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Audiences Need Prodding, Says Stern
(Originally printed in Variety's "Spotlight on Legit" column, 1976 - exact date unknown)


Is the Los Angeles theatre audience a real entity that supports theatre or is it a guilt-ridden group that has to be forced into theatre?

Joe Stern, producer of the current "Last Meeting Of The Knights Of The White Magnolia," at the Coronet Theatre, thinks it might be a mixture of both, judging from the response that show got following appeal he made two weeks ago when show was floundering and about ready to close prematurely.

Although "Knights" received unanimous good, if not rave, reviews and Stern advertised as much as his budget would allow, in fifth week of the run, grosses were down to $2700 against a weekly nut of $3800. And that, Stern said, was cut back to $3200 with producers and director forgoing salaries.

Feisty Stern, against advice of well-meaning people, decided to present his case to the public. Advisors warned him against publishing the grosses or even letting the public know show was in trouble. But Stern's answer was, "What good is it to say you're selling out if you've been closed for two weeks?"

Produced 'Are You Now?'

Stern had had experiences with L.A. audiences when he produced the long-running "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been..." and had gone through the bit of posting closing dates, then extending because grosses increased when people decided they'd better get off the dime and see the show while they still had a chance. They'd been intending to see it ever since it became a hit, but they'd been putting it off, etc.

In the case of "Knights," according to Stern, when he made his appeal through Sylvie Drake in the L.A. Times and Regis Philbin on KABC-TV, he said box office picked up 50% in the first week, taking in $4300, and more the second week, with gross of $5000. He said the advance is still not great, but the walk-up business has been tremendous, as well as the phone calls on the day of the performances people are calling about.

Stern said that the mail he's received since those appeals were made has given him an idea of what the theatre audience here is really like and it leads him to believe that the media are not living up to their responsibility in helping theatre, except in crisis conditions.

People Procrastinate

However, initial stories on "Knights" all indicated that the show could only play until October, when it has to close because of a production bowing on Broadway at that time. When people are given knowledge that a show is in for so long, they immediately start procrastinating.

And Stern pointed out, when show (especially in a middle-sized house like the Coronet with 283 seats) gets the supportive reviews that "Knights" did, people just assume it immediately becomes a hard ticket to get and call to ask if there are any seats left for the next month. In too many cases, if they insist on reserving for the following month, there's not enough business before that time to assure show will still be open.

(Colony Theatre, which reopened it's successful run of "Royal Hunt Of The Sun," reports that people are calling to find out how soon they can get in to see the show and are surprised when they're informed that tickets are available for that night's performance.)

Stern said that a great number of people responding to the appeals have "confessed" that they are leery of theatre here. Some say they only buy the subscriptions at the large houses and those only because they might see one good thing a year. Stern said one man said he subscribes to the larger houses only because he gets good seats, apparently not aware that nearly all the seats in the middle-sized houses are good in the sense that one can see and hear from anywhere in the house.

Good Theatre With Unknowns

Stern also said people too frequently equate the 299-seat house with the 99-seat theatres and can't understand how good theatre with relatively unknowns can possibly be done in these situations. Yet the same people admit they've begun to lose faith in L.A. theatres because of second-rate touring companies of hit Broadway shows and vanity productions with star names at the Shubert, Ahmanson and Huntington Hartford.

From one letter Stern quoted the writer as saying he had lost faith in the Mark Taper but has kept his subscription up because once in a while there comes along a "Shadow Box" (original presented at that house last year).

Stern said the media don't give the proper advance coverage on new shows opening in the the smaller houses and, except for some cases involving nonprofit groups, give no "break" in advertising rates. That makes it impossible, he said, for a production budgeted at about $25,000 (only way a commercial venture at one of the 299-seaters can afford to stay open without charging $10-$12 per ticket) to advertise properly. Such theatre can't wait for word-of-mouth.

'Knights' Moved

"Knights" was moved from a 99-seat house (Company Of Angels) where actors did not get paid and overhead was minimal. But when it went into the Coronet, it had to go under an Equity HAT contract and overhead skyrocketed. Show was doing great business at CofA and probably would have continued to do so, but when one triples the size of audiences, does it follow that ticket-sale response will be the same? Especially when price of seeing the show increases?

Whether it's a matter of educating audiences to the large amount of theatre that exists in L.A. outside the larger houses or whether it's a matter of audience priorities and ticket prices, Stern is convinced there is an audience out there anxious to see good theatre. It's just a matter of herding them in the right direction.

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