By Bill Hirschman
Three weeks ago, philanthropists Milton and Tamar Maltz asked to see the renovations of the theater that bears their name in Jupiter. Producing Artistic Director Andrew Kato balked at showing off something still awash in cranes, scaffolding and crews. Besides, he wanted to pull back the curtain when the project was preened to deliver the full impact.
“I said to him, you’re not prepared for what you’re going to see. It’s just so shocking. And Milt said, yeah, yeah,” Kato recalled. So, he reluctantly escorted the couple to the site.
“They were both dumbfounded,” Kato said. He mimicked their gasp at the spacious lobby with picture windows and the cushy seats at the back of the house that echo the noblesse oblige view found at the opera.
When the finished $2.5 million project is unveiled at an open house Monday, the transmogrified Maltz Jupiter Theatre will serve as a valediction and validation of its decade growing from Burt Reynolds’ local dinner theater into one of the premier producing houses in the state.
Which is precisely what the Maltz administration and board wanted to achieve. “I think the impression it’s going to make on our existing patrons and newcomers is going to be the one you have when you go to the Goodman (Theatre in Chicago) or other great regional theaters. That’s what it feels like,” Kato said earlier this month.
But the surprise, confined to the inner circle until recently, is that this is only one facet of a much grander plan that has already begun taking shape.
The fact that this phase was conceived, funded and completed at all — and follows the expansion of Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach – fits into a larger context, said Rena Blades, president and CEO of the Palm Beach Cultural Council.
“Theater in Palm Beach County is clearly in demand. We see it in the sales across the county including Palm Beach Dramaworks, the Kravis and the Wick,” the new theater in Boca Raton, she said. “Even as young as the Maltz is, they needed more space.”
The Maltz, as focused on customer development as any corporation, targeted changes to improve the patrons’ experience – and increase revenue. These encompass additional, upgraded seats next to a skybox lounge and an enlarged lobby with significantly more restrooms and more places to get a drink.
That marketing mentality is a driving force. “The critical pieces were honoring our audience by giving them a facility that matched the quality of the theater (on the stage),” Kato said. He said patrons were frustrated by long bathroom lines, a crowded lobby and difficulty getting a drink. “Over a period of time, people said, ‘Argh, I’ll just stay in my seat.’ We want them to go back out in the lobby to go out and enjoy the facility.”
Although crews were still laying carpet, smoothing plaster and mounting production photographs a week ago, the staff was confident that the building would be polished to a high gloss for a gala reception at 5:30 p.m. Thursday followed by the opening of its 11th season with the classic thriller Dial M For Murder.
A few aspects of the overhaul won’t be visible to the patrons, such as moving all of the administration offices to the remodeled second floor rather than have them spread out over the complex.
But most will be impossible to miss. The top-billed changes start in the lobby, which has been expanded to the east and finished with large windows to let in natural light. Three broad and elegant concession stands will serve more people more quickly. The restrooms have been moved to the north so that lines no longer snake into the lobby. The women’s restroom has 40 percent more stalls and a family restroom serves handicapped visitors. The behind-bars ticket booth has been moved to an open-air station similar to a hotel’s concierge desk. Staffers on show nights will wear coordinated uniforms. The donor’s private room on the first floor has been nearly doubled in space. Special signage with its elegant calligraphy lists the names of generous patrons and a wall displays the names of other contributors.
The second-floor space that was used for storage a year ago has been transformed into the Green Room, a finely-appointed lobby accessed by its own entrance and elevator. That hall with a 12-foot ceiling is decorated with scale models of set designs from previous shows, blown up renderings of costume designs, and two mannequins displaying costumes from last season’s production of Amadeus.
But the Green Room is merely the entry to the headline improvement. Patrons who buy access to the upper room for an extra $20 a ticket get more than just one free drink and a quiet place to mingle for an hour before curtain. The back wall of the auditorium was removed and, in its place, two rows of 62 wider, lusher seats have been created 80 feet from the lip of the stage.
Some skeptics may question who wants to sit up there, but an in-person visit backs up Kato’s contention that “the view of the stage is outstanding. It’s shocking. There’s a reason Burt (Reynolds) sat up there with his friends…. There are people who like fifth row center seats who are always going to like their fifth row center seat, but the sightlines here are spectacular.”
Currently, the Maltz plans to not sell these royal box seats as a full-season subscription option. Instead, starting with its next show, Annie, subscribers and regular patrons can buy access as an upgrade to individual performances, but that might change.
That new seating is a quiet, but key piece of the Maltz’s eye on growing its audience. There was income to be made because some potential patrons could not always find a seat in the 554-seat house. Sixteen productions sold at least 95 percent of the available tickets, some with individual performances sold out. Six sold out, period: Singin’ in the Rain, Hello, Dolly! Cabaret, Evita, The Full Monty and Smokey Joe’s Café.
The 62 added seats bring the capacity up to 617 seats – an estimated additional 7,000 tickets and a potential earned revenue of $350,000, according to Tricia Trimble, managing director.
The upstairs lounge, the extended downstairs lobby, even the enlarged donor’s hideaway on the first floor can be rented out for catered dinner parties and corporate retreats.
The list of renovations is longer, including more subtle changes in the look and feel of the entire building. But 98 percent of the project, other than some blue sky brainstorming, occurred in exactly the space of one year. The Maltz team planned, gathered consensus for, designed and built the renovations, all while still raising the funds.
One reason the project could be pulled off in 12 months is the Maltz has a reputation as a highly-efficient organization committed to inter-department communication, cooperation and coordination, plus a near obsession with company-wide planning far in advance down the smallest detail such as the napkins at a reception.
Kato and a committee travelled to New York to see what other theaters were offering. They hired and listened closely to advice from Designel, the architects responsible for turning the Cuillo Theatre into the new Palm Beach Dramaworks, and the general contractor, Cutting Edge Building Systems of Jupiter.
Construction began in late spring as soon as the regular season closed. Crews ripped out the downstairs lobby walls to the studs. The staff moved into the Reynolds Center office building next door. The youth programs performed off campus at the Jupiter Community High School and Lighthouse ArtCenter.
The key was a $1.5 million gift from The Roe Green Foundation, thus the naming of the upstairs lounge as the Green Room – the nickname for the actors’ lounging area backstage at most theaters. Green is a founding member of the theater’s board.
“It was a critical point for us,” Kato said. “If she had not given us the 1.5, I don’t think this would have happened…. But she has watched the success of the theater and she felt an investment of that magnitude, we were finally ready for it.”
In a statement last week, Roe Green wrote, “This will give the theater’s patrons something different; a more luxurious experience. It will also give corporations and groups a wonderful opportunity to rent out the space and offer their clients and colleagues something unique. This is truly something special.”
The Maltz’s machine continued to churn to raise the rest of the money even as the saws sang. Ground was broken with $200,000 still outstanding. But the Maltz is famous – and envied by its colleagues – for its ability to solicit financial support from its well-heeled donor base. The balance was raised relatively quickly.
Part of that is due to what the company puts on stage, notably mainstream musicals with budgets as much as $400,000, sometimes produced with other theaters such as Barnum with the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota and Thoroughly Modern Millie with the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey.
While the fare is rarely adventurous (this year’s headliners are Annie and A Chorus Line), Kato slips in straight plays with name recognition like this season’s Other Desert Cities, darker visions like the Sam Mendes version of Cabaret in 2012 and completely rethought warhorses such as the acclaimed Marcia Milgrom Dodge reboot of Hello, Dolly! in 2012.
The formula works. Gross ticket sales have grown over five years from $1.87 million to $2.565 million. When Kato arrived in 2005, subscriptions totaled about 2,300. Five seasons ago, the Maltz attracted 7,121 subscribers. This past season, it counted 7,536 by the end of the year. This summer, even before the season has begun, that figure was 7,576. The operating budget has grown over five years from $4.7 million to $6.3 million – the second largest in the state for a regional theater.
Since opening in 2004, the theater added a conservatory wing in 2007 and upgraded the sound and light infrastructure in 2011 and 2012.
The kicker is that the makeover is only one stage in a grand plan to evolve the company into one of the premier regional theaters in the country. This isn’t promotional hype. Even before the paint has dried, the Maltz team has begun planning a $10 million to $15 million expansion that will take two years to pull off.
Kato is a bit coy about the specifics because he doesn’t want to short-circuit the input of stakeholders. “We already have a strategic planning committee meeting set for December, and the seeds are planted and people are excited. But I don’t think it’s right to let the horses out of the stable before everyone has had an opportunity to buy into it. But it’s pretty grand.”
Still, ideas are firm enough that the feasibility of its broad outlines were taken into consideration in designing the current renovations.
“I think it’s like setting up the volley. It’s not just about scoring the winning point; it’s about the preparation required for something like this,” Kato said.
He plans to give his generous donors a year off from solicitations, then dive back in to fund-raising. “What I think is going to happen is that (the current renovation) will reenergize our constituents and I believe there will be a half a dozen new donors who have been on the fence who will say, ‘So what else are you going to do?’ ”
The Maltz Jupiter Theatre will hold a free open house 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday at 1001 E. Indiantown Road in Jupiter. For more information, call (561) 575-2223 or visit jupitertheatre.org