For 45 summers, Broadway shows on stage in Coeur d’Alene have brightened the evenings of theatergoers from all over the Inland Northwest with music and dance, comedy and drama, laughter and tears.
Now the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre has been hit by what staff and board alike refer to as the “perfect storm,” which threatens to swamp the troupe’s bank balance and darken the stage for a 2014 summer season.
I’m writing to urge everyone within reading and shouting distance who loves live theater to do what you can to prevent such a disaster.
Certainly the potential loss of the theater’s summer magic is a devastating threat for those of us who have loved experiencing Broadway “in our own backyard” for all these many years. We remember the shaky piano accompaniments, the crowded stage and lumpy seats in the old church on Garden, before the troupe moved uptown in 1990 to the North Idaho College Schuler Auditorium. The lonely piano has long since been replaced by an orchestra with professional musicians providing the music, many from the Spokane Symphony; professional actors still sing the tunes. Together they have brought us fine, spirit-lifting entertainment. And many summer nights loaded with joyful noise and pleasure.
So what forces came together to create this unfortunate “perfect storm”? First of all, the economic downturn of 2008 pinched the pockets of most families here, as it did to pockets all over the country. The number of season ticket subscribers started dropping and has continued to drop ever since, despite the uptick in the economy. The population of theatergoers has been aging; a majority of Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre attendees are over 60 years of age. Despite efforts to reach them, younger subscribers have not been moved to sign up.
At the same time, expenses to put on the productions have been going up. Inflation takes its toll on basic items — lighting, microphones, stage equipment, costumes, sets. More than 100 actors are hired over the course of the summer. North Idaho College charges rent for the Shuler Auditorium; more than $70,000 each season is paid to the college for rent, technical staff and ushers. Keeping up with technological advancements is expensive. Flashy items such as the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying broom or Mary Poppins’ magic umbrella have proven to be especially costly.
The board of this nonprofit organization has not been unaware of the precariousness of the financial situation, but the drop in ticket sales has been surprisingly precipitous for two successive years. Last year’s deficit ate up the organization’s cash reserves, and ticket sales for the current season have been slack. Only one of this season’s shows — Mary Poppins — has broken even; the three remaining have taken the bank account into red-ink territory. Nothing in the long history of successful seasons had forecast the steep decline.
The upshot of this very sad story is that the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre must raise $150,000 before the end of this calendar year. The Board of this nonprofit is determined to produce a new business plan, designed both to cut costs where possible and to broaden its financial base. In the meantime, supporters need to step up to the plate with donations.
What would the loss of the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre mean to our greater community? Washington and Idaho attendees are almost evenly divided, with half coming from the Spokane area and the other half from Coeur d’Alene, Hayden and other communities in North Idaho.
The infusion of dollars into the surrounding communities is huge. Those 100 actors spend every penny of the small salaries they earn. The total payroll amounts to half a million dollars. Local restaurants profit from the drinks and meals served before and after the shows. Retail stores, gas stations, coffee shops all rake in dollars from the traffic of visitors in and out of the area.
Lost would be the exposure to the excitement and magic that goes with the performing arts and performing artists. The dream of turning Coeur d’Alene into a summer arts center has become more of a reality, season by season, and the Summer Theatre has provided the cornerstone in that progression.
In these past few days, Artistic Director Roger Welch has been showered with emails and phone calls from concerned supporters. Local actress Darcy Wright was backed by 88 others in her Facebook posting: “My hometown is in dire need of help monetarily. It is an incredible professional theatre with a huge heart. If we don’t raise $150,000, it will never put on another show. I have worked here for almost 20 years. This theatre raised me as an artist and as a human being. I beg you to help in whatever way you can.”