COLUMN: Missouri Theatre in need of divine intervention

Thursday, July 8, 2010 | 1:49 p.m. CDT; updated 3:16 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 8, 2010

The only sad note struck at last Saturday's "Patriotic Pops" concert was maestro Kirk Trevor's repeated reminders that the venue in which a thousand or so of us patriots sat is teetering, once again, on the verge of a budgetary black hole.

Together with a lot of other attendees, I was moved to drop a small bill in one of the viola cases placed strategically near the exits. And I decided to pursue an idea that seemed promising.

The idea, like most of mine, wasn't really original. Like most, it came from reading the papers. You've seen the reports. On campus, our university hungers for a new performing arts center with concert halls smaller than Jesse Auditorium but larger than the Rhynsburger Theatre. Just a couple of blocks away, the refurbished Missouri Theatre requires, as the Missourian put it Monday, "an urgent injection of cash and an organizational overhaul."

The obvious question hadn't been addressed in the press, so I asked it in an e-mail to Eric Staley, departing CEO of the grandly named Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts: "Has there been any discussion of a cooperative arrangement with the university...?"

He replied, "That would be very nice indeed!"

He declined to comment further, which left the question tantalizingly unanswered.

So I called Mike O'Brien, dean of the university's College of Arts and Science, whose domain includes the School of Music and the departments of art and theatre.

When I asked the same question, he said, "Not that I know of. I hadn't thought about it." Then he explained why not — and why my idea wasn't such a good one, after all.

The Missouri Theatre is a fine performance hall, he agreed. In fact, a variety of university-sponsored musicales are held there, including the festival of new music that comes up next week and a jazz series.

However, he continued, the need for performance venues is only part, and not the most important part, of the longed-for performing arts center. The existing Fine Arts Building is nearly 50 years old, overused and overcrowded. The departments housed there have trebled in size. Office space, teaching space and display space all are desperately needed.

The Missouri Theatre can't meet the university's need.

Those exchanges left me realizing that there'll be no easy solution on Ninth Street. Nor, for that matter, does there appear to be a ready source of the millions needed to make the university's performing arts center dream come true.

It might even turn out that the two are in competition for scarce resources. If that's the case, the Missouri Theatre surely loses. Just consider the realities. First, both the consultants who are guiding downtown development envision a new performing arts center as a major component. The Missouri Theatre is only mentioned in passing.

In May, when President Forsee discussed university needs with 30 community leaders, the Columbia Daily Tribune's account of the conversation quoted Mike Brooks, president of Regional Economic Development Inc., as saying of the university project, "I think it's critical."

In the arts world, the term for what the Missouri Theatre needs is an "angel." Dr. Staley told the Missourian's Washington Gikunju that the immediate shortfall approaches $1 million. The total debt is $2.5 million — and maybe more.

Unless one of our local billionaires steps up, a flock of angels will have to be found. At, say, $1,000 each, about 250 should do it.

Make your check payable to the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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George Kennedy July 9, 2010 | 2:10 p.m.

I'm sorry to admit that careful reader Paul Sturtz found the mistake in my arithmetic. Sadly, 250 generous supporters giving $1,000 each yields only $250,000 -- a nice amount but just 10 percent of what's needed. So 2,500 angels, or one billionaire, will be needed.

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