By Bill Hirschman
The probable resurrection of the Caldwell Theatre Company venue this fall as the transmogrified Wick Theatre and Costume Museum is emblematic of the South Florida theater zeitgeist.
In the wake of shuttered troupes and emerging newcomers, the rising phoenix in Boca Raton is awash in patrons and professionals’ optimism and pessimism, welcome and suspicion, encouragement and derision.
Workers and administrators are racing to transform the site in time for the first performance of The Sound of Music slated for September 19 and the first scheduled museum tour November 5.
At the epicenter, exuding self-confidence, is Marilynn A. Wick, a self-made businesswoman who says she is laying a million-dollar bet on a vision like none other in the country.
“I didn’t sit down one day and say, ‘Well, I want to buy a theater.’ I just said, ‘Well, what will be the next thing that I do that will be exciting that can tie into what I’m doing now’,” said the founder of Costume World, billed as the largest theatrical costume provider in the country. “Sometimes wonderful things are accidental, but then you need to be smart enough to take advantage of them and create them and do something.”
That phrase “tie into” is the multi-layered clue to the vision behind Wick’s wager. As much a creature of commerce as theater, Wick is merging several projects so that the synergy will bootstrap the demand for each facet.
–Reopening her three-year-old museum of original classic costumes. The Broadway Collection had been housed in a Pompano Beach structure, but currently is destined for the former rehearsal area at the back of the Caldwell building, now sporting its own entrance. A tour often led by Wick’s daughter, Kimberly, shows off rotating exhibits such as the costumes designed for the original production, first national tour and New York revival of The King and I, Cecil Beaton’s ball gown for Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady, Angela Lansbury’s gold party dress for Mame and Richard Burton’s armor for Camelot.
–Continuing to host elegant luncheons for tour groups attending the museum. The food will be served in a room decorated to evoke Central Park’s famed Tavern on the Green under an amber crystal Baccarat chandelier bought from the restaurant. Food will be served on china and glassware from the Tavern. She’s already booked two future wedding showers into the museum.
–Additional features will include a gift shop with theatrical knickknacks and non-theatrical fripperies. In the future, she hopes to rent the lobby for lectures and book signings, and create a summer program for children.
–Providing live entertainment during the luncheons, and cabaret performances after the theater productions in the lobby along with a full liquor bar and finger food such as tapas.
–And, of course, reopening the 333-seat theater. Plans are to mount six shows popular with the older audience who made the Caldwell a success for two decades: 42nd Street, Steel Magnolias, The Sound of Music, The Full Monty, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and White Christmas.
To see the entire season and dates, click here
To see the entire season and dates, click here
No Business Like Show Business
Wick said she is uncertain the theater could thrive fiscally as a standalone entity. Solvency lies is having all these efforts fuel a single accounting ledger, she said. Some patrons may only avail themselves of one facet to begin with, but she hopes they will opt later for the entire package, especially once they have been exposed to the other amenities on site.
“I figured that… at a 50 percent capacity, the place can work,” she said, although she’s hoping that in an operational day beginning at 11 a.m. and ending 12 hours later, she’ll have 300 people in the theater and 60 people or more having lunch with a museum tour.
She exudes an assurance that doesn’t sound arrogant. “There’s a need for this here…. because when you put 6,000 people through a museum in a couple of years, you absolutely know what they are crying for.”
Her ladies, as she calls her past patrons, want an “experience” or an “event” — not simply attending a show, but making it part of an entire evening out. That idea has been embraced by other area theaters who partner with restaurants and bars, but Wick wants to provide all aspects of the equation.
She stresses the experience must have the aura of elegance, from the new crown molding in the lobby to the commissioned murals on the walls to the diaphanous flowing draperies, trellises and flocked wallpaper, down to the graceful cursive of the theater logo with a flourishing curlicue emanating from the W in the theater’s logo.
“There is theater here but it’s not quality theater,” she said, meaning the experience not the caliber of performance. “You have a very educated community here; 75 percent of these people are from New York. They are used to … going to facilities that are lovely….. not just a great show.”
It would be a massive undertaking with no deadline looming, let alone one that is now nine weeks away. But workmen have recently replaced the technical equipment in the theater and completed the renovation of the dining area.
Answering The Critics
Wick knows that skepticism and criticism is whispered by detractors throughout the theatrical community, starting with the hubris of running a business that she has admitted she had no experience in.
“I’ve heard that. I’ll learn how to do it,” she said, noting that she taught herself the peculiarities of theater-related contracts such as working with Equity and ticket brokers.
“I have great support staff here and they’re guiding me. And I’m getting pretty educated myself. I’m the executive producer and I have learned a lot in a short period of time. And I’ve been around a million theaters. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I don’t think it’s so complicated as long as I have good talented directors who know how to hire the best people and who have the best interests of the theater.”
She has answers to most of the brickbats and questions. Some people wonder if her single ticket price of $58 is a shade steep. But there are price breaks for groups and a further discount for season subscribers. That compares to about $38 at Broward Stage Door, about $52 at Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables and $56 to $63 at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, all of which produce large-scale musicals but with wildly different budgets.
“It doesn’t concern me because I think they’re coming for a fabulous facility and a state of the art quality production and for a night of entertainment; $58 isn’t that much,” she said.
Parking will not be a problem as some have predicted. The bank leasing the property owns 149 spaces to the west of the building, all of it to be serviced by the theater with complimentary valet parking.
And she flatly denies accusations that her management style isn’t collegial or closed to advice that doesn’t mesh with her vision.
“Sometimes I get accused of micromanaging. I’m really not a micromanager, I just talk real fast…. Sometimes I have to make those decisions (quickly) but I do let people sit down and communicate with me why they think (their view) is so great.” She also delays making some decisions until she has researched the issue and weighed the options quietly at home.
Still, she’s obviously stung by the cool reception among some people in the local theatrical community. She has been nominated for costume designs in Chicago and other cities, but “I never get nominated for a Carbonell and practically every Carbonell and costume design in this city, I designed the shows. I’ve done the shows. They’re my wardrobes,” she said.
But other voices cheer her effort and what it means in the larger context of the Palm Beach arts community. Among them is William M. Nix, vice-president of marketing and governmental affairs for the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County.
“The addition of Wick Theater in Boca will fill a significant void in the cultural experience. Boca Raton, as well as the county, have supported award-winning theater for decades. The promotion and product on the stage will dictate the future benefit,” Nix wrote in an email last week.
It occurs amid a tumultuous backdrop. Nix cited as “a great loss” the closing of the Caldwell and Florida Stage. “However, we are seeing an emergence of new companies taking their place across the landscape,” notably The Theater at Arts Garage in Delray Beach, The Plaza Theater in Manalapan, Slow Burn Theatre Company in Boca Raton and several companies performing at Boynton Beach’s theater at the community center, which “point the way toward a more intimate setting, which may be the appeal of future and younger theaters goers,” he wrote.
As far as the Wick, Nix wrote, “The good news is that a theater will again be housed in this space….. But the important question is the financial sustainability of theater at this venue and the appeal of its offering to the current and future theater going public. “
The museum, too, is a plus, he said. “This addition adds to the understanding, appreciation, and fun of live theater. It should be a draw for residents and tourists alike, and enhance the theater experience across the county. If this can keep the venue busy throughout the week, subscribers grow over time, donors step forward as before, and the product on the stage gets the Carbonell stamp of approval, the last few years will be just a memory.”
Re-Raising The Curtain
While Wick always mentions the museum, the South Florida theater community is focused on welcome news that she will be providing patrons and performers a new venue.
The fare is consciously designed to appeal to the traditional Caldwell crowd: big budget warhorse musicals, familiar comedy/dramas and some revues, all of which use costumes and props that Wick has in storage.
“I want people to walk out of here happy and wanting to come back and wanting to tell someone what a fabulous time” they had, she said. Wick believes the Caldwell’s problem during its last few years was choosing more contemporary, thought-provoking plays than the audience was accustomed to seeing.
With a nod to older patrons who don’t like to drive at night, The Wick will have a Thursday matinee along with Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon shows, plus a nightly curtain of 7:30 p.m.
The casts will feature a few Actors Equity members under a guest artist contract for some of the lead roles, but most will be non-union actors. The Wick staff plans to hire mostly local performers, but will look outside the region to ensure the high quality of the production, said Stacey Stephens, recently hired as executive director of the theater. The Sound of Music is cast but the theater is holding auditions for its other shows.
For more casting call information set for early August, click here.
Stephens, who led the 550-seat Fiddlehead Theatre in Boston, was wardrobe supervisor for Memphis on tour and worked for Wick as a costume designer in the past. Stephens will be joined by a full-time musical director Michael Ursua and technical director Joseph Shannon. Sets, lighting and sound designers will be hired on a job-by job basis. Stephens will direct some shows such as White Christmas; guest directors will be hired for others. Most of the back office and business duties will be added to the workload of Costume World’s existing staff, which is headquartered at a store in Deerfield Beach.
The sets for the first four shows will be built for the Wick productions by Tom Hansen Designs of Tampa. The sets will be erected as the last show’s set is removed.
The first shows will rely on pre-recorded music, although a small combo will likely be hired for revues like Ain’t Misbehavin’ – just as the Broward Stage Door does.
The auditorium is getting a light cosmetic makeover including creating a VIP sky box next to the technical booth. More crucially, the lighting and sound system has been replaced with a half-million-dollar package of equipment on a 36-month lease. Some people had complained that the Caldwell infrastructure was not up to the heavier demands of producing large-scale musicals. Wick is looking for a buyer for the Caldwell’s lighting instruments currently sitting on the stage floor.
The backstage area also is being overhauled with the creation of star dressing rooms to attract the guest artists she hopes to attract.
Coping With Setbacks
The challenge is daunting, but she grins with relish at the prospect. “Deadlines do give you some stress, but I’ve had some deadlines in my life so I know what stress is. But I will tell you that I have a vision for every day here and so far the vision is happening.
“Now we’ve had a few days where I thought ‘Ooooh, there’s a little setback here. We’ve got to regroup.’ But you just take those challenges on and regroup….”
Some setbacks have been straightforward but expensive, such as discovering the building had no insulation – another $10,000 line expenditure.
More serious was trying to remodel a building still fully occupied with the previous resident’s belongings. The Caldwell staff was locked out in the spring of 2012. Other than a few items the staff was allowed to remove later, everything was left in place. “It looked like they just went off to lunch and never came back. It was so terribly sad… terribly scary,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do with all this stuff?’ ” Truckloads were sold, auctioned off and just removed to make way for the renovations.
Then there were personnel situations. For instance, Wick initially announced publically that she had hired Douglas C. Evans to be the artistic director based in part on his experience as a former CEO of Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment and president of Classical South Florida radio. Wick now says he was not devoting enough time to the job and they parted ways. Evans did not respond for comment. Then she hired another artistic director, but he quit a few weeks ago, she said. He, too, declined to comment.
Stephens said, “You date a lot of people before you get married. On this time frame, this is speed dating…. But if it’s not a good fit today, then it’s not going to be a good fit in six months.”
He’s optimistic, “Honestly, when she told me what she was doing and the time frame, I think I probably dropped the phone first. But the one thing is if anyone can get this accomplished, the lady sitting in front of you can accomplish it.”
That’s not blind faith. Her past of overcoming setbacks and the odds, sounding like a Lifetime movie, is often sketched out during the museum tours and related to reporters.
Married early and then divorced in Pennsylvania, Wick supported two daughters by teaching physical education and waitressing. Then she sold real estate for five years in Palm Springs, California. In 1972, she moved to Boca Raton but realized the housing market was in too serious a slump. But she soon built a business cleaning houses for union contractors and then expanded it to cleaning offices, then the exterior windows of high-rise buildings, eventually cleaning properties at Epcot. The operation lasted 20 years,
In 1976, her daughters wanted to try a summer project to make money. Remembering her 4H projects as a youth, she gathered them at a kitchen table and sewed five Santa Claus suits. They put an advertisement in the newspaper and immediately began renting them out.
The Santa-in-summer success prompted her to buy novelty products for Halloween and started selling them in a small storefront. Realizing that there was no major costumer in the region, she created Masquerade Designers the same year in a tiny storefront in Pompano Beach. In 1977, she purchased the stock of Stage Right costumes of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and launched Costume World. Over the years, she bought the inventory of costume shops around the country.
Her staff not only rented wardrobes but built costumes for such shows as Dreamgirls. Just this year, the staff built the entire wardrobe for a high school production of Shrek. She did not charge enough to recoup her investment immediately because of the huge number of costumes in the show. But she rightfully guessed that she could rent them out over and over to clients wanting to produce the popular musicals. It’s already been rented five times.
Costume World evolved into a family business with her daughters Kimberly and Kelly taking ever more crucial roles.
Today, Wick’s website claims the firm owns 1.2 million piece of costumes with an estimated worth of $21 million spread over warehouses and retail stores in Deerfield Beach, Pompano Beach, Dallas, Austin and Pittsburgh, not to mention an Internet-based ordering system. Her clients have ranged from Broadway producers to national tours travelling overseas to high school drama departments to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
But the museum and her preeminence as a costume provider resulted from her purchase in 2005 of the stock of Dodger Costumes in New York City. Facing a deadline to move out the goods or face a penalty, her staff packed up 15 semi-tractor trailer loads and moved them into their small warehouse in Pompano Beach in the space of 10 days.
The boxes were labeled with the names of shows, so boxes were only opened when a client needed a wardrobe for a specific show. As a result, most of the boxes were not opened until 2009 when the landlord said he was not going to renew the lease. He offered them twice the space, about 25,000 square feet in an old marble plant across the street.
In the new space, they began to unpack the boxes. Wick found costumes with Yul Brynner’s name written inside. Kimberly phoned one day to say, “Here is Sarah Jessica Parker’s name in this gown” from a revival of Once Upon A Mattress. “We can’t rent that to somebody.”
It became clear that the space could not serve as a factory and staging area for their business since it lacked sufficient electrical, water and sewer facilities. But the idea began to gel for a costume museum with a narrated tour that would draw groups and tourists from around the country. “We figured a museum would help pay the rent. We’ll make it like coming to Disney…All these schools we’ve been dressing for years can come here,” Wick recalled.
The project attracted busloads of tourists and condo groups when she created a package event complete with a luncheon. What sealed its success – the germ of the Caldwell deal – was tossing in an abbreviated cabaret show with Michael Walters singing showtunes, a feature that grew until he was performing his Dame Edna act.
“The demand was huge,” she said. In its initial season of 2010, the museum stayed only open for high season, then nine months the following year. About 6,000 people have toured the facility, she said.
She acquired other collections including life casts of Lon Chaney, Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart as well as costumes from the films The Addams Family, Dick Tracy and The Mask of Zorro – even the throne from the film of The King and I.
But she knew from the beginning that the building was not zoned to house a large number of visitors, a dining facility or a museum tour, she said. City officials repeatedly warned her, she said.
“They said, ‘What are you people doing?’ and we said, ‘We’re just giving lunches and tours…. You gave us a license.’ And they said, ‘We didn’t give you a license to assemble a group of people and have them down for lunch. You don’t have parking. It’s not fireworthy.’ … But we were in a Catch 21; we had taken all these reservations.”
So they continued, even locking the door when the tours came, in order to keep out any inspectors who might be lurking, she said. Eventually, one official threatened to pull her electrical permit if she didn’t desist, she recalled. Pompano Beach’s fire, building and zoning departments said last week through a spokeswoman that they have no records of such contacts or concerns.
But Wick began a hunt for a new home for the museum. The mutual success of the cabaret and museum pushed along the idea of producing shows at a theater alongside the museum. In 2011, she began negotiating to buy the Broward Stage Door Theater in Coral Springs for which she had been supplying costumes for years. But the deal fell apart in November 2011 with each side accusing the other of not being forthright.
Meanwhile, financial problems mounted at the 37-year-old Caldwell Theatre Company, which had built a nearly 30,000-square foot cream-colored jewel box at 7901 N. Federal Highway. Eventually, the holder of two mortgages on the property, Legacy Bank, asked the courts to put the property into receivership and begin foreclosure proceedings. The receiver evicted the Caldwell staff and locked the door April 2, 2012, the night of the annual Carbonell Awards.
Hearing about the eviction during the ceremonies that night, Wick eyed the property as a potential solution. She said she pressed the bank for months, hoping the court would foreclose in time for her to move out the museum during the summer, she said.
On March 28, 2013 she closed a four-year lease-purchase deal with Legacy Bank. “Four years to get it going. If we’re not settled in by then, it’s not going to happen,” she said. She shut down the museum May 29.
Despite her self-assurance about her business skills, Wick is not absolutely certain of success. “It’ll take 24 months to really get it going the way I want it” with name actors and headliners, something happening every day year round.
But confidence steels her voice when talking about the near future as her box office begins selling season subscriptions. “I don’t like to take money if I’m not going to produce at the end. That’s one of my things. … You guarantee we’re going to be open on the 19th of September and we will be open.”