BWW Interview: TEN QUESTIONS WITH...Fred Munzert of The Milton Theatre
When talking about the resilience of theaters in Delaware, one theater that can certainly never be left out of the discussion is The Milton Theatre.
Erected in circa 1910, the two-story building served a variety of functions for the Town - a fire station, a social center/basketball hall/community stage (a gymatorium in today's lingo), and even restaurants and retail shops. In the 1930's, the building became the Town's hottest attraction as a beautiful art deco movie house, initially offering groundbreaking silent movies, then gobsmacking talkies and later, dazzling live entertainment. The movie house was hopping in the 1940's and 1950's. Milton natives gleefully recall the heydays when the theater easily reached its then capacity of 434 seats on Friday and Saturday nights.
The structure survived three major fires and multiple severe weather events; however, operations ceased after the 1962 Ash Wednesday storm left waist high water near the stage. When a group of community residents formed the Milton Development Corp to purchase the abandoned building in 1999, age and lack of use had taken its toll with a rotted balcony, rusted dilapidated seats, and other ruins.
But, this is the little theater that could. Through grants and donations, $750,000 was raised to renovate the theater which reopened in 2000. Former theater personnel remember handing blankets to audience members at the Christmas show because the heat wasn't working. Supporters continued renovating the theater, installing a new roof and new façade, making the now 230 seat theater once again a local hotspot for theater, movies and concerts. That is until the recession.
The slowing economy in 2007-2008 led to declining ticket sales, dwindling corporate sponsorship, lagging grant funding, and reduction in program ad sales. Without sufficient income, the $6,000 monthly mortgage wasn't being paid, while the Executive Director and Artistic Director were laid-off, placing venue operations solely on the shoulders of volunteers. As can be imagined, the situation was dire - enough so that in 2009 Milton Development Corp. defaulted on the mortgage, a Sheriff Sale was set, and the theater was once again shuttered.
That is until the Renaissance of 2014. Town residents, Lisa and Glenn Howard, purchased the property in April 2013 for purposes mostly unknown. In typical "someone knows someone" Delaware business fashion, the Howards were introduced to Fred Munzert, then Director of Premiere Centre for the Arts in Middletown. In short order the parties reached an agreement for Munzert to lease the property for the purpose of operating an entertainment/arts center. Reopening in June 2014, The Milton Theatre is once again an entertainment hotspot and gem of the Delmarva Peninsula, holding up to 320 events per year. Nearing its 6th year anniversary, the organization is gearing up to launch The Milton Theatre Renaissance Initiative, a capital campaign running 3 to 5 years seeking to raise $2.5 million for the purpose of taking the venue "to the next level" with structural changes and modern updates.
Fred Munzert was kind enough to answer my 10 questions regarding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on The Milton Theatre.
Q -- What was your theater working on at the time of the shutdown in March? If you had a show running at the time of the shutdown, will you reboot it for a later date?
A -- We were in production for 2 large musical theatre productions and had about 50 other touring acts for March 13 - May 31. All cancelled and/or postponed but our year is pretty full so we are cancelling many of them.
Q -- Did you have shows/events planned for April, May, June? What are the current plans for those shows/events?
A -- April and May have been cancelled or postponed at this point. We still have touring acts scheduled for June but are uncertain if we will be able to present them.
Q -- What are your plans if your theater can't open until July or August?
A -- We will continue to move as many things as we can and cancel what we must. Honestly, I am not certain we could maintain financially until that point.
Q -- Knowing your theater runs summer camps, do you think they'll still happen?
A -- We are hopeful these will still happen and are currently discussing ways to still do them with social distancing in mind.
Q -- Any idea of the monthly financial loss with the shutdown? (You can give budget percentages if you don't want to disclose dollar amounts.) If applicable, have your lending institutions or creditors given you guidance/assistance to ease the burden?
A -- We lost 100% of our ticket and bar/concession income. Additionally, Eventbrite has frozen all of our future sales money payouts that we would normally be getting so it really does us no good to try to boost future sales to assist with the current financial stress. We were able to secure a PPP loan/grant however the requirement to spend it in the 8 week period makes this almost useless to us because we are on mandatory shut down.
Q -- Will your theater seek additional funding specifically relating to COVID-19? If already applied for, was the process easy or difficult? Have you received a response?
A -- We have applied for 6 relief grant/loans and will continue to apply for any that come up.
Q -- Are your Artists creating art in some form during this time? Feel free to give examples & links if you'd like to share.
A -- Most are working on individual projects.
Q -- Do you know if your Artists are keeping in touch with each other - boosting morale, sharing recipes, etc.?
A -- Many are doing online events and Zoom meetings to just hang out.
Q -- Could your theater benefit by a phased reopening while following CDC guidelines of social distancing? Do you think your audiences would mind wearing masks and sitting apart during a live performance or would audiences rather wait it out until allowed to gather in groups of 50 or more without restrictions?
A -- We are preparing to open with social distancing restrictions. We have already reworked our seating charts and looking at budgets to see what we can and cannot do. In order to do this, we would need to eliminate 60% of our current seating. I am sure some patrons will be tentative but we already know many that say they are ready to come out when the mandate is lifted. So much of this depends on the atmosphere in the leadership of our government and the media spin. People are taking their cues from those two areas.
Q -- Do you believe your theater will come through this difficult time stronger? How so?
A -- Absolutely stronger and very different than it was prior. Our plan is to come through this and be able to reopen when the mandate is lifted. We had to let go of 9 employees and 20+ contractors most of which we would not be able to bring back. It is going to take us at least the rest of this year and well into next year to recover from just what we have sustained so far. Not to mention if this goes into late summer or fall. Things will look very different. We are already reworking our model to work with about 20% of the staff we had previously. This has caused us to really cut budgets and greatly simplify our product while still maintaining our level of creativity and audience experience.
THE MILTON THEATRE
110 Union Street
Milton, DE 19968