CARROLLWOOD — More than a decade has passed since Maryann Bardi learned about the Carrollwood Playhouse.
On its stage, she would later date a mobster. Be an Italian grandma. Talk with an English accent.
Here, she would serve as president of the board for several years and find a second home.
Today, she fears the theater could be in its last days.
"After 29 seasons, you don't want to just see it go away," Bardi said.
But that is a real possibility.
The Carrollwood Players, the not-for-profit organization that runs the theater, is struggling to pay about $100,000 in annual expenses, including rent, utilities, costumes, supplies and royalties, said current president Toni Germinario.
"That's what we try to cover with ticket sales, which we're having a difficult time doing," she said.
The group is among the oldest Tampa area community theater companies, but with bills adding up faster than ticket sales can catch up, its future looks grim. Still, volunteers and board members don't plan to give up.
Said Germinario: "We'll go down fighting."
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The Carrollwood Players formed in 1981 with a group of local actors, artists and theater fans who saw a need and wanted to host plays in the area. Back then, shows were held at schools, churches and civic centers.
In 1987, the organization moved into the Village Shopping Center on N Dale Mabry Highway before moving in 1993 to its current home in the Plantation Plaza strip center on Gunn Highway.
The theater hosts nine plays per year, each with eleven performances. Auditions are open to anyone.
According to Germinario, it is a "break even" organization. Ticket sales, membership fees and money from season ticket holders are supposed to cover all expenses. In the past, that was enough, but not now. To make ends meet, the Carrollwood Players have started dipping into savings, which members had hoped to use for capital improvements.
The problem began nearly four years ago, in May 2006, when the nine-member board of directors decided to expand the part of the plaza that houses the 80-seat theater, Germinario said.
The expansion added 1,500 square feet in the form of extra bathrooms, storage space and a new lobby, so theatergoers wouldn't need to wait outside before shows, Germinario said.
Before the expansion, the group paid $4,500 per month in rent. Banking on ticket sales to cover the increase, board members agreed to pay the landlord $6,000 per month to cover the costs of the renovations.
Then the economy tanked, and ticket sales plunged.
The theater has about 150 members and season ticket holders, down from about 250 in years past.
In the two seasons prior to this one, the theater sold 6,863 and 6,138 tickets to performances, respectively. But based on sales through December, this season's ticket sales will be an estimated 4,380 through August.
When a recent performance of It's A Wonderful Life sold out, Germinario was floored.
"In fact, we were flabbergasted," she said. But "that was the only night of the entire run of the show that sold out. You'd have to sell out six performances to cover the rent (for one month)."
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Germinario, 53, got involved with the theater in the mid 1990s, when her husband and son began acting. Like the other board members, she volunteers her time at the theater, hosting the monthly board meetings, signing contracts and keeping the place running. By day, she is managing director of insurance agency operations at AAA in Tampa.
To increase income, Germinario has reached out to former season ticket holders, in hopes they'll decide to renew. Also, the organization is hosting a wider variety of plays to attract a broader demographic.
In October, for instance, the theater hosted the one-weekend show Queen of Bingo as a fundraiser, featuring wine and hors d'oeuvres for guests. The show raised $3,700.
"That's half a month's rent for us," Germinario said. "We were thrilled."
Bardi, the former board president, hopes the community will hear of the theater's plight and lend support.
"If some of the business people in the area would rally to help us out, that would be a great thing," Bardi said.
Germinario, who says the theater needs corporate sponsorships and grants, sought financial support from local businesses last year.
"I know times are tough, so I don't want to be critical," she said. "But we couldn't get anything."
Without that sort of help, she said, there is not much hope.
"We have enough in savings right now to pay rent for a year," Germinario said.
But bleak ticket sales won't generate enough money to pay additional expenses, she said.
"My first instinct is to do anything to preserve the theater," Bardi said. "It brings so many people together, for so many different reasons."
The Carrollwood Playhouse gives local artists a place to express themselves, she said. Actors, costume designers, set builders and other volunteers enjoy working together and some have become close friends.
Closing would mean the end of an era.
"For a small theater, we've never asked anyone for anything," Bardi said. "We just need a little bit of help."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 909-4617 or firstname.lastname@example.org.