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Gorilla Theatre's lawsuit fights founders' company for cash

The biggest drama at Gorilla Theatre is a court battle that likely will decide its future. In the wake of the death last year of its co-founder and benefactor, the Tampa theater has filed a lawsuit to claim what it believes is its share of an inheritance.

Gorilla was Aubrey Hampton's pride and joy. Hampton and his wife, Susan Hussey, founded the theater in 1990 and, starting in 1998, operated it in a Drew Park warehouse, not far from Aubrey Organics, Hampton's business whose cosmetics are staples in health food stores.

On opening nights and many other performances at the small theater, Hampton and Hussey were convivial presences, seated in the front row, often wearing stylish evening clothes, usually with a glass of wine. They built a loyal audience with Tampa Bay premieres of offbeat musicals like Falsettos, Side Show and The Last Five Years, as well as works by such important playwrights as Wallace Shawn and Alan Bennett.

Hampton died of cancer at age 76 last year. Hussey died, also of cancer, at 54 in 2009. The company vacated its Drew Park home last December, winding up its run there with The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

But the Gorilla story isn't over, except now it's being played out in Hillsborough County Circuit Court. In an unusual move for an arts organization, the theater has sued the late co-founder's company and the successor trustee of the voting trust that Hampton formed to control its stock. No amount is specified in the suit.

"During his lifetime, Mr. Hampton and his family were the principal benefactors of Gorilla Theatre through his company, Aubrey Organics," said William Frye, a Tampa lawyer who represents the theater in the lawsuit. The dispute is whether the company should be required to continue that financial support.

Hampton was a very generous supporter. "From 2001 through 2010, yearly cash and other contributions were made to the theater varying between approximately $190,000 and over $400,000," according to the complaint, filed in July. "The total cash contributions alone amounted to almost $2.7 million during that time period."

The complaint alleges that Hampton "repeatedly said that he had made provision for Gorilla Theatre's continued financial support in his estate plan."

However, Aubrey Organics and Priscilla DeFrancesco, chief financial officer of the cosmetics company and the successor trustee, answered that "Gorilla Theatre has no interest whatsoever in the voting trust, and it has no standing whatsoever to sue defendants."

After Hampton's death, 50 percent of his stake in the company was equally divided between his son with Hussey, Trevor, 10, and his grown son from a previous marriage, Mitchell. DeFrancesco, CEO Curt Valva and other Aubrey Organics employees also have stock in the company under the voting trust agreement.

DeFrancesco did not return a phone message requesting comment. Merritt Gardner, a Tampa lawyer representing the defendants, declined to comment.

Frye said the case could turn on an amendment made by DeFrancesco to the voting trust agreement that removed Gorilla as a beneficiary of the estate. "Subsequent to Mr. Hampton's death, the voting trust agreement was amended so as to eliminate any reference to the Gorilla Theatre," he said. The question is whether the agreement can be changed in such a fundamental way.

If the lawsuit doesn't succeed, Gorilla could be out of business. The theater is reduced to a fraction of its former activity. In its heyday, it put on a half-dozen productions a season.

"Financially, we're sort of forced to pursue this course of action, and that's pretty much all I want to say about the case," said Sharon Lynne Locher, president of the Gorilla board.

The theater is "taking a quiet turn this year," Locher said. In March, it staged the regional premiere of The Whipping Man, a prize-winning play by USF grad Matthew Lopez that explores a little-known piece of history about Jewish former slaves after the Civil War, at the Springs Theatre in Tampa. This past spring, the company produced its annual Young Dramatists' Project, a showcase for high school playwrights, at the Patel Conservatory of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

"Our focus is to make sure that the Young Dramatists' Project, which I think is probably the biggest legacy of Aubrey and Susan, continues to be produced," Locher said, adding that she expects it to be done in tandem with another institution next year. She said the project's budget is about $25,000. The theater has no other productions planned.

Gorilla has been hampered in raising money because Hampton set up the company as a private foundation, not a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the more conventional entity for arts groups. "Most granting organizations will not give grants to private foundations," Locher said. "But Aubrey and Susan didn't want or need donations, so they just kept it a private foundation."

Locher, a singer and actor who did sound design for Gorilla productions, has sought to resolve the theater's nonprofit status so it may readily seek grants and corporate donations. "I've been working with the IRS since Jan. 4 trying to get our new status fixed up," she said. "It's putting a real delay on our moving forward."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Gorilla Theatre's lawsuit fights founders' company for cash 09/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 12:19am]
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