Theater fell to a medley of misfortune Debt, fire, dissension dogged North Shore By Geoff Edgers, Globe Staff | June 21, 2009 When Barry Ivan took charge of North Shore Music Theatre, he thought he knew what to expect. For 12 years, he had been a steady guest director at the 54-year-old Beverly institution, marshaling dozens of dancers and scores of singers in eye-popping musicals like “West Side Story’’ and “Les Miserables.’’ Just before taking the top spot in 2008, he had directed the biggest-grossing show in the 1,750-seat venue’s history, “High School Musical.’’ All that turned out to be the easy part. Less than a year after Ivan became artistic director and executive producer, the theater postponed its 2009 season, leaving thousands of loyal subscribers in the lurch. Last week, North Shore announced it was $10 million in debt and would close for good. The loss leaves a vacuum for suburbanites who don’t want to fight the traffic, or pay three-digit ticket prices, to see glossy productions at Boston venues. North Shore delivered fresh young performers, topnotch sets and costumes, and every now and then, a former star getting back into the song-and-dance biz. At its peak, the theater drew more than 27,500 subscribers and some 300,000 people a year, making it the largest regional theater in New England. The closing has led to finger-pointing and recriminations, with those loyal to former theater head Jon Kimbell accusing Ivan of poor management and blasting his decision to abandon the organization’s proven holiday-season winner, “A Christmas Carol.’’ But a closer look at the theater’s financial health in its tumultuous final years, which included a devastating 2005 fire and a staff revolt under Ivan, reveals that myriad factors played into the collapse. “I don’t think you can blame this on one show,’’ said Catherine Peterson, executive director of ArtsBoston, which works with area theaters to bring patrons discount tickets. “The surprise, in some ways, is not that the North Shore Music Theatre is no longer with us. It’s a surprise they managed to keep going for so long considering the consequences of the fire.’’ It was after 11 p.m. on a summer night in 2005 that the electrical fire started. Lights and sound gear melted; the stage and orchestra pit turned into a soggy, charred mess. The run of “Cinderella’’ was cancelled. The year looked lost. But Kimbell, whose 25 years in charge saw dramatic rises in attendance and subscriptions, decided he couldn’t just cancel the season. “Had I closed the place down it would have been impossible to renovate the theater and keep the staff employed,’’ he said in an interview last week from his home in New Hampshire. “I had to keep producing.’’ He accepted an offer to put a pair of North Shore productions into the Shubert Theatre in Boston. He also decided to make improvements to the theater’s in-the-round regular home. Insurance covered some of the work, but the upgrades ran an additional $1.5 million, Kimbell estimated. The theater then lost $1.5 million more as a result of shows that had to be canceled, according to board chairman David Fellows, a venture capitalist. Some theaters could survive that. But North Shore never had an endowment to protect it during down times. When it struggled, it borrowed money. Looking back, Michael P. Price, the longtime executive director of Goodspeed Musicals, a Connecticut theater with a mission similar to North Shore’s, said the Boston shows were too costly and should never have been held. “If we had a fire, I wouldn’t move to the Shubert New Haven, which is only 30 miles away,’’ he said. “I’d move into the local high school, as off-putting as that sounds. I’d stay close to home.’’ Still, Kimbell’s era would be marked by great growth. Since arriving in 1983, he said, he had boosted the organization’s budget from $1.3 million to more than $14.5 million, its subscriber base from 7,000 to 27,500. Not only did he schedule the popular annual “Christmas Carol,’’ he wrote the adaptation. “Jon knew what the public wanted,’’ said Burgess Clark, the theater’s former director of education. Not that Kimbell stayed around much after Ivan took over. In December 2007, Kimbell directed “Christmas Carol’’ and then headed home. Though he had been installed as artistic director laureate, Kimbell attended only three events at the theater in 2008. “I was very proud of what we accomplished there, but you know what? You move on,’’ said Kimbell. Ivan, whom Kimbell termed a friend after working with him for 12 years, knew the theater had financial problems when he took the job, he said. But it wasn’t until he had started that he recognized their extent. The information, however, was readily available in the theater’s public filings. North Shore, which had deficits in 2005 ($492,184), 2006 ($107,856), and 2007 ($621,240), had an accumulated liability of about $4.6 million in mortgages and other notes. Kimbell said the debt was not his fault. His $252,473-a-year job called for him to oversee virtually everything on stage, but not the business side of the organization. “I haven’t been responsible for the finances of North Shore Music Theatre since something like 1990,’’ he said. Fellows, the board chairman, doesn’t necessarily blame Kimbell or his successor Ivan. “No, but more to the point, I don’t hold Barry responsible for that,’’ he said. Despite its existing debt, theater leaders decided that borrowing more was their only solution. The slumping real estate market foiled that idea. A bank appraiser pegged the 22-acre theater property at $4.9 million. Already owing $5 million, the theater couldn’t borrow from a bank. Fellows’s wife, April, did loan the theater $400,000, using as collateral a house the theater had for actors staying in town. Meanwhile, Ivan had a staff revolt on his hands. By the summer, six of the 10 managers working at the theater upon his arrival had left. “When you come in and you’re trying to fix something and trying to ask about accountability, people often don’t like that,’’ Ivan said. But Matt Kidd, an associate producer at the theater from 2004 to 2008, also questioned Ivan’s commitment to the North Shore. He found it galling that the theater put up Ivan in a hotel for several months in 2007 when he was working part-time in Beverly. Ivan, who maintained a home in Connecticut, later picked up the hotel tab when came on full time in February 2008. “He didn’t really want a thing to do with the community,’’ said Kidd, who eventually quit. Clark, the education director, also criticized Ivan, contending that he had never run a theater before. But Fellows said Clark’s department was in disarray, with four of its seven workers having complained to the human resources department about their jobs. “I left because I could see it was coming to an end quickly,’’ said Clark, now the executive artistic director at the Boston Children’s Theatre. “It would be a professional embarrassment if I stayed.’’ What turned out to be North Shore’s final season did have some good news. The theater’s production of “Show Boat’’ ended up winning an award from local theater critics as best musical. But it is unclear how well the other shows did; Fellows and Ivan said they could not provide documentation. But as fall rolled around, Ivan got excited. The show to save the theater was coming: “Disney High School Musical 2.’’ If the first “High School Musical’’ was an unprecedented 2007 smash for North Shore, the sequel raised what turned out to be false expectations. In the end, the theater sold 17,000 tickets, compared with 52,000 for the first edition, earning about $700,000, far short of the $2 million expected. In other words, it earned what “Christmas Carol’’ would have - not the windfall the theater needed. When trustees sat down on Dec. 19, the day after opening night, they realized they had a budget buster on their hands, according to Fellows. The theater went into survival mode. There were 57 layoffs, and the theater stopped taking subscriptions for the 2009 season, though $2.5 million in renewals had come in, much of it money that patrons are not likely to get back. North Shore kept on just three staffers, plus Ivan, his salary reduced from about $240,000 to $96,000. In the middle of a devastating economic downturn that shook many nonprofits, the theater tried to raise $4 million to put on another season. Then it lowered its goal to $2 million. Late last week, a few days after the board announced it had given up, Fellows headed to the theater with a checkbook. He met with the three remaining staffers and wrote out checks for the electric and phone bills. Looking back, did he regret anything about the way the theater operated over the last year? “No,’’ Fellows said. “With the economy being what it was, this was unwinnable. I can’t think of anything - knowing what I know now, going back over it - that we would have done differently.’’ Geoff Edgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.