneath the brilliant, multicolored marquis, doing so for their first time to watch a Saturday morning movie — perhaps dressed up to match the theme of the movie — and buying popcorn and drinks at the concession stand. The Princess would mostly show older movies, Chenault said. Hays said the Franklin Theatre also hosts a variety of community and children’s events. Renting it out to charities brings in another 30 music events each year on top of the ones produced by the theater, he said. “We kind of think of ourselves as Franklin’s living room,” he said. Hays’ words echoed the advice strategist Susan Palmer of Palmer Westport Group, a consulting firm specializing in historic theaters, had for the Princess: Become Decatur’s living room. Palmer has been hired to help the Princess identify its goals and formulate an operating plan. Chenault is expected to provide a progress report to the City Council next month.