"We had everything going for us. We had a healthy organization and the major theatrical power in the country coming to book the theater. There was nothing for us to do but enjoy having wonderful shows and concentrate on our public service programs. It was a piece of cake. Why has it turned into a nightmare?" --A member of the New National Theatre Corporation board
After the final performance of "The Pirates of Penzance" on Sunday, the National Theatre will shut its doors for at least 4 1/2 months. Behind board president Maurice B. Tobin's official announcement that the aging playhouse is being closed for long-planned renovations, however, lurks a multitude of problems--some serious, some petty--that threaten both the stability of the New National Theatre Corporation (NNTC), the nonprofit organization that operates the theater, and the quality of the on-stage fare it presents. In question as well are the jobs of 100 employes.
The theater's board meets tomorrow in a climate of mounting confusion. Tobin promises that the theater will reopen in September, but others contest the accuracy of his prediction. After a year of top-notch Broadway productions--"Evita," "Morning's at Seven" and "Pirates"--there are no bookings in sight for the fall season.
Squabbles between Tobin and the New York-based Shubert Organization, which has supplied the theater with those blockbusters, have escalated into a major battle. The National's community outreach programs (Noon at the National and a children's theater), which justify its non-profit status, have been drastically curtailed. NNTC is almost broke, according to its most recent financial statement. It has no formal budget. Fund-raising has been negligible and on at least one occasion NNTC has had to borrow from contributions earmarked for specific projects to meet its monthly obligations.
Meanwhile, it has spent more than $38,000 in 12 months on glossy newsletters and pays a "director of development," a man with little theatrical experience, a salary of $750 a week. But the key position, a general manager who would be responsible for day-to-day operations of the theater, has not been filled because Tobin and the Shubert Organization can't agree on a candidate. Some members of NNTC's board have long been ignorant of the extent of the problems, and complain that Tobin and a few lieutenants make significant decisions without consulting them.
Two months ago, Tobin charged that the theater was unsafe because of exploding pipes, falling plaster and an inadequate fire curtain--a conclusion subsequently refuted by PADC and the Shubert organization, which each sent engineers to investigate conditions. The charges angered the Shuberts, who believed that Tobin was unnecessarily scaring off patrons, and infuriated Max Berry, chairman of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, who branded Tobin's actions "emotional rantings and ravings."
The PADC is just one of four parties involved in the life of the theater, which places the National in a unique--perhaps uniquely messy--position. PADC owns the building and has leased it for 99 years to Square 254, a private development corporation. Square 254, as part of its contract to build an adjoining hotel and office complex, guaranteed that the theater would continue to operate and that the aging structure would be renovated. It, in turn, leased the theater to NNTC, which is responsible for its maintenance and community programs. After booking the theater first through the Kennedy Center, then on its own, NNTC contracted in 1980 with the Shubert Organization to book the shows for five years.
The abruptness of the closing announcement has exacerbated an ongoing climate of acrimony that Berry has described as "guerilla warfare" and that even practiced observers of the temperamental theater world view as unusually venomous. Dozens of interviews and a review of correspondence between NNTC and the various parties reveal a pattern of confusing directives from Tobin, abrupt changes of plan, and fresh demands complicating agreements that had seemingly been reached. Tobin sees his actions as part of his unstinting labors to get the best deal possible for the National. But some who have to work with him say they foster a climate of unnecessary mistrust.
Square 254 was given only two weeks' notice of the closing date, although it says it needs a "six-to-eight week lead time" to prepare for construction. Meanwhile, Bernard Jacobs, president of the Shubert Organization, claims that a lack of planning on Tobin's part has made it impossible to schedule shows. Recently, the Shuberts scuttled plans to premiere "Cats," the smash London musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, at the National this summer.
For Tobin, there is no mystery behind the fusses: he presides over "a gem" of a theater that, in his view, the Shuberts covet for themselves, and the developers consider an expensive nuisance. "But "we're going to make those lights burn brighter than ever," he says.
Center of the Storm
For all his optimism, it is Tobin--a 47-year-old lawyer and former Capitol Hill counsel, married to a gin and margarine heiresss--who is the nexus of all the disputes. Flamboyant, proudly combative, tenacious to a fault, he provokes strong reactions in people. He can be a charming and worldly host and he and his wife, Joan Fleischmann Tobin, have become fixtures of the Washington social scene. He can also display a vituperation and a cattiness that his victims remember bitterly.
"He's very sharp, very mean," says a board member, who prefers to remain anonymous.
But Frank Cotter, Westinghouse lobbyist and also a board member and longtime Tobin friend, says, "He's a delightful companion, aggressive, loves the National and has the wherewithal and the imagination to make it happen."
Because the theater's well-being depends on a special web of cooperation and trust, Tobin's personality and his judgment have become a central issue. His supporters point out that his doggedness helped save the National from the wrecker's ball in 1974, and that he enthusiastically took on a thankless and often frustrating job no one else wanted. "If he's self-aggrandizing, so what?" says board member Jack Golodner. "He had to fight a lot of interests to keep that theater going . . . I just wish he would relax and take credit for that and stop all this feuding and fussing."
Tobin is not paid for his work as board president, a fact he mentions often in an interview. He recently had his secretary prepare a list for reporters detailing the 138 meetings, lunches, receptions, opening nights and parties he has attended on behalf of the National since November 1980. "It's evenings, weekends, " he says. "In the last two years I haven't been able to get in even one week's skiing."
Before he took up the cause of the National, Tobin's theatrical credentials were limited to infrequent amateur productions. When he accepted the post of president of the NNTC board, the National was under the stewardship of the Kennedy Center, and his duties were largely ceremonial. Tobin, however, was intent upon establishing the theater as an independent entity, a rival to the Center rather than its stepchild. He succeeded in engineering the break in 1979, alienating in the process Kennedy Center chairman Roger Stevens and such prominent NNTC board members as Patrick Hayes, Aldus Chapin and Gerson Nordlinger.
However rude the split, it reestablished the National as an alternative to the Center. The National began to compete for, and often got, the big Broadway touring shows. "When Stevens ran the National," says one board member who bridges the two eras, "Maury would get the back of his hand whenever he spoke up at meetings. All of a sudden he was free. He had a theater of his own seemingly with no restrictions. It went to his head."
At one recent board meeting, Joan Tobin told the members that her husband deserved their "blind loyalty" because he alone had saved the National Theatre.
But board member Jack Ryan last week branded Tobin "a dictator." Ryan, president of the local stagehands union, questions whether the theater needs to be closed. Like some other board members, he is alarmed that Tobin talks seriously about terminating NNTC's contract with the Shuberts.
Tobin says he fears a Shubert take-over or that the National will become a mere front for a commercial operation. "It's like this great elephant coming down here--stomp, stomp, stomp on this poor little nonprofit organization," he says, chopping the air with his hand.
"I don't want to take their ballgame away from them," replies Jacobs. "I just want to be able to book that theater in a businesslike way."
That is not always easy, because NNTC sends contradictory signals to the different groups it deals with. For example, in a February note scribbled to the Shuberts, Tobin suggested the theater might close in June "for a year." In early March, he told the press that the theater would "probably" close for repairs in May. A week later "probably" became "only a possibility." On April 12, a team delegated by Tobin to work out problems with the Shubert Organization instructed the producers to book a summer show that would immediately follow the run of "Pirates," according to minutes of the meeting. The following day, however, National employes received notices laying them off for an "indefinite period of time" and telling them "there may be some construction activities beginning during this period."
Square 254, which ostensibly would be the first to know of imminent construction since it would be doing the work, received official notification on April 16, when Tobin produced a long-range timetable of work to be done, according to president Robert Gladstone.
Board member Ryan says, "When he closed the theater, I asked Maury point-blank: 'Do you have construction scheduled for May, June, or July?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'Why are you closing it then'? He said, 'No bookings.' But the Shuberts can't book a theater when he's running around announcing the theater is going to close."
The summer work that Tobin envisions--a new heating system, expanded lobby and renovated rest-rooms--is only part of an overall package aimed at a total remodeling of the facility. But NNTC's negotiations with Square 254 have already dragged on for 2 1/2 years, sometimes bogged down in such matters as where to place electrical sockets.
"Neither side is entirely blameless," says PADC's Berry, who has found himself caught in the role of arbitrator. But exasperated by Tobin's public charge that the theater was unsafe, he complains of Tobin's "high-school Harry tactics."
Donn Murphy, Tobin's longtime friend, a Georgetown University drama professor, and a $250 a day consultant to NNTC, says, "He is flamboyant, but his instincts are right. He's come up with ideas that I thought were crazy, but in the end he was right. That's the mark of a leader."
NNTC's squabble with the Shubert Organization began in earnest last fall, when the Shuberts vetoed the nomination of a congressional aide for the post of general manager. Next, the Tobins canceled their plans for a gala party the opening night of "Evita," even though invitations had been printed and hand-addressed at a cost of $1,500.
"You do whatever you think is appropriate," Tobin wrote to Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert board. "Maybe a wienie roast will work in the Nation's Capitol. I have been here over 25 years and I have yet to see it work."
Instead of a "wienie roast," the Shuberts and producer Robert Stigwood hosted an elegant black-tie party at the Four Seasons Hotel. "He did everything he could not to cooperate with us," Jacobs charged. "And then after all that, he ran around like a lunatic, trying to to push his face into every picture. He practically knocked people over."
Jacobs also says that Tobin is responsible for abuse of NNTC's complimentary ticket privileges. According to the Shuberts, box-office records show, for example, that 889 comps, worth more than $25,000, were given away during the run of "Amadeus," including 385 during the last two weeks when the play was selling out. "Completely false," Tobin responds.
To the Shuberts, a free ticket given to a senator is just another free ticket; to Tobin it's a connection with power and a tool to woo potential donors and political support. Lavish parties are part of his strategy to make the National an "in place." "Without a party, it's like a flower in the desert. If we don't make a thing about it, who will?," Tobin asks. Although he and his wife assume the producers will pick up the tab, they expect to control the arrangements. Joan Tobin anguishes over the properly glittery guest list studded with senators and Cabinet members, but not always all the performers in the show.
The leads and director of "Amadeus" threatened to boycott the opening night party in order to get the rest of the cast invited. At the party for "Children of a Lesser God," a moving drama about the dignity of the hearing impaired, Joan Tobin, spotting guests conversing in sign language, asked, "What are all these deaf people doing here?"
"Washington is the only town where parties are an issue," says Emanuel Azenberg, producer of "They're Playing Our Song," whom Tobin hit with a $7,000 party bill. Azenberg refuses to pay. "Was I consulted? Hell, I was barely invited," he says. Tobin also has a lingering dispute with the Shuberts over who should pick up the $14,000 bill for the "Amadeus" party.
Although critics believe that Tobin's interest in the National is closely tied to social ambitions, Tobin finds the notion absurd. "I'm just a civic guy, doing my thing. I don't have a daughter who wants to dance on the stage of the National. I know all the ambassadors. I'm not short of dinners. What's in it for me?"
Whether it's out of social ambition or civic altruism, Joan Tobin sees the National as a symbol of her husband's prominence. "I want that theater to be a monument to Maury," she has said privately to friends.
At first, the Shubert-NNTC alliance seemed a good marriage. Under the terms of the contract, the Shuberts pay $100,000 yearly to NNTC for the right to book the theater, and share equally any profits from the shows. They also pay the $100,000 rent to Square 254. NNTC was also given all proceeds from the concession stand for the first two years of the agreement, a lucrative provision Tobin wants to extend.
Since the arrangement began, the box office has grossed $12.5 million with nine shows. Although not all have been moneymakers, Tobin claims there are more profits than the Shuberts have shared so far. He points to the 20-week run of "Evita," which grossed $5.5 million, and says the theater has yet to get any money out of it. "The figures speak for themselves. This is financial strangulation."
Last fall, though, when he sent his personal accountant to review the Shuberts' books--at their invitation--he backed down on similar claims he had made that they were "withholding funds."
"He Tobin deals in gross figures, not net," says Jacobs. "It indicates his complete lack of familiarity with this business." Jacobs says that "Amadeus" lost $140,000 and that "Evita's" operating costs alone approached $5 million.
While the first eleven months of the partnership produced no profits, according to the Shuberts' March 31 accounting, NNTC will receive $131,000 as its share for the first six months of the current season.
Unquestionably, NNTC has less money in its coffers than it anticipated. Tobin says it needs $350,000 a year to keep afloat and revive its public service programs, and so has initiated a direct-mail fund-raising drive. If he can't negotiate more favorable terms with the Shuberts, Tobin says he will sever the relationship entirely, find another booker or book the shows himself.
Asked what he would bring to the National, Tobin answers, "Regional theaters would love to come here. We could go to Spoleto. There's a group in Minnesota . . . what's their name? Jujamcyn . The producers of 'Winnie' a new musical about Winston Churchill have come to us . . . And there's that lady in San Francisco. What's her name? She books 8,000 seats. Or why couldn't we have Lena Horne or "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat." Informed that "Joseph" has already played two separate engagements at Olney Theatre, and a subsequent 5 1/2-month run at Ford's Theatre, he says, "Well, we could bring it back anyway."
In the current economic climate, however, fewer Broadway shows are going out on the road each season, and those that do are usually big-budget musicals, guaranteed to pull in the crowds. Increasingly, producers require a guarantee against loss, a function the Shuberts have fullfilled at the National for both "Pirates" and "Evita." Without that organization, the financially-strapped NNTC would have a hard time coming up with the guarantee money. "We could get shows that don't require guarantees," Tobin counters.
"The name of the game is Roger Stevens, the Shuberts and the Nederlanders," says one prominent Broadway producer. "Once you've lost one of the three, you're in a serious situation. Lose all three and it couldn't be tougher." (The Nederlanders operated the National prior to its take-over by the Kennedy Center.)
What worries observers is that the NNTC could easily find itself with second-rate touring companies and tryouts. In a recent letter to the board, the National Theatre Orchestra Musicians went "on record . . . as endorsing the type of professional management and bookings which the Shubert Organization has provided" and called strongly for its continuing presence at the National.
"It's not the time to be looking gift horses in the mnouth," says Golodner. "I think the deal with the Shuberts is fair. There are some misunderstandings as to how big the golden egg really is."
On Tuesday, Bernard Jacobs flew to Washington to address the National employes. Two weeks earlier, Tobin had failed to rally their spirits when he said, "I'll stand beside you. I'll stand along the side as I have done since 1974 and we'll do our best."
A crusty New Yorker with great pouches under his eyes, Jacobs explained: "I'm here because I'm unhappy. I want to get this theater lit as soon as possible with the best shows possible and put you all back to work." The employes, clearly sympathetic to his speech, interrupted with applause several times. In his best soap-box oratory, Jacobs assured them that Tobin's "irresponsible behavior" would not drive the Shubert Organization from the city.
"Mr. Tobin promised us a show by Sept. 15, if he had to get up on the stage and do a song and dance himself," said Lynn Sheridan, whose job at the box-office ends with Sunday's closing. "Please," she said to Jacobs, "save us."
Even Jacobs laughed.