Author’s note: This blog first ran last July. I am running it again today because I am disappointed at some the meanness and misconceptions presented by some of those who oppose the plan. The membership meeting to vote on the proposal is tonight.
Le Petit Théâtre is hardly a topic about which I am neutral. I served on its board for several years, the last few of which were as its chairman. Mercifully, my terms ended shortly before Katrina, but by then the theater had already undergone many tidal waves of crises. I know what it’s like to get a call saying that the insurance check is due but there is no money or that the bankers are angry.
For years the theater has gone from crisis to crisis although the quality of the productions were often excellent (and frequently compared to Broadway) and despite the fact that the building itself is perhaps the finest community theater structure in the nation.
Le Petit’s problems have been similar in origin to those of all community theaters – it has an unmet need for corporate support. No theater can be sustained by ticket sales alone. Owning the building has been both a blessing and a curse for the Le Petit management. The structure is a prized possession yet it is a financial drain, constantly facing the upkeep needs of old buildings.
This is why I see the Dickie Brennan proposal as the salvation, possibly the only hope, for the theater. In anticipation of several questions about the proposal, I offer you these answers:
Q. Isn’t it inappropriate to have part of the theater divided into a restaurant?
A. No, theater and restaurants go together like song and dance. They are parts of a night-out experience. There are many examples on Broadway of the two existing side by side, including the famous Sardi’s restaurant which is only divided by a wall from the Helen Hayes theater.
Q. What part of the theater will be taken up by the restaurant?
A. If you are facing the building, the left, the part that now includes a smaller cabaret theater. None of that was part of the original theater but was added on later. The restaurant will use both upstairs and downstairs of that side.
Q. Will the main stage theater still exist?
A. Yes, Le Petit keeps the rest of the building including the main stage and remaining upstairs facilities, plus it will share the downstairs lobby, the courtyard and the upstairs library.
Q. How about performers’ dressing rooms that were in the part that will be sold?
A. There is plenty space in the building to build new dressing rooms.
Q. What is the financial deal?
A. $3 million.
Q. What will this do for the building?
A. It will utilize it to its fullest potential. For example the building has magnificent balconies that are seldom used. The restaurant can take advantage of that.
Q. Will the restaurant run the theater?
A. No, the theater will still be in the hands of the Le Petit board.
Q. What prevents the restaurant from closing and filling its space with t-shirt shops?
A. First, the Brennan family has a solid reputation as restaurateurs so that is not likely to happen. Secondly, the zoning at that location allows for restaurants but not much else. There will also be a covenant preventing any uses at that space other than as a restaurant.
Q. Will the sales relieve Le Petit’s financial burden?
A. Yes, with some extra cash in the bank. Plus, the entity still gets to operate a theater in a landmark building, but with less maintenance burden.
Q. Isn’t parking a major problem for Le Petit?
A. That is a small part of the problem. There have been various deals with nearby parking lots but Quarter parking operators get so much business that there has been little incentive for them to offer discounts. Experiencing a fuller evening in the Quarter could make the cost of parking more palatable. Having a quality restaurant or bar next door would help.
Q. How about the opposition?
A. This is the painful part. I know and like some of the opponents, especially those connected with the LePetit Guild, who have been tireless workers for the theater. They are good people and I do not question at all their sincerity or motives. There are other interests who would no doubt like to capture the building as their own for their own intentions. I also know that there are some people who regard a theater as being like a temple whose sanctity should not be interrupted by commercial enterprise. That attitude just does not square with reality.
Q. And the proponents?
A. They are good community-minded people trying to save the theater from a bad situation. They have taken a lot of flak, none of it just. I admire their determination.
Q. What if the proposal comes to fruition?
A. Le Petit has a chance to regain its rightful claim as one of the great community theaters in the country.
Q. And if it fails?
A. There will be a new era of infighting and jockeying. Both the city and theater will suffer.