PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
May 31, 2005

American Theatre, Alive at Five

by Jim Newsom

Has it really been five years since the American Theatre reopened after a renovation and restoration that brought the once grand 1908 building back from the dead?

“Sometimes it feels like fifteen!” Michael Curry, the theatre’s director, laughed last week. “It’s really hard to believe, actually, that it’s gone that fast.”

To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the historic structure’s resurrection, Curry has assembled an impressive lineup for a gala he’s calling “Five Great Ladies of the American Theatre,” starring dancer Tiffany Rea, actress Leisa Mather, harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, violinist Ani Kavafian and flutist/broadcaster/author Eugenia Zukerman. Performances are set for Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm with black-tie receptions afterward.

“It all evolved out of conversations I had with Eugenia Zukerman,” he explained. “We were having dinner one night when she played here a couple of years ago, and she’s actually written a book called In My Mother’s Closet. It’s a whole series of interviews she did with famous ladies about their childhood and how they would dress up in their mothers’ clothes---they were all kids of famous mothers. We got talking and laughing over dinner and she said, ‘It’s such a shame that nobody pays attention to the women in this industry unless they’re superstars, and the only superstars that make it in the classical industry are opera singers.

“And I said, ‘Eugenia, that’s not true.’ And she said, ‘OK, name me a flutist (forget me).’ And I said, ‘Right….Jean-Pierre Rampal and Jim Galway.’

“She said, ‘Now name a violinist.’ And I said, ‘Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern.’ Then she said, ‘See my point?’

“We got talking and I invited her to be a part of this because she’s such a great lady and a great artist. And she said, ‘Why don’t you just make it Five Great Ladies?’ And I said, ‘That’s it!’”

All five have performed at the American Theatre at some point during the last five years, and, in Curry’s words, “all had a good time here.”

The theatre has put the tiny hamlet of Phoebus on the national map, and Curry’s direction serves as a template for similar facilities in the region and around the country. Other venues have sprung up locally in recent years with more on the way, but there was no role model to copy five years ago.

“Only my experience,” he said. “We used to do eight shows a year before that in Ogden Hall and that was about it.”

The current season has had 53 separate shows, several of which were two or three night stands. But what will happen to the 400-seat showplace as the new Ferguson Center for the Arts opens its 1,700 seat theatre this fall on the campus of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, joining the hot new Granby Theatre and Roper Performing Arts Center in Norfolk, and the upcoming Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts and Virginia Beach Performing Arts Theatre?

“Some people say to me, don’t worry about it,” Curry replied, “we have a kind of niche market, which I think we do. We have developed a strong program that’s very diverse and very appealing to all segments of the community. I think all of that will impact the entire market because I think there’s only so much a market can handle.

“We are in a very good position geographically. We’re right in the middle of Hampton Roads. We’re ten minutes from downtown Norfolk if the traffic’s not bad. With CNU, that’s a whole new ballgame because that traffic up there is appalling! I’m not sure if people from Virginia Beach are going to drive up there and deal with trying to get through the Mercury Boulevard interchange for an hour.

“I think there’s a finite dollar amount in everyone’s pocket. There’s always the sexy appeal of a new hall. We had that five years ago. Then that wears off after a year or so and it settles back down.”

The American Theatre is fortunate because it is not totally dependent on ticket sales for its financial survival. The city of Hampton dedicates the franchise fees it receives from Cox Cable to “quality of life” entities like the theatre, Bay Days, Hampton University’s Ogden Hall, and the Virginia Symphony and Virginia Opera.

“In addition,” Curry said, “we have a non-profit, which is the Hampton Arts Foundation. It was actually set up for that reason so that corporations and individuals could give us donations which are tax deductible. Vice Mayor Butler did that before he passed away. He set up the foundation in ’94 with the idea that it would be long-range stability for the program. And then when this building came up for sale in 1997, the Phoebus Improvement League came to me and said, ‘Hey, look, it’s on the market for $90,000. You’ve got to come see it.’

“And I persuaded Jay Joseph and Jimmy Eason and John Paul Hanbury that we could save the building and bring it back. We did it for less than $3 million, which is pretty damn good. And we went to the city and said if you’ll give us half of it, we’ll raise the other half privately. And we did. So there’s no debt on the building, there’s no mortgage.”

The finished product is unique in its appeal:

“All the artists adore this space. It’s like sitting in a living room, not in a great big barn of a hall where you’re 200 feet from the stage and you need a pair of binoculars. You’re close, wherever you sit in this theatre, and you get the full impact of the artistry and the artists get the full impact of the audience. There’s a really wonderful interplay that doesn’t happen everywhere.”

When Michael Curry came to town seventeen years ago to spearhead an arts revival in the city of Hampton, did he think he’d find a permanent home?

“Between you and I,” he replied with an audible wink, “I never imagined that they were going to hire me. I had hair down to my shoulders and I was like 35, and I thought they can’t be serious hiring me in a government [position]…but they did! I credit Jimmy Eason a lot with that. He was my mentor, still is, and he and Bob O’Neill said, ‘OK, we’re gonna take the risk and hire this dude. He’s a bit of a hippie, but he knows what he’s doing and we want an arts program.’ And off we went.”

copyright © 2005 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.