BEMIDJI -- Paul Bunyan Playhouse is banking on its 52nd annual summer professional theater season to reverse its declining financial prospects.
The theater has operated in the red in each of the last three years, including a $40,000 deficit last year, according to Karen Millar-Moe, the playhouse's longtime executive director.
In response, the venerable downtown theater has turned to well-known, popular productions and professional directors and actors with a local following to boost ticket sales this season, Millar-Moe said.
The summer season, which usually generates about half of the playhouse's $280,000 annual operating budget, opens June 12 with "The Robber Bridegroom," followed by four other productions through Aug. 23.
"The theater is in financial trouble," Millar-Moe said. "We've had a couple of really bad seasons and we've had to deal with competition from another theater" in the Bemidji area.
A nonprofit organization, the theater has experienced financial troubles several times in the past, but rarely as steep as the current situation, she said.
Millar-Moe, a Paul Bunyan board member since 1984 and executive director since 1993, attributed the current crisis to several factors, including a decision by the board to operate the theater year-round.
Through most of its half-century run, the playhouse, which occupies the historic downtown Chief Theater, has operated only during the summer months, offering one of rural Minnesota's only summer professional stock theater seasons.
In recent years, however, it has expanded its program offerings, as well as its availability to other arts-related organizations on a lease basis, to 12 months, a move that contributed to its financial troubles, Millar-Moe said.
Another contributing factor can be traced to the low audience response to the playhouse's summer-ending musicals, which normally prompt a significant percentage of overall ticket sales, she explained.
The 2000 production of "Cabaret" and the 2001 offering of "Annie Get Your Gun" were not well-received by the local audience, falling short of revenue expectations, according to Millar-Moe, who is leaving her position at the end of the current season.
Millar-Moe is moving to the Twin Cities in the fall to return to college in pursuit of an arts advocacy degree, she said.
Stiff competition from a Branson-like theater, Forste By, also contributed to the playhouse's financial woes, she said, adding that the venue closed down in January after a six-month run.
"There just weren't enough dollars to go around," she said.
The outlook for this season is much better, Millar-Moe said, because of the audience-appeal of the theater's 2002 summer menu and the popularity of some of the returning directors and cast.
M. Curtis Grittner, a former Bemidji State University instructor, has been hired as the playhouse's artistic director. He will direct "Bridegroom," a musical fairy tale, as well as "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" (June 26-July 7), "Beauty and the Beast" (July 17-21) and "Sylvia" (July 24-Aug. 4).
Michael Lee, a professional actor with Minneapolis Children's Theater credentials, will take the lead in "Bridegroom" and star as the scarecrow in the season-ending production of "The Wizard of Oz."
Lee has appeared in several previous Paul Bunyan productions and appeared with the Children's Theater touring company's "Grimm's Tales," which stopped in Bemidji late last year.
Other professional actors with previous Paul Bunyan experience include Stephen Houtz, a voice and music instructor at the Minnesota History Theater who will appear in "Bridegroom," "Ballyhoo" and "Sylvia," while providing musical direction in the season-opening production.
Vicki (Olsen) Rowe, longtime drama coach at Bemidji High School who moved to Arizona a few years ago, will return to direct "The Wizard of Oz."
"She has a huge fan club in Bemidji and the 'Wizard' is a big draw for children and families," Millar-Moe said, "and this is the right time to do something that really brings in an audience.
Mitch Bernston, a native of Fosston, also will return to the playhouse to star in "Beauty and the Beast." A Twin Cities resident, Bernston has made a name for himself at Theater in the Round in Minneapolis, most recently as the lead in "The Importance of Being Earnest."
The playhouse recently held a successful fund-raising event, bringing in about $15,000 in donations, Millar-Moe said.
"There are differing opinion on whether our financial situation should be discussed," she said. "But a nonprofit thrives on community donations -- about half the playhouse's annual budget comes from donations and grants -- and if people don't know there's a problem, they won't know they need to support us.
"The community came out of the woodwork to help" during the recent fund-raising event, she added.
Season tickets are $57-$60 and are available by calling (218) 751-7270.
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