Montgomery seeks help in rejuvenating Bethesda Theatre

By Erin Donaghue
The Gazette
Thursday, May 27, 2010; GZ19

Montgomery County is seeking assistance in revitalizing the Bethesda Theatre, a Wisconsin Avenue landmark that has struggled financially in recent years.

"The biggest challenge is that the theater is not economically viable without a full-time operator and a business plan that will produce contributed income -- meaning corporate sponsorships, philanthropic gifts, something other than the box office," said Steven A. Silverman, director of the county's Department of Economic Development.

Silverman is on the board of the Bethesda Cultural Alliance, a nonprofit group formed to manage the theater after it left its management company last year.

The department will look at groups that could book the venue. However, "the goal is to have an operator who will come in, take over the debt and run the theater," Silverman said. "That would be the best-case scenario."

A request for expressions of interest was circulated widely, including to arts groups, Silverman said. Expressions of interest are due Friday. Groups would probably contract with the Bethesda Cultural Alliance, rather than the county.

The theater represents the history of Bethesda, said Ginanne Italiano, president of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.

"It's really important to our community that this theater stays and keeps on going and is successful," Italiano said.

The theater opened as an art deco movie house in 1938. It has more than 650 seats, a concession stand, a box office and a marquee. It was reincarnated as the Bethesda Cinema and Drafthouse in 1983 and the Bethesda Theatre Cafe in 1990.

It closed in 2001 and reopened in 2007 after a $12 million renovation by the Bozutto Group, in conjunction with development of the Whitney, an apartment complex that sits above the theater. Bozutto received more than $2 million in county and state tax credits for the project.

Bozutto donated the Bethesda Theatre to the Bethesda Cultural Alliance in 2006.

A subsidiary of Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment was brought in to manage the theater and produce off-Broadway shows. The sour economy and damage from a burst water pipe in 2008 prompted the theater to close temporarily.

Then, the Bethesda Cultural Alliance could no longer afford its contract with Nederlander, said Bethesda Theatre's managing director, Tom Davis. The costs of staging productions would have been too high, he said.

"The board made the determination that the only possible way to go, at least in the near-term, was to rent" the theater, Davis said.

The theater is rented for such events as jazz and alternative music shows and a cabaret series. On Saturday, it hosted Montgomery's Got Talent, a talent show for seniors.

Renting the venue has presented its own set of challenges, Davis said. Although Saturday nights are popular, he fills it about every other Friday evening. Weekdays are most challenging, he said. He has marketed the theater to businesses for corporate meetings and averages about one a week.

The rentals provide enough money to cover basic operating costs but not enough to cover loans and debt, he said.

"We just want to see that theater full and continue to have really great arts initiatives to bring people to the downtown," said Stephanie Coppula, a spokeswoman for the Bethesda Urban Partnership, a nonprofit group charged with the marketing and upkeep of downtown Bethesda.

Should no one express interest in the property, the Bethesda Cultural Alliance would approach the theater's lender, BB&T Bank, to try to work out an agreement to pay back the theater's debt, Silverman said.

For information about renting Bethesda Theatre, e-mail Tom Davis at tomd@bethesdatheatre.com.

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