Aurora Theatre founder started as starving artist

Anthony Rodriguez was doing OK as an actor. He did some stage work, voice-over gigs, a couple small films.

Then he ended up at a failing for-profit theater in Gwinnett County. On the bones of that operation, Rodriguez and his girlfriend Ann-Carol Pence launched a non-profit, the Aurora Theatre. It now resides in a $7 million city-owned complex and draws more than 60,000 visitors a year to Lawrenceville’s small downtown. It was tough going. During one hard year, he secretly carried a resignation letter to every board meeting, just in case members wanted to boot him.

Now, the once struggling actor and son of Cuban immigrants is in line to become next year’s chairman of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.

I thought I was just going to be an actor. And then I realized that I actually had to make some money. I was working as concierge and evening hotel manager at the Ritz-Carlton downtown. I decided I would move to Chicago to see if I could be an actor. I was working fairly consistently.

(The Aurora Theatre) was founded in 1996 as a for-profit by two couples. In Duluth in a renovated hardware store. That was almost instantly a failure. I came back from Chicago to do one of their shows in the their second season. They couldn’t pay staff or actors, much less pay themselves. Both couples really just wanted out.

I thought Gwinnett and Duluth had some interesting potential. A few people I met were very committed to the idea of having a theater and they wanted to help. It needed to be a nonprofit because we can accept donations. (We) bought out the small amount of assets the theater had at the time.

What did I have to lose?

I was building scenery, selling tickets, trying to make sure the patrons were happy, trying to engage people in sponsoring the shows we were doing, along with Ann-Carol when she would have time as well. (She) continued to have a lucrative day job so I could afford to do this.

I was convincing (people) to donate. It was about the reward of building something bigger than us. Our budget the first year was maybe $120,000. I didn’t think any of this through. We’ll figure it out as we go along. I thought it would be fun.

My father came here from Cuba in 1961 with my mom and he wanted to make sure that we had a better life than they had. So he wanted us to do thing that we loved to do.

(He) was great as far as helping me with financial advice when we first started. It wasn’t going great. I called him and said, “I don’t know what to do.”

He said, just give me some simple numbers. He went, “Pretty sure you are going to be out of business in six months if not sooner. Why don’t you go and talk to your landlord and see if they will cut the rent for a year or two year. It is cheaper to keep you then to try and get rid of that space or redo it.” So I did. They cut our rent.

And he said, “You’re a nonprofit. So what are you paying the most for and stop paying for it. Find somebody to give it to you.” The two things we were paying the most for were printing and the materials to build our scenery. Well, we have a lumber sponsor, TAPP Lumber. And we took on a print sponsor.

When we first started there were nights where we had two people, five people (in the audience). Occasionally I constructively lied. If there were only a few people on the books, I would call them and say, “We have an actor out; we can’t really do the show tonight, so could you move to Friday or Saturday?” I just started to bulk up the nights that had the most people, so it would look full.

We also realized that it is not enough to have people that were season subscribers. It doesn’t do me any good if you are not sitting in the seat watching. Because the next year you are not going to buy that ticket because you are going to say, “Oh, I missed five out of the six shows.” So we constantly started to remind people that the show is coming up.

There were so many things I did not understand that, frankly, could have closed us at any time. I had sales tax penalties pile up. I had great board members that helped us out of jams.

I have always been very resilient as a starving artist. But when I have a staff that has to take care of its bills and their children, that began some serious wear and tear on how I looked at the organization. I didn’t know if I was the guy to continue doing this. I don’t really know what changed my mind to keep going. I think because I had board members and donors that believed enough of us. I’ve got to make this work.

We sent out a we-are-going-to-close-if-we-don’t-have-people-help-us (letter). And they helped us.

Later, when an attempt to get backing from Duluth city leaders failed, he approached developer Emory Morsberger, who owned an old church building in Lawrenceville.

Morsberger helped get the city involed. Using $7 million in sales tax proceeds, Lawrenceville bought the land, renovated the building and built an adjoining parking deck. The Aurora Theatre launched a $1.2 million capital campaign to outfit the space. Aurora pays no rent but covers maintenance and utilities.

I was scared. We were leaving one city for another. But people really wanted to see some progress in the historic town square.

I’ve never thought I was the smartest person in the room. I just like to ask people for advice. I make a point of meeting a lot of people, of being engaged in a lot of different meetings. We say it around here a lot: if you are not present, you don’t count.

The way we got to where we are is about personal relationships.

I always took really great care of patrons. But in the early years I wasn’t as committed or good at taking care of the artists as I should have been. I quickly realized that the only thing I was selling is the investment that those artists have put into the work. So they are job one to take care of. In the early days I was lucky to be paying the actors $25 or $30 a week.

Now we pay a decent weekly wage. By no means anything that any rational human being would think anybody could live on. But in Atlanta most of the actors have a day job.

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Rodriguez’s comments were edited for length and clarity.