By Rob Kalesse
Special to Delaware Business Times
Actors, directors, and theatergoers alike might debate whether it’s apropos to say, “Break a leg,” instead of “Good luck,” before a performance. But there is one phrase that’s universally approved in the theater, down to the last understudy and usher.
“The show must go on!”
Such is the case at The Playhouse Theater on Rodney Square, formerly known as the DuPont Theatre, at 11th and Market streets. The show still goes on there, but, just over a year ago, the future of the 103-year-old venue was in jeopardy, and it was feared by many patrons that the theater might go permanently dark.
In late 2014, the DuPont Co. was looking to shed the business of booking entertainment, and lease the space to a competent buyer. Fortunately for local theatergoers, officials from the Delaware institution approached The Grand Opera House, and a deal was hatched.
Since signing a contract on Jan. 9, 2015, Executive Director Mark Fields and Managing Director of Programming Stephen Bailey have taken on the challenging task of programming for the 1,255-seat space. One month after agreeing to the deal, a town hall meeting was held where subscribers and loyal patrons could voice their requests to the new management team.
“More than 200 people showed up on a snowy weeknight evening. The level of devotion to the Broadway program and The Playhouse itself was palpable,” Fields said. “The consensus from those attending was clear and compelling. They wanted more shows, more contemporary titles, and better production of those titles.”
After one year at the helm, both Fields and Bailey believe they have met those demands. Subscription numbers are up, and the box office at The Playhouse boasts Broadway titles like “42nd Street” and “Jersey Boys,” set to premier this spring.
“Subscriptions sales, the backbone of any Broadway series, had been on a steady decline for several years,” Bailey said. “Our hope in the first year was to arrest the decline. We have actually been able to build modestly on the prior year’s numbers.”
Fields and Bailey also know that a big part of retaining clientele at The Grand is the experience of seeing a show at the Market Street theater. They believe that culture can be as big a part of filling seats as the titles on the marquee, when it’s done right.
“Our attitude about The Grand has always been that it doesn’t belong to any of us; it belongs to the community, and we have transplanted that idea to The Playhouse entirely,” Bailey said. “We welcome patrons as valued owners and we keep them informed about everything we are doing and trying to do.”
Fields echoed the sentiment, saying, “Patrons could feel the difference almost immediately, and we had people coming up to us telling us how welcome they felt. Our secret weapon is the 175-member ‘Show Corps,’ the volunteer ushers that work in both venues now. They are such huge fans, that their sincere enthusiasm is infectious.”
While The Grand, with its colorfully lit, cast-iron façade, sits along the heavily traveled Market Street, The Playhouse is tucked into the Hotel du Pont and not nearly as visible to the common passersby. Fields believes that the entire building will “improve dramatically” with new, dynamic owners and operators.
“We will, of course, make a case that The Playhouse is a large part of the attraction [of the hotel] and should have a strong, appealing presence to even the casual pedestrian,” Fields said. DuPont has not announced plans to sell the hotel business, despite rumors of offers made on the property.
DuPont transferred ownership of the building to Chemours Co., their performance chemicals business, shortly after The Grand began leasing the space. Fields says DuPont asked that the company name no longer be attached to the theater, hence the change to The Playhouse Theater on Rodney Square.
“We restored the original ‘Playhouse’ name while putting a fresh spin on it by adding ‘on Rodney Square,’” Fields said. “We saw this as an opportunity to both honor the past and acknowledge a new and exciting future. The patron response has been overwhelmingly positive; many of them, in fact, had never stopped calling it The Playhouse.”
A Victorian-style theater, The Playhouse opened in 1913 and serves as the oldest continuously operating theater for touring Broadway productions in the nation. DuPont assumed control in 1946 and, in 2003, changed the name to the DuPont Theatre to mirror the company brand.
Semantics and the possible sale of the hotel aside, Bailey says The Playhouse’s resume speaks for itself, since nearly everyone has been on its stage, including legends like Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet, Fred Astaire and Kristin Chenoweth.
“Since The Playhouse was both a Broadway touring house and also a Broadway tryout house, the list [of performers] is incredibly long and varied,” Bailey said. “The acquisition of The Playhouse has raised the organization’s profile in the touring entertainment industry, and not just because we doubled the number of seats we have available. We now have two shots at touring artists that are looking to fill a date in an overall route.”
As they ease into their second year at the helm, Fields is excited about the prospects of building packages that will allow subscribers to enjoy the benefits of both theaters, and believes some sort of cross-pollination can take place.
“We have not even begun to realize the full potential of cross-marketing these two theaters,” Fields said. “We surprisingly found only modest overlap between the audience bases, which means we can encourage each audience to try the offerings of the other theater.”
Bailey says he believes that former and potential patrons are waiting to see if The Grand “can deliver,” and that they can continue to grow their numbers, especially when considering the upcoming season.
The 2016-17 season for The Playhouse will be announced at a launch party on Saturday, March 12. Those interested in attending can call (302) 888-0200 to arrange for an invitation. Otherwise, the schedule will be posted at www.duponttheatre.com the next day.