CLEARWATER — What began as a joint fundraiser by Scientology and Ruth Eckerd Hall devolved into chaos this week, with the hall declaring the fundraiser cancelled but the church stating the show must go on.
Ruth Eckerd leaders said invitees to the benefit, which was to raise money for renovation of the historic Capitol Theatre downtown, responded with a "significant number of negative comments" when they saw that Scientology was involved. On Thursday, a day after announcing the event, Ruth Eckerd leaders abruptly called it off.
But Thursday night, Scientology spokeswoman Pat Harney said the church would still host the Jan. 7 benefit at its Fort Harrison Hotel, waving off the criticism as "hate mail." All proceeds, she said, would be passed along to the theater, which is close to the church's spiritual headquarters.
How Ruth Eckerd will respond to the church's offering remains a mystery. Hall president and CEO Robert Freedman did not return messages. Directors on the hall's board did not return calls or declined to comment.
The rocky reception to Ruth Eckerd's first Scientology-sponsored benefit was only the latest example of long-standing community tension over Scientology, an unavoidable presence downtown that some have blamed for its demise.
But it also raised new questions about to what lengths Ruth Eckerd, which manages the city-owned Capitol Theatre, would go to jump-start the stalled renovation campaign. The 90-year-old theater's upgrades and performance schedule have been called central to the city's effort to revitalize downtown.
The benefit, an invitation stated, will include a buffet reception and an "unforgettable performance" of "Chaplin: A Life in Concert" by David Pomeranz, a singer-songwriter and Scientologist who cut the ribbon for the church's first mission in the Philippines.
Hosted and underwritten by the church, the benefit will be open to non-Scientologists at $50 to $75 a seat. The church, Harney said, will not profit from the event, adding "the only benefit is the feeling that one gets when one helps a worthwhile cause."
Eight hours after invites were sent to Ruth Eckerd supporters Wednesday morning, the hall began to do damage control. Freedman replied to complaints with a notice saying Scientology had no "ownership or financial interest" in the theater. The church, he added, would not gain access to hall members' personal information.
One response came from John Tischner, a Dunedin retiree and Ruth Eckerd supporter who attended a Frank Sinatra tribute at the hall on Sunday and who has tickets to two more shows this winter. He said he couldn't understand why the popular venue would align with an organization so mired in controversy.
"It's blowing their reputation," Tischner told the Times. "I told them, 'I might be reluctant to support you in the future because of this.' "
Clearwater's biggest entertainment venue — Ruth Eckerd — and its most visible downtown entity — Scientology — have done business before. In 2007, a crowd of Scientologists, including Tom Cruise and John Travolta, filled Ruth Eckerd for the grand unveiling of "The Basics," a $3,000 volume of digitized scriptures.
But taking financial help from the church, long accused of strong-arm marketing tactics, would represent an unprecedented step for hall leaders struggling to fund restoration of the Capitol, one of Florida's oldest theaters.
When Clearwater bought the Capitol in 2008, Ruth Eckerd pledged to raise $3 million for renovations and $5 million for an endowment fund. Though leaders said that goal would take two years to meet, the campaign remains stuck in stasis.
"Fundraising has been practically nonexistent," said Bill Sturtevant, chairman of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership. "Maybe it's a sign of the times. … I just don't think it has gone very well."
Freedman will retire at the end of this month after 13 years at Ruth Eckerd, ceding the reins to veteran promoter Zev Buffman.
In applying for the job, Buffman said the Capitol Theatre's renovation was a top priority, and that he wanted "to be part of the growth of downtown."
Some versions of this story appeared in regional sections of the Times. Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]