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As Long as We Remember...

June 30, 2006

Weinberg Woes. Still!

Roy Meachum

Donna Kuzemchak-Ramsburg is right! The city has thrown away a whole lot of money on the Weinberg Center for the Performing Arts. The alderman's wrong, however, if she thinks new Director John Healey can staunch the flow or build widespread enthusiasm for the former movie house.

The subject came up at City Hall when the board was asked to kick in another $120,000 to bring the center's books in balance. Coming on top of the initial $200,000 grant, that makes a tidy $320,000 bill to taxpayers this year. But, hey, that's a lot better than $426,000, which is what Jon Angel, the city’s budget office manager, figures the deficit averaged between 1998 and 2004. Evidently, the more recent year is not available.

The most astonishing item in The Frederick News-Post writer Liam Farrell's account was the reaction (quoted later in this column) of David "Kip" Koontz, the alderman liaison to the center. That makes him, in reality, "the man" for the Weinberg; he provided the direction and defense against the lengthy search that came up very recently with Mr. Healey.

In various statements, public and distributed by email, Mr. Koontz waved off critics of the committee by protesting they didn't know what they were talking about, implying he and the panel did. On the other hand, it was an open secret that their first two choices who accepted the invitation ran out and only at the last minute. In other words, despite what was described to me as "further sweetening," the applicants found something below the surface, not immediately detectable.

Coming in, Mr. Healey must have known he was choice number three. The community can assume, like the famous car rental slogan, he "will try harder." In the event, everyone – including Ms. Kuzemchak-Ramsburg – wishes him well. She means working on the deficit, as she said. The rest of us, with some exceptions, hope the former actor turned producer-director for a Lexington, VA, company can mount the programs that feed the community's appetite for "live" shows.

Much of the problem comes with the nearly 80-year-old house; it was built in the day when movies were still accompanied by acts leftover from vaudeville. Its backstage met the minimal requirements needed for those performances; it's hopelessly out of date today. A number of shows simply cannot play on West Patrick Street; Frederick gets by on what will.

And that means chiefly singers who need space only for their bands, small dance troupes and such theatrical productions that use a single set that permits staging separate scenes by the use of lights. Hearing the singers' voices presents another problem. Despite work on the acoustics under former Director Stuart Seale, sound tends to be swept up the funnel that contains the pull-down movie screen. That leaves "dead spots" among the audience.

Speaking of audience, their butts sit restlessly on seats that should have been tossed out years ago. They may have been around since the 1976 deluge that forced the Weinbergs out of the movie business.

In that bicentennial year, the Old Opera House (Brewers Alley restaurant now) had sold its last ticket and the other competition had vanished, killed off by the tube. The house that became the center carried its old Tivoli name, up in lights, which were increasingly expensive to turn on. In simple fact, Frederick no longer thronged the downtown. The family's answer was to build another theater, adjacent to their Golden Mile motel, Holiday Inn. The name, of course: Holiday Theater.

To protect this recent arrival, what became the Weinberg Center could not show movies that were possibly competitive; the agreement has been rewritten but the only films on the big screen premiered long ago.

That is the reason why, dear readers, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are still stars in Frederick. They bring along, moreover, the thrill of the mighty Wurlitzer, as in the old days. The "thrill" comes free of extra charge and the old movies might pay their low rentals; maybe not. In the event, with its single screen the old house could not hope to muscle aside multiplexes like those in malls. Mr. Healey has to content his patrons with the old stuff. No choice.

In fact, as she stands, the old Tivoli Theatre might as well be returned to the Weinberg heirs, to dispose of as they and the Historic Preservation Commission deem fit. Of course that allows Donna Kuzemchak-Ramsburg the opportunity to say, I told you so. The alternative solution is epitomized in Gettysburg's treatment of its once cinema palace, called fittingly The Majestic.

Peter Herber invited me north. For people who don't know his amazingly talented family, he's the brother of Julie who directed MET's smashing production of "Urinetown," which I had the pleasure of praising in this space. The talent does not stop with her and him.

But back to Peter, he is listed in the program as co-producer of "For the Glory," the musical chosen to bow in the new Gettysburg playhouse. After a theatrical career in New York, and other places, he was an applicant for the Weinberg job but never received the call for an interview.

Ray Cullom found himself equally stonewalled, although he acted as the center's director a couple years back while still employed at Clear Channel Productions. The failure of holding dialogue with these two well-qualified men has much to say about why the pair first offered the job dropped out!

In the event, Mr. Cullom now works out of Fort Lauderdale, FL, where he directs, produces and books shows. Still he and his wife regret they couldn't raise their family in Frederick, despite the much higher pay on the new job.

Mr. Herber, as I said, has gone on to co-produce an evening that presents 20 Broadway actors who offer delightful songs centered on what has been called "the late unpleasantry." For The Civil War show, he managed to raise $1.5 million, money that might have gone into the local arts center. In fact, Ray and Pete proposed they work together, which could have revolutionized Frederick's arts scene.

To bring the old Majestic up-to-date Gettysburgers (augmented by Mr. Herber's like) put $16 million into converting the movie theatre for live productions. This from a community whose low cost of living has attracted lots of people from here; they find the extra drive worth cash in their pockets.

Similarly, Rockville has fashioned a magnificent showcase for groups such as the Baltimore and National symphony orchestras and major theatrical and dance programs.

Meanwhile, the Weinberg Center for the Arts declines and draws comments such as those from Mrs. Kuzemchak-Ramsburg, while colleague “Kip” Koontz could only say about the latest budget: "I'm kind of speechless...that's a very large discrepancy."

That comment, from "the man" officially in charge of Frederick's arts scene, exemplifies both his lack of grasp and the futility of hoping the center can ever right itself, under the present set-up at least.

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