Theater of the Stars appeals for funds to stay afloat

Theater of the Stars, Atlanta’s longest-running stage company, is in dire financial straits and is appealing to Atlantans for $1 million by Aug. 30.

In a letter mailed Tuesday to patrons and subscribers, producer Christopher Manos attributed the 61-year-old nonprofit troupe’s woes to a “bumpy economy” and the drying up of several undisclosed funding sources. He warned that if TOTS does not receive an infusion of $500,000 by July 12 and another half-million by Aug. 30, it will “cease operations and shut its doors.”

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Manos and Vice President and General Manager Brian D. Frey said the situation is more complicated than expressed in the “Save Theater of the Stars” letter.

TOTS had accumulated what Manos termed a “ghastly” amount of debt during the “economic tsunami” of the recession, a period that put a strain on many arts groups. An anonymous donor gave the troupe $3 million to clear its books in 2011. The company has since accumulated an additional $650,000 in debt, but the leaders said the troupe can operate with that.

The bigger issue, they said, is they don’t have enough cash to mount their season, in which musicals cost an average of $300,000 to present. Though TOTS ticket sales have sagged in recent seasons, they believe in the bankability of shows like “Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ” scheduled for Sept. 7-15.

The first casualty of the shortfall is the slow-selling jukebox musical “Buddy,” which was to open the TOTS season at the Fox Theatre July 9-14. (TOTS is offering ticket exchanges for other shows or a refund, but is also asking ticket holders to consider turning the purchase into a contribution. See sidebar to this article for refund information.)

TOTS has faced intense competition for Atlanta’s musicals-loving audiences from Broadway in Atlanta, a member of the 28-market network of the national powerhouse presenter and producer Broadway Across America. While TOTS has brought crowd-pleasers such as “Mary Poppins” and “The Producers,” Broadway in Atlanta, which also stages at the Fox, has secured the hotter national tours for many years. Broadway in Atlanta’s coming season includes “The Book of Mormon” and “American Idiot.”

The leaders also said that, although TOTS always has been a nonprofit, it tended to operate too much like a for-profit, leaning too heavily on ticket sales and subscriptions and not aggressively pursuing governmental and foundation grants. Roughly two-thirds of its $5 million annual budget is from ticket sales, with the other third coming from annual giving by patrons and other sources.

Manos, who produced his first TOTS season in 1960, said the reaction the company frequently gets when it makes fundraising pitches is, “‘What are you doing asking for money? You’re a retail theater company, you’re like Broadway.’

“But we’re not,” he continued. “We’ve been a nonprofit from the beginning.”

Frey said TOTS is making many changes in the wake of the departure last month of President Nicholas F. Manos, Christopher Manos’ son, and that raising its profile with funders is among the most important.

“Because in order for us to sustain, we have to be visible in the philanthropic community, visible to the people in this city who are supporters of the arts,” he said. “That is a key to our future existence.”

The leaders said the funding appeal is coming at the eleventh hour because they thought they had secured a short-term loan from an undisclosed organization, but it fell through.

“The amount of money we’re asking for in a short period of time clearly ties one hand behind our back,” Manos said. “But the alternative is to close unceremoniously right now. And we just think it would be criminal to not go to the public itself and say ‘Here it is,’ reminding you of what we’ve done, reminding you of what we can do.”

TOTS leaders find some hope that New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse raised more than $1 million in a one-month save-the-theater campaign in 2007 and that Georgia Shakespeare exceeded a $500,000 emergency fundraising goal in 2011-12.

“We feel strongly that the path that we’re on right now is a solid path and we have a lot of support for that,” Frey said. “We’re just out of cash.”

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