The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 24, 2012

Mountain Playhouse weathering challenges

BY TOM LAVIS
TLAVIS@TRIBDEM.COM

— The principals associated with Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown are taking steps to get the theater on solid financial ground.

For a theater that opened at the end of the Great Depression, weathering economic challenges has been something that the enterprise has faced for decades.

“We have had good years and not so good years,” said Teresa Stoughton Marafino, producer and daughter of founder James Stoughton.

‘Turn-around guy’

Leading the charge to solidify the theater’s finances is board member and treasurer Kevin Vaughn of Pittsburgh.

“Kevin has earned a reputation of being a turn-around guy,” Marafino said. “He, along with our other board members, are working diligently to get rid of our debt while operating on a cash-basis mode.”

The theater’s $250,000 debt has been reduced to $133,000.

An initial plan projected it would take five years to eliminate the debt, but it now looks as if the financial obligation will be terminated in three years.

“The No. 1 thing people can do to help sustain the theater is to buy tickets,” Marafino said.

Theater’s revenue

With an operating budget of nearly $800,000, 60 percent of the theater’s revenue is generated by ticket sales.

Another major factor in regaining sound financial footing was having the theater become a nonprofit organization.

“Because of the poor economy and loss of 25,000 people in the region, it became clear years ago that we could not sustain the playhouse as a for-profit operation,” Marafino said.

The theater has been operating at a loss since the late 1980s with the exception of a few years.

“We realized that if we want to present the quality theater that we do, we have to be able to access other funding resources to fill in the gap between what we can charge and what we need to put on the shows,” Marafino said.

Other measures also significantly reduced expenditures.

There are no full-time employees at the current time.

The playhouse depends on about 60 seasonal and year-round part-time employees to operate.

For decades, a steady stream of New York professionals have called Jennerstown their summer home.

The major expenditure for the playhouse goes to paying equity actors, directors, designers and choreographers.

With its improving financial status, the performance season has gone from five shows a season to six in 2012.

“By operating a few more weeks during the year, it has allowed us to keep our heads above water,” Marafino said.

The gristmill theater is Pennsylvania’s oldest professional summer theater and one of the last remaining professional resident summer-stock theaters in the United States.

Sadly, a good number of theaters and arts organizations have closed around the country because of financial problems.

“Many of our sister theaters around the country face the same economic challenges we do,” Marafino said.

Along with some grants and private donations, the playhouse conducts a major fundraiser to increase revenue.

“We’re conducting a raffle where the top prize will be $5,000,” Marafino said.

Other prizes include a $1,500 and $1,000 winner, as well as an ultimate flex pass to the performances. Tickets cost $25 each or six tickets for $100.

Winners of the raffle will be selected during the annual Revels, which will be held Oct. 20.

The board of directors is looking at the possibility of relocating the Revels from Green Gables Restaurant in Jennerstown to the Cambia City section of Johnstown.

“Many foundations were impressed that we have rethought our model of operating without full-time employees and reducing the size of our shows,” Marafino said.

In 1991, the theater founded its nonprofit Theater Classics for Students. Essentially, the program was designed to introduce high school students to theater.

“After we went on to gain a total nonprofit status, we blended the programs after five or six years,” Marafino said.

Once the playhouse attains financial independence, Marafino said there may be a possibility of establishing an endowment.

“It’s something we have discussed, but it would be several years before that can be explored,” she said.

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