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Why Startlight Musical Theatre Went Bankrupt

Aired 8/18/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Starlight Musical Theatre in Balboa Park is famous for its actors freezing in place when planes fly overhead during performances. The once popular venue has struggled financially for years and has recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. We'll talk to veteran theater critic Anne Marie Welsh about the story.

Crowds filled the Starlight Bowl, home to Starlight Theatre, in the 1950s.
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Above: Crowds filled the Starlight Bowl, home to Starlight Theatre, in the 1950s.

Starlight Musical Theatre in Balboa Park is famous for its actors freezing in place when planes fly overhead during performances. The once popular venue has struggled financially for years and has recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. We'll talk to veteran theater critic Anne Marie Welsh about the story.

Guest

Anne Marie Welsh has been covering the San Diego theater scene for over 25 years. She wrote a story on Starlight's financial troubles in a recent edition of the Union-Tribune.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The curtain has closed for this summer, at least, on a San Diego tradition. For decades, audiences have gathered in Balboa Park to hear musicals at the star light theatre, like this one.

(Audio Recording Played).

CAVANAUGH: That sound from YouTube, posted by someone called Anonymussification from last seen's star light production of hello dolly starring Melinda Gilb. This year, after months of postponing an announcement of this season, Starlight theatre as admitted the inevitable. The company has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. Reports say the San Diego civic light opera company is carrying a debt of at least a million dollars. Anne Marie Welsh joins me now to talk about the San Diego theatre institution, and the chances of a Starlight return. Hi.

WELSH: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And if our listeners would like to join the conversation, our number is 1-888-895-5727. You wrote a long piece, Anne Marie, about bankruptcy for the Union Tribune, and it sounds like star light's financial troubles come as no surprise to you.

WELSH: No, they didn't come as any surprise to me. Actually -- you know, there's been a lot of talk in San Diego for many years about people being owed money by Starlight, as well as Starlight having misaccumulated debt. And that sort of became public recently when the stage hands' union in New York file aid suit against Starlight for back pension payments that were owed to the stage hands there. It's a union house, Starlight theatre, and it always used union musicians, two of which are really great things, I think. But once that happened, I think the sort of a dirty laundry became public. And though the board had been trying to raise money behind the scenes to get rid of its deficit, it finally decided that they had to declare chapter 11, which is not really bankruptcy, it's reorganization.

CAVANAUGH: Right. What kind of debt are we talking about?

WELSH: Well, according to their 2009 tax filings, they're almost a million dollars in debt. And there's $650,000, what appears to be a line of credit from Wells Fargo, and various other debts. A note payable of $325,000. But then deeper in those tax forms, when I did the story, I looked at the supplements to the tax forms. And there is more than a half million dollars in debt to various board members, including a large debt to Cinda Lucas who was the formerly board president during the late 90s, and early new years of the new millennium.

CAVANAUGH: What about season ticket holders? Are they just out of luck?

WELSH: According to the website, they are to call and Starlight will accommodate them. Whether they're going to be -- that money is going to be turned into a donation or whether they're going to get their money back, I can't say.

CAVANAUGH: Before we really delve into this situation, let's remind listeners of the history of Starlight. It's known for this quirky bit of business during its performances.

WELSH: That quirky bit of business during its performances actually stopped a few years ago, but people do -- I remember even when I came here which was in 1983, that the management was bragging that a Japanese television show had shown how the actors stop in the middle of a song or speech when giant planes come over head on their way to Lindbergh field. The Starlight bowl which is a city owned facility is directly under the flight path to Lindbergh field. And so over the years, these stops, stop action moments became more frequent as the planes got louder and more frequent too. But then I can't remember the exact year, but it was during the time that Cinda Lucas was the president and Brian wells was the artistic director, they decided to just keep going. Very occasional stops because it had reached the point where they were stopping so frequently that the continuity of the show was becoming almost destroyed.

CAVANAUGH: Remind us about the role Starlight has played in the San Diego theatre scene.

WELSH: Well, it was founded in 1946. And so I believe it to be the third oldest arts organization in the city. The symphony is the oldest, then The Old Globe, and Starlight is 65 years old. And it began as something called the Starlight opera. And in this 3600 seat venue, they did operas and operettas, then they moved onto the musicals of the 1950s and 60s. Those were the heyday of Starlight, I would say, the Rogers and hammer Stein musicals, Irving Berlin musicals and so on. And then as the musical scene changed, partly because of rock and roll, only gradually did their repertory begin to change. In 1985, they did a production of chorus line which they considered to be taking a big risk, because it was generally a family audience that went to Starlight. People picnicked and went to see the show. So they did gradually catch up with what was happening in the larger musical theatre scene or try to catch up with that. But at the same time, the old Globe and the La Jolla playhouse began producing new musicals, which in some ways helped to marginalize the kind of centrality of star light's place in the San Diego artistic scene. And also those institutions became solvent in a much more sophisticated way and were getting city money at a time when Starlight eventually was no longer the recipient of city funds because it was carrying such a debt.

CAVANAUGH: Now, did ticket sales drop off? Or was it just the debt load and the fact that perhaps the productions became more expensive?

WELSH: It was a combination of factors I would say. Yes. The audiences did get smaller. I think people no longer could stand the planes for one. And in a 3600 seat theatre, 800 people don't look like very much. Whereas 30 years ago, the venue was nearly full. 300 people came to those shows. And it's a wonderful place to be. Outdoor, under the stars on a San Diego summer night with your family after having a picnic. It's a shame in many ways that culturally, the theatre was side lined, that geographically, they were directly under the flight path, whereas the globe has a beautiful outdoor theatre, just a hop skip and a jump away. And the planes don't impact the Shakespeare that's being prohibited.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us, because you go in your article, which is a fascinating one, about the history of the Starlight in that it was the place to be if you were a mover and shaker in the city in the '50s and '60s?

WELSH: Well, even in the '80s. When I came here and went to the first show they saw in the '80s, Mrs. Copley from the newspaper, who owned the newspaper was there, and Ia woman named Amy Krulak, who was the wife of the former marine hero group Krulak, who was I think publisher or had been the publisher of the Union Tribune. They were there, City Council people were there, the mayor went, and these families. It was a mostly white audience. But the sort of rich and powerful mingled with a family audience. And so in that sense, it was a real San Diego tradition. And it was also considered one of the major arts institutions in the city by combo, which was the art it is funding group that was private. It was kind of an old boys' club, I always felt. Although I never said that in print. But that morphed, eventually, into the city commission for arts and culture, which was a much more sophisticated and sort of national style art it is funding organization that really looked at the books of these organizations as well as at their social clout.

CAVANAUGH: One of the things in your article that really struck me was that you talk about a sort of disastrous season in the early 90s that -- you say the Starlight never actually recovered from.

WELSH: That's the feeling among people who have been watching Starlight for a long type. They tried to launch an expensive Broadway musical, Annie war bucks aircraft follow-up to Annie at the civic theatre. It was a world premiere. And it Defendant's Exhibit go anywhere. They never recouped what they lost. So the if willing -- within two years, they had a $1.4 million debt, and they were canceling seasons. And just having concerts and so on. Again, trying to chip away at that debt, which is what the group was trying -- the current board was trying to do just before they finally had to go into Chapter 11 and try to get reorganized. So that they could know what their debts really were, and to whom they owed the money. Part of what happened was with these loans to board member, there was some misunderstanding about whether these were in fact loans that had to be repaid or were they donations. So a judge is going to determine that now.

CAVANAUGH: You make a very big and very important point that this is eye reorganization. What's your prediction for the future of Starlight.

WELSH: You know I'd say 50-50. I really do. I think probably they can get themselves on their feet again and get out of debt. But they're going to have to reorganize, not only to satisfy the bankruptcy court but also to satisfy people like the city commission for arts and culture so that they become more sophisticate indeed their bookkeeping, and also I think they're going to maybe have to find another venue, at least for some winter shows. It's hard to be just a summer only producing organization. Most people who try and end up producing year-round. Starlight tried it once, that's when Annie warbucks happened. So it's hard to know.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you this because you've been watching the theatre scene for a long time here, how would you like to see the Starlight theatre transformed?

WELSH: When they emerge from Chapter 11? What would you like to see in their future?

WELSH: I'd like to see a summer producing season like they have had but in a more congenial venue. I'm not sure where that will be, nor do I think the city nor they are going to have the money to build just aid venue, and I'd like to see a year-round season. It's wonderful to see these revivals of golden age musicals. And it's a great introduction to theatre for families. And one of the good things that Starlight always did was that they hired so many local actors. And I come from a dance background, so many local dancers, and they paid them as they do the union musicians and stage hands. So it had a lot going for it as an arts organization and a producing organization. But it also had many deficits. So we'll see. Of that's why I say 50-50.

CAVANAUGH: Keep our fingers crossed right? I've been speaking with San Diego theatre critic Anne Marie Welsh. Thank you so much.

WELSH: Thank you Maureen.

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