Theaters try to shake money woes

While the theater preservation situation is clearly most acute in New York City, it is nonetheless a growing problem across the country. Dozens of commercial theaters from Boston to Pasadena, Calif., are finding themselves economically outmoded and, in many cases, singled out for demolition. While some stages, such as the Plaza Theater in El Paso, Texas, are being rescued by massive outpourings of community support, many others, including the Chicago Theater and Washington's Warner Theater, are being restored by a combination of public and private funding. But for many theaters the future lies in forging an entirely fresh identity - one that is both commercially and culturally sound. The current trend toward the construction of high-rise buildings to subsidize cultural institutions, which began with the construction of the Museum Tower condominium over New York's Museum of Modern Art, is seen by many, particularly the Broadway theater owners, as the wave of the future. Cultural institutions are increasingly recouping their operating expenses from commercial development. ``There has to be a supplementary form of funding to make these theaters work again,'' says Richard Bader, owner of Boston's Wilbur Theater.

Theaters located in nonurban areas are having to make similar compromises. The recently restored Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, Calif., will eventually offset its six-figure annual operating deficit from the development of an adjacent block of offices and retail stores.

Other theaters face an increasingly uncertain future. In Boston, city officials have just scotched plans for an innovative performing arts and medical center complex involving the long-dark Wilbur Theatre. If no commercial alternatives are found, this famous Broadway-tryout theater may be forced to close - ironically at the same time the Massachusetts legislature has introduced a bill earmarking $15 million specifically for capital improvements to cultural institutions.

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