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Inside the Schine: Auburn theater's sustainability is a $6 million question

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Twenty years ago in January, the Cayuga County Arts Council purchased the Auburn Schine Theater in order to restore it.

Since then, perhaps the biggest question about the $6 million project has been how the theater would be restored. As the years went on and the project stagnated, that question loomed larger.

A less frequently asked question, however, has been why — why restore the Schine? Or, asked another way: Can a 1938 art deco theater be sustained in 21st century Auburn? Can it present enough movies, performing arts and other events, and draw enough people to them, to meet the cost of opening and operating it? Or will its star just fade once again?

The arts council, which seeks to sell the Schine to Bowers Development, of Syracuse, has proposed an all-purpose approach to programming at the theater. Council communications Chair Michelle Milewski said that when the Schine reopens — Bowers has estimated October 2019 — it will indeed screen movies and stage live music, theater, dance, comedy and other performing arts.

One specific possibility Milewski mentioned was showing the older movies that might have appeared on the marquee of the theater during its heyday. And if those nostalgic audiences are too small for the 1,000-plus seat auditorium, Bowers has devised a way to accommodate them: a roll-down projection screen, mounted over the middle of the auditorium floor, for balcony-only viewing events.

The screen is part of Bowers' plan to restore the Schine, which it filed with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation in September. The Citizen obtained a copy of the plan from the office through a Freedom of Information Law request. Bowers Development President Bryan Bowers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

To make the restored Schine versatile enough for the all-purpose approach, Bowers plans to reopen it with a flexible floor plan. The floor will no longer be angled but tiered, and atop the section surrounding the stage and the raised sections leading back to the lobby will be loose clusters of tables and chairs. While a banquet-style seating arrangement might be ideal for stand-up comedy, for instance, Milewski said the chairs can just as easily be rowed for movies or theater, or removed from the floor for concerts with younger audiences.

There'd be no shortage of local artists to program at the Schine, such as the Auburn Players Community Theatre, the Auburn Chamber Orchestra and Kaleidoscope Dance Theatre. Milewski said it'd be "premature" to say whether they will, but "nothing is off the table." The Schine could vie for those artists with venues like the Fingerlakes Mall Event Center, the theater at Cayuga Community College (500 seats) and the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival's new West End Theater at the former West Middle School (650). But Milewski believes the downtown space is a unique draw.

"Schines will offer a large, restored venue with a long history of providing entertainment in the community," she said. "Local nostalgia is definitely a factor."

However, artistic events are not the only kind the council and Bowers hope to host at the restored Schine. Milewski said the theater's size and historic character will also position it to attract weddings, conventions and other large gatherings. The building's new capacity won't be established until its code inspection, but it once held 1,700 seats on its floor and balcony. That should place it safely above other spaces in the area, Milewski said, such as the Hilton Garden Inn (275), Euterpe Hall (350), the Holiday Inn (500) and the Emerson Park Pavilion (400 seating, 1,000 standing).

Milewski said the council and Bowers do not have a formal sustainability plan for the Schine that is up to date. Plans were previously commissioned in 1993 and 2001. But the resurgence of downtown Auburn's arts and culture scene in recent years is cause for optimism, she continued. Whether it's arts institutions like Auburn Public Theater and the musical theater festival, or restaurants like Mesa Grande Taqueria and Prison City Pub & Brewery, the success of that scene will only invite more, Milewski said.

"We're operating on a 'rising tide' theory for all the theaters," she said. "We're just hoping that with another theater in town, a rising tide floats all boats."

The Schine's 2001 sustainability plan was not available. But the 1993 plan, commissioned from Chicago architect Daniel Coffey, outlined an approach similar to the one the council and Bowers are taking. Coffey said the restored theater should have "maximum flexibility for a wide variety of arts, entertainment and business uses for the Auburn community. In other words, the facility should become the 'Schines Theater Community Center.'" With 200 arts events and 50 other events annually, it could have an economic impact of more than $1 million on the Auburn area, Coffey projected.

But Coffey's plan hinged upon a "preferred" manager and tenant for the theater: The Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, now known as the musical theater festival. To that end, the architect suggested a configuration of 612 seats. Many of them would retract into a "storage pocket" — aligned with the edge of the theater's mezzanine level — when other events require an open floor, he proposed.

Coffey suggested the smaller house to stay proportional to the size of the festival, which seats 501 at its Owasco playhouse. The new downtown theater the festival planned until 2014, the Schwartz Family Performing Arts Center, would have seated 384 had it been built. But without an arrangement like Coffey's, the Schine's auditorium dwarfs the festival's audience. Speaking to The Citizen last year, Producing Artistic Director Brett Smock said the Schine's size is why he currently has no plans to produce shows at the theater despite continued overtures from the arts council and others.

That may not be the only reason the festival has stayed away from the Schine, though. Smock's predecessor, Ed Sayles, wrote in a 2011 letter in The Citizen that the building lacks, among other amenities, the space for a loading dock and a fly system. Both would be necessary to mount the sets and other equipment used by professional theater companies like the festival, Sayles said. Asked Feb. 2 whether the theater's restoration would address Sayles' concerns, arts council board Chair Ed Onori said, "We're trying to see how we can accommodate people who want to use the space."

Coffey's plan had addressed one of Sayles' concerns, calling the loading dock "ample." But in the 25 years since his plan was commissioned, much that would affect the Schine's sustainability has changed, namely market conditions and the way people consume live entertainment. Maybe the most significant of those changes was the 2005 opening of Auburn Public Theater.

Located less than a block away from the Schine on Exchange Street, the venue shares the same artistic scope of film, live music, theater, comedy and more. It doesn't share the same scale — Auburn Public Theater's cinema seats 65, its theater 200 and its Stage Right space 100, which Milewski called "a substantial size difference" from the Schine.

But Auburn Public Theater's effect on the artistic landscape downtown has been sizable enough that the council had to re-evaluate the Schine's sustainability plan, then-arts council board Chair Jim Loperfido said in 2015. And that was before Auburn Public Theater announced a $1.2 million expansion that will include a café and 12,000 square feet of community event space in its basement.

Regionally, a restored Schine could also compete for programming with other historic theaters of similar size, such as The Landmark Theatre in Syracuse (30 miles away), The Smith Opera House in Geneva (30 miles) and The State Theatre of Ithaca (40 miles). In his plan, Coffey said the proximity of Syracuse's performing arts venues could limit the Schine's reach to the Auburn area.

"Audiences rarely travel to smaller markets than their own home market for events," the plan says. "It is safe to assume that Syracuse attenders would not travel to Auburn for a theatrical event."

But Coffey could have been wrong, or his words could now be dated. Smith Opera House Executive Director Susie Monagan said that when the theater hosted legendary musician Steve Earle in December, for instance, only 57 of the 1,000-plus people in attendance were from Geneva. She said patrons commonly drive from as far as Buffalo for events at The Smith.

Monagan attributed the theater's pull to not just the performers it books, but the "incredible draw" of Geneva's food and craft beverage scene. Monagan described those audiences as "cultural tourists." And they could be swayed toward the Schine by downtown Auburn's own scene, which boasts the award-winning Prison City brewpub, among several other producers in the area.

Like the Schine, the 1,400-seat Smith is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and underwent a major restoration project in the '90s. It has taken a similar approach to programming as the one the Schine is eyeing by also booking weddings and other non-artistic events, including corporate meetings, political debates and Geneva High School's graduation, Monagan said.

"They're nice. The production costs are so low that we make a little money, but what's even better is that they keep my people employed," she said. "They keep them busy and paid."

Monagan said The Smith's operating entity, the nonprofit Smith Center for the Arts, sustains itself and its staff of about eight through a combination of earned (ticket and concession sales) and unearned income (fundraising). The center is working to grow the unearned portion to 40 percent, which is "going to come from homegrown sources — people who have an attachment and affection for the place," she continued. Auburnians have those same sentiments for the Schine, but it remains to be seen whether they'll translate into financial support for private ownership in Bowers.

Earned income, meanwhile, is mostly made from concessions and merchandise, Monagan said. Bowers' restoration plan calls for a service bar and concession area in the Schine's mezzanine lounge.

"No one makes money from tickets," Monagan said. "You hope you can get 1,000 people into your space and they each have a drink."

Eating up the ticket sales are the performers, Monagan continued. Touring talent is often booked through promoters like Dan Smalls, who brings music to The Smith, The State Theatre of Ithaca and several other regional stages. Smalls also works with Auburn Public Theater to land some of its bigger musical names, such as Chris Smither in April and David Bromberg in July. 

But the Schine could set itself apart by targeting musical performers Dan Smalls Presents doesn't. At del Lago Resort & Casino, for instance, "We haven't seen a lot there that we'd say, 'Oh dang,'" Monagan said. Outside of Trombone Shorty, which "would have been a great Smith show," she continued, the Tyre casino tends to cater to older and more mainstream audiences.

Onori said the council still has to sit down with Bowers to work out its "master plan" for booking such performers at the Schine. Hiring a promoter like Dan Smalls Presents is an option, he continued.

However, with the Landmark, Smith and State theaters less than an hour away, the Schine could have difficulty locking up a musician, comedian or other act sought by just one of those other venues. Kathleen Eads, executive director of the Reg Lenna Center for The Arts in Jamestown, said touring performers generally separate their stops by at least 75 miles.

"No agent in their right mind would put the same thing in all those areas," she said. 

In Chautauqua County, the 1,269-seat Reg Lenna is no geographic threat to the Schine. But demographically, it may be a guide. Jamestown's population is 30,000 to Auburn's 27,000, and Eads said the area shares a "significant portion" of residents who winter in Florida. The former movie palace also underwent its own restoration, in 1989, and later absorbed Chautauqua County's arts council.

In the time since the Reg Lenna reopened, Eads said, programming such venues has changed. She presents six artistic events and 50 movies annually while renting the theater for weddings and other uses. But simply selling tickets and collecting grant money is no longer a sustainable model, she continued. As home entertainment options multiply, subscribing to seasons and owning seats has given way to single-ticket sales and last-minute purchases. That's why venues like the Reg Lenna — and the Schine — have to be as versatile as possible to survive, she said.

"You just can't be a theater anymore if you're going to be successful and sustainable," she said. "You have to utilize every square foot that you have in whatever creative ways you can."

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Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.


Features editor for The Citizen.