Behind the Curtain

The hijacking of a venerable arts institution

I have a sorry and regretful story to tell. It concerns the board of a nonprofit organization that I believe overstepped the boundaries of decency, honesty and fairness. A nonprofit board that didn't understand its mission is to be the guardian, not the owner, of the organization's future.

Nonprofit organizations, no matter how worthy the cause, cannot justify cutting ethical corners. And no organization can justify treating its employees and colleagues with total disdain.

The organization I'm talking about is the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre, which announced in August it was shelving plans for a 2014 summer season at North Idaho College's Schuler Auditorium. Lo and behold, two months later, we learn that there will be a 2014 season after all. But with a change in management and at a different venue.

Essential to this story is the gathering storm of money problems the troupe encountered over the summer of 2013. A variety of ill winds were blowing: the public was disenchanted with the show choices; ticket prices had been climbing; ticket sales were sluggish; and there were some extra big costs — Mary Poppins flew through the air at a thousand dollars a whack.

The word was made public that the theater was in financial hot water. So hot that it needed $150,000 to stay alive. In two short weeks, Artistic Director Roger Welch and CST's superstar patron Ellen Travolta raised $60,000 in a plea to patrons to help save the 46-year-old, award-winning institution. At the fateful August board meeting, Welch presented the board a plan to raise the remainder of the necessary funds. He and Travolta weren't given a chance to put their plan into action, say boardmembers who were there.

That's because leaders of the board had other ideas. They proceeded to stage a carefully planned coup. Without the knowledge of one-third of the board members, leaders came into the board meeting of Aug. 26 with a motion to close the theater for 2014. Period.

No notice of the agenda item had been circulated. Board members uninformed of the surprise motion were caught completely off guard. Their pleas to postpone the decision to consider other options were disregarded. Staff members had been dismissed from the meeting and were totally in the dark.

The board vote count to cancel the productions was nine for shutting down and five against — an ironic twist, since the final show of the season was the comedy 9 to 5. The five board members who opposed the coup have since resigned.

Welch was undoubtedly the target of such a desperate, short-sighted ploy. He and Executive Director Michelle Mendez were never officially fired, just cut from the payroll and locked out of their offices. (A caller to North Idaho College from the CST board before the August meeting suggested the locks should be changed "as there might be trouble.") At the time of this writing, Nov. 22, neither Welch nor Mendez has received the severance pay they were subsequently promised, even after multiple requests.

It's cruel treatment of the person who had been with the organization for 27 years and as artistic director led it to awards and honors for two decades. And shabby disrespect for the hard-working Mendez, not to mention the many supporters, volunteers, former boardmembers and community members who have invested passion and dollars in the institution.

Many of the donors who stepped forward with contributions in response to Travolta and Welch's fervent urging for help to save the theater feel they have been deceived. They gave dollars to one future that will be spent on another.

In his 20 years as artistic director, Welch brought the North Idaho and Spokane communities the opportunity to enjoy nearly 100 amazing productions. Unforgettable moments in West Side Story and Les Misérables; great sets and acting in Chicago; the nostalgia of The Sound of Music; the diverse faces of Miss Saigon; the list of fine acting, singing and dancing goes on and on.

From its earliest beginning as the Carousel Players in 1968, the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre maintained its status as a fully professional theatre. All artists were paid. Welch aimed at all times to improve the quality of the performances. He placed more importance on the well-being of his cast members than he did on romancing board or community members. That may have been his Achilles' heel.

So we have lost Roger Welch's magic way with the world of musical stage. At 46, Welch still has a great future.

What else has been lost to the future? Welch also brought us the talents of that lovable couple, Jack Bannon and Ellen Travolta, who deserve a ton of thanks for their passionate support of Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre for more than 20 years. The artistic integrity of these three fabulous people cannot be surpassed and will be greatly missed. ♦

Mary Lou Reed served two separate terms on the board of directors of the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre, last serving in 2010.

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