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How will the Mahaffey show go on?

Once again, putting on shows in Mahaffey Theater is proving to be tough in the competitive performing arts marketplace of Tampa Bay. Attendance and sales figures from this past season tell the tale:

Broadway shows that drew crowds averaging fewer than 800.

Turnouts of fewer than 500 for performers such as the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, the Philadelphia Dance Company and Acoustic Alchemy.

A gala fundraiser featuring onetime Broadway star Jennifer Holliday that raised less than $12,000.

These results and others like them have landed David Rowell on the hot seat. As generally woeful attendance has persisted at the city-owned theater, the executive director of the foundation that underwrites programming there is entering a make-or-break season.

"My butt is on the line," Rowell said. "I'm the public figure, I'm the executive director, the buck stops here, all the cliches intended. But I also feel confident enough that I believe we're going to succeed."

Bill Heller, president of the foundation's board of trustees, concurs.

"David knows what needs to be done," said Heller, until recently vice president and campus executive officer of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "We really do feel he can do it. He has our confidence, but we want to see more than a quarter-full or half-full theater. This is a telling year for us and for David."

Heller completes his term as head of the foundation board in October, when Wanda Hayes-Riddick, an executive with Time Warner Communications, takes over.

In a way, it's deja vu all over again for the Mahaffey Foundation, whose efforts to compete with Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the two much larger and more successful venues in the area, have never really panned out. In 1998, the foundation was forced to spend virtually its entire endowment of about $1-million to cover losses of an ill-conceived Broadway series built around the musical Big. Rowell was hired the following year to replace John Talbott.

But Broadway success continues to elude Mahaffey. The 2001-02 season, the second put together by Rowell, had a string of flops, none more disappointing than the national tour of Guys and Dolls, a well-reviewed production starring Maurice Hines. In five performances at the 2,000-seat theater in January, it had attendance of 3,837 and ticket sales of $139,000.

The show did better a few days later down the road in Sarasota. In four performances at Van Wezel Hall, attendance totaled 5,071 with ticket sales of $258,000.

Jam Theatricals, the Chicago-based promoter that presents the Broadway season at Mahaffey, spent $50,000 to advertise Guys and Dolls in the Tampa Bay market. That's a substantial amount _ mostly spent on television and radio advertising _ for such paltry sales.

"I can't tell you the last time I felt so defeated," said Carol Edgerley, director of marketing for the Mahaffey Theater Foundation. "We spent a lot of money and didn't get results."

To make matters worse, Jam and the foundation had bumped the Florida Orchestra out of its preferred weekend slot to accommodate the musical. The orchestra is the most frequent user of Mahaffey, where it has a loyal audience.

"They begged, borrowed from us, literally made us rearrange much of our schedule, so they could get Guys and Dolls, because that was to be the biggie, the hook upon which their season was hung," said Leonard Stone, the orchestra's executive director.

As a result, the orchestra gave up its booking with P.D.Q. Bach, or Peter Schickele, a popular comic performer who couldn't change his schedule.

Last season was not without the occasional bright spot at Mahaffey. New age shaman Robert Mirabal's Music from a Painted Cave had attendance of 1,300 and ticket sales of $31,000. Luma Theater of Light drew more than 1,100 for a Sunday matinee. Webb's City, a musical about the famous St. Petersburg emporium, was the most successful event under the foundation's banner, with attendance of 8,800 and ticket sales of $150,000 for eight performances.

But too many shows played to empty seats, and corporate sponsorships were difficult to come by in a shaky economy. "This year was hard," said Heller. "9/11 hurt people who have been our sponsors. Some sponsors elected not to contribute at all, or cut their funding down. We've got to start selling more tickets. If you start filling that theater, then our financial situation changes significantly."

Rowell said the foundation has an operating deficit of about $60,000, mostly in rent and production costs owed to the city. An annual city grant of $50,000 _ due to be cut to $45,000 next season in budget-tightening by the City Council _ comes primarily in the form of free rent. Any amount over that has to be paid.

"We always have some receivables from the foundation," said Mike Barber, director of downtown facilities for the city. "It's nothing alarming to us. Last year they owed about the same."

Unlike TBPAC or Ruth Eckerd, the Mahaffey Foundation's revenue sources are limited to ticket sales, sponsorships, contributions and grants.

"Parking, concessions, rental income _ we don't get any of that," Rowell said. "It all goes to the city. It's a challenging relationship. Don't get me wrong, I love working with the city, but it is a unique situation. You've got a city entity with a nonprofit in residence."

Rowell has brought an eclectic programming style to Mahaffey. In 2002-03, the offerings range from a dance version of A Streetcar Named Desire to country singer Kathy Mattea to Irish fiddler Eileen Ivers to mime-juggler-clown Avner the Eccentric. The Sept. 27 season opener, Dream Scapes, is in the same pseudo-spiritual bag as last season's hit, Music from a Painted Cave.

The Broadway lineup includes the 20th anniversary tour of Greater Tuna, Jack Klugman in On Golden Pond, Fosse and Ain't Misbehavin'. Jam, the presenter, is in the third and final year of a contract with Mahaffey, and given the results so far, its return in 2003-04 is probably up in the air. Jam didn't return a phone message seeking comment.

On the sales front, things appear improved from a year ago. "We have about $100,000 in advance sales. This time last year, I doubt if there was $10,000," said Edgerley, who became marketing director in November.

Still, the Mahaffey figures are a pale shadow of those at TBPAC, which raked in $1.5-million in one day when single tickets to The Lion King went on sale in June. Van Wezel has sales of more than $1-million to its upcoming Broadway series. Ruth Eckerd, which also has a Broadway series, doesn't open sales to nonmembers until August.

Rowell has turned to his family for help by enlisting his wife, Kristen, and her mother, Dolores Buescher, to make group sales, as freelance consultants paid on commission. Both have worked in performing arts administration.

"I went through it with our legal counsel, and there's no conflict," he said. "They have over 40 years of sales experience in the arts, between the two of them, and they definitely have a vested interest in making the theater succeed."

Rowell's tenure has provoked dissent on the foundation board. Recently, two trustees in leadership positions _ second vice president Ed Cassidy, marketing director of the St. Petersburg Times, and St. Petersburg attorney and past president Steven Dupre _ resigned from the board.

Cassidy, who chaired the Holliday gala, was miffed by the city's refusal of his request to donate parking revenue from the benefit. Dupre didn't return a phone message.

"There were disagreements with how David was performing," Heller said.

Aaron Fodiman, publisher of Tampa Bay magazine, is another trustee who resigned, but his gripe was that none of the advertising for Guys and Dolls went to his monthly. The magazine had donated ad space to Mahaffey.

"It's got nothing to do with their programming; it's got nothing to do with Mahaffey," Fodiman said. "We think it's a beautiful theater; we think David does a wonderful job. But when I learned they spent $50,000 advertising Guys and Dolls, and I'd given them a free ad for it because they were having difficult financial times, I had a problem. We were just very disappointed to find out they didn't think our magazine was anything that could help them."

"There was a miscommunication there," Rowell said. "I'm hoping we're going to remedy that."

Fodiman, a familiar presence at opening nights around the area, can't figure out what the problem is at Mahaffey. "I think the niche for Mahaffey is so clear and so easy that you wonder why it doesn't work. The niche is for those smaller productions for people who don't want to spend $80 on a ticket, for people who want to come to what I consider one of the most beautiful performing arts halls."

He is puzzled by the lack of support from St. Petersburg society. "St. Pete has a lot of very active women in the Museum of Fine Arts, the Holocaust Museum, the Dali Museum, but very few of them were willing to go over and support the Mahaffey. I don't think it was any particular reason. I think it was just one of those things."

The foundation board, with more than 50 members, is not particularly active. Attendance at its three meetings a year tend to draw fewer than half the trustees.

"We've got a big board," Heller said. "A lot of individuals are there just because they represent a company. We need more board involvement. What's the use of having 50 people on your board if only 15 are going to show up? How do you get people vested into the foundation and the purpose of the board?"

Heller thought he might have the answer to Mahaffey's predicament when he approached the city about a proposal for USF to take over the Bayfront Center complex, which includes the theater and the adjoining 5,000-seat Times Arena, and turn it into a conference center. The outdated arena would be torn down, but Mahaffey, which underwent a $26-million renovation in the 1980s, would remain.

"The theater has never been a problem. That's a jewel we want to polish," Heller said.

The city, which anticipates having to cover an operating loss of $1.3-million at the Bayfront Center this year, was all set to put the issue to a referendum in November. But then Heller was forced out by USF president Judy Genshaft, who didn't share his vision for the future of the St. Petersburg campus. He remains on the faculty.

"I like the idea of partnering with USF," said Jay Lasita, a council member and Mahaffey trustee. "This concept of a conference center was a meritorious one, but you take away the person who was the champion of it, and it makes you wonder if USF is interested. So now Bill's gone, and we're back at the drawing board, but I don't think the issue is dead."

Perhaps there is something for Mahaffey to learn from Webb's City, which was locally produced by LiveArts Peninsula Foundation. The musical by Bill Leavengood and Lee Ahlin did better than Guys and Dolls as well as the other shows in the Broadway series, My Fair Lady and Big River.

"Everyone in my circle of colleagues is involved with the Mahaffey, love it deeply and want it to thrive, but we're all stumped," said Diana Lucas Leavengood, general manager of LiveArts. "I think it's time to think outside the box on the Mahaffey."