UPDATE: New curtain rises on Missouri Theatre as MU takes over

Thursday, August 25, 2011 | 8:23 p.m. CDT; updated 10:11 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 25, 2011
Patrons wait outside the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts for the doors to open for its Grand Opening Gala, which featured singer Tony Bennett, on May 21, 2008.

COLUMBIA — MU and the Missouri Symphony Society reached a deal Thursday afternoon on the short-term future of the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.

MU will lease and manage the theater, 203 S. Ninth St., for three years with an option to buy it after that time for $3.7 million, according to an MU News Bureau release.


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MU will lease the theater for $12,000 per month, paid from the university's campus rental account, which is used to purchase space for campus needs, the release stated.

Negotiations have been in the works for several months, said Carole Sue DeLaite, co-president of the Missouri Symphony Society.

John Murray, assistant director of business services and building coordinator for Jesse Hall, which includes management of Jesse Auditorium, said the theater is a great addition to MU because it can host many of the smaller events that would normally have to be held at Jesse. That frees up the auditorium, which is bigger than the theater by about 500 seats, for larger events.

The theater has been in poor financial health for some time. The Missouri Symphony Society has struggled to maintain the debt service on loans related to the theater's 2008 renovation.

Since Aug. 1, 2010, the theater has been run entirely by volunteer staff, except for technical and cleanup crews associated with some performances, DeLaite said.

Jesse's dance card is too full

Meanwhile, Jesse Auditorium, which has 1,732 seats, now averages 230 events a year and can no longer meet the demand for its use, the MU release stated. Jesse was spruced up this summer with new seats and fresh paint.

"Our biggest limitation at this point is available days," Murray said.

Speakers, comedians and classical music performances tend not to sell out Jesse Auditorium but are too big for other venues on campus, Murray said. With the Missouri Theatre at his disposal, these shows — which Murray said are better suited to the acoustics of the theater — can be moved to make Jesse available for other events.

Murray's nearly 25 event employees will split responsibilities working at both venues, he said. In anticipation of this deal, his staff was expanded this year to include 15 to 20 part-time student employees and six full-time event professionals.

The symphony society will continue to use the 1,216-seat Missouri Theatre for its offices and as a base for the Missouri Symphony Orchestra, the Plowman Chamber Music Competition and the Piano Student Showcase, according to the MU release.

Murray said some full-time event professionals will take offices at the theater, though he intends to stay put in Jesse and keep his view of the MU Columns. 

Theater 'a living, breathing art space'

MU also will use the theater for events for the School of Music — which DeLaite said has been one of the theater's biggest renters — and for some University Concert Series performances, commencements, Summer Welcome, Greek Week and more, the release said.

Robert Shay, director of the MU School of Music, said the theater will provide more space for university concerts, rehearsals and large student ensembles. But Shay said having the Missouri Theatre as an option "does not displace" plans to renovate School of Music facilities.

Stefan Freund is associate professor in the School of Music and director of the Columbia Civic Orchestra, which performs in the Missouri Theatre several times a year. He said the number one thing the theater needs is stability. 

"I'm glad to hear MU will be hosting events because the theater needs to be consistently presenting performances," Freund said. "It needs to be a living, breathing art space."

Freund said the change is a positive one for the School of Music and another means to draw people downtown.

DeLaite said that running the theater is a big job but that MU has the expertise to do it. The partnership, she said, is simply a new era for the theater. It was built in 1928 and has a storied history as a concert hall and movie house.

“It’s a great opportunity for the university, the symphony society and the community,” Murray said. “We’re at a point where we can keep the theater running as a great resource for the community.”

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