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The plot thickens as Fox presses for more restrictions on a reopened Opera House

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2009 - Earlier this week, in an attempt to keep the peace between owners of the Fox Theatre and those wishing to reopen the Kiel Opera House, an aldermanic committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved a $74 million rehab plan that limits the number of Broadway shows at the Opera House.

The plot twist was a flop, at least at the Fox.

Richard Baker, president of Fox Associates, said Thursday that folks there are still "very upset." The limits the committee put on Broadway shows at the Opera House aren't strong enough, he said -- and ultimately will cost theater-goers more money.

"This will mean higher ticket prices here, and higher ticket prices there (at the Opera House) because we will be competing and bidding up the cost for the same shows," Baker said.

Impact of opera house

The Fox has been a vocal opponent of  reopening the Opera House. Others, though, have more tentative views about the Opera House's impact on the theater scene in St. Louis. 

Former Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr., president and CEO at Grand Center: "Everyone would like to see the Kiel Opera House reopened. It's an important part of the historic fabric of the city. But I would hope that this could be done in a way that doesn't damage the Fox or Grand Center."

Dennis Reagan, president and CEO, the Muny. "The Kiel Opera House is a beautiful building. No one can really predict the impact that the opening of Kiel will have on the theatrical landscape. One practice that I certainly hope continues is the willingness for the theatrical companies, old and new, to regularly cooperate and communicate with each other about schedules and opportunities."

Cary Goldwasser, marketing director of marketing, Touhill Performing Arts Center: "The (prospect) of another venue is very exciting for theater and concert goers and arts lovers. Kiel would find its niche and add to what's available here. That will just enhance the cultural atmosphere for everyone. We love to be part of the rich cultural landscape in St. Louis, and if that grows, we think that is wonderful. Whatever makes St. Louis a vibrant performing arts community is good for the Touhill."

Mark Bernstein, the Rep's managing director: "I don't know much about what's planned there, but I don't think touring Broadway musicals would impact us. If they are talking about existing theatrical groups using space there, I don't see that that would have any effect because the groups are already doing productions here."

Joe Edwards, owner of the Pageant: "It's possible we might lose some concerts, but I really don't know until I see more of what's being planned by way of concerts."

Kathleen Brady, vice president for facilities management and civic affairs at St. Louis University: "I don't think a re-opened Opera House would pose any significant harm to Chaifetz Arena. I haven't personally researched the impact this project could have on the Fox Theatre, but I would of course be concerned with anything that could harm or jeopardize the health of Midtown or Grand Center.

Baker says that the Fox currently books 200 or more nights a year -- about half of which are Broadway shows. The Fox, he says, doesn't have any alternatives to how it is already operating. "If there were other things out there to book, we would be booking them," Baker said.

"And at some point," he added, because only four or five new touring Broadway shows become available each year, "it will become difficult for one of us to stay in business. Either they will be successful, or we will. At best, there will be two weak theaters here. And at the worst, one will go out of business."

Not everyone, of course, shares that view.

On the other side is Sports Capital Partners, owner of the St. Louis Blues hockey team, and its supporters. SCP leases the city-owned Opera House and has been working with McEagle Properties in St. Louis and others to revive it.

The plan, backed by Mayor Francis Slay and deputy mayor Barbara Geisman, would include some Broadway shows. But mostly, SCP says it intends to put on stage concerts, family shows and other kinds of productions and events. SCP is a majority owner of Running Subway, a New York-based production company with shows such as "Peter Pan," "Sinatra" and "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical." Running Subway also has agreements with Live Nation, a producer of live concerts, and some SCP executives have ties with concert promoter AEG.

Kenneth Munoz, a partner at SCP, said that -- in a city the size of St. Louis --  two or more theaters with Broadway shows "is not unusual; it's commonplace." And, he said, "we believe there is enough to go around."

"We will be competing" with the Fox, added Eric Gelfand, a SCP spokesman. "But our bread and butter will not be Broadway shows. It will be concerts and other events.

"And at the end of the day," Gelfand said, "We are here to complement them (at the Fox), not compete with them, and help grow audiences for everyone."

Baker and others have been concerned about the plan for reopening the 75-year-old Opera House since it began to emerge more than a year ago. The Art Deco-style landmark has been closed since 1991 when adjoining Kiel Auditorium was torn down to make way for what's now Scottrade Center, a venue for Blues hockey, concerts and other entertainment.

Concern at the Fox grew more intense about two weeks ago when the financing plan for the Opera House renovation went before the aldermanic Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee. Nearly $60 million of the $74 million cost would be a public subsidy. Almost $30 million would come from a city bond issue, paid off with amusement tax revenue from Blues ticket sales, and about the same amount would come from federal and state tax credits -- mostly historic tax credits. SCP would plug the gap with a bank loan of around $10 million and its own money.

Baker and his supporters say that's not fair to the 80-year-old, 4,278-seat Fox, renovated largely with private money and reopened in 1982. The Fox owners used historic tax credits, but got only a $250,000 low-interest loan from the city.

"We oppose the city of St. Louis fully subsidizing a theater for a competitor to undermine what we have been doing for our community for 27 years," Fox Associates says in a statement on its website. "The city is basically giving them this tax money to take away our business."

Baker said that he and his associates made their own suggestions for leveling the playing field in a meeting with SCP officials and aldermanic representatives earlier this week.

One was more stringent limits on Broadway shows at the renovated Opera House. The plan approved by the aldermanic committee would allow four and a half weeks of Broadway shows during the first year -- and up to eight weeks by the fifth year. The restrictions would end after that. Baker says that those limits hardly count as restrictions because they allow more Broadway shows at the Opera House than SCP projected in its plan in the first place.

Instead, Baker proposed limiting Broadway shows at the Opera House to five weeks a year until the city-issued bonds are paid off. He also suggested:

  • Allowing Fox Associates to book Broadway shows for both the Fox and the Opera House, an arrangement that was part of the late Don Breckenridge's plan for reopening the Opera House. That way, Baker says, two entities wouldn't be competing with one another for the same shows.
  • Allowing the Fox to have exclusive booking rights in St. Louis for new Broadway touring shows for two years after they become available. That way, he said, the Fox would remain the primary Broadway musical house in St. Louis.

In the end, Baker says, his suggestions were refused, "so we did agree to disagree."
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Plans for the Opera House

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Officials at SCP, meanwhile, are pushing for quick approval of their rehab and financing plan by the full Board of Aldermen. Assuming that comes through, and if the proposed financing package falls into place, they'd like to begin construction at the Opera House in August. Their goal is to reopen the Art Deco-style 75-year-old landmark in November 2010 with a production of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"

Once the Opera House is up and running again, Munoz said, it would have 100 or more shows, concerts and other events on the main stage every year. That would include about 25 concerts, Running Subway shows, some Broadway shows and "family" shows, such as Sesame Street, which have previously used Scottrade Center. "But they're not attractive there. It's too big. We'd like to put them into the Opera House," he said.

SCP also intends to renovate four "assembly rooms" -- each with a stage and its own entrance -- that adjoin the main 3,200-seat auditorium. One would be used as a theater.

Munoz said SCP already has "an arrangement" with the Black Rep for using it, although the details are not ready to be made public. SCP envisions other theatrical and community groups using it as well.

Spokesman Gelfand said that they intend to speak with the Muny "to see if there is anything we can do together." Dennis Reagan, president and CEO of the Muny, had this response: "The Muny will first and foremost continue to be about musical theater under the stars in Forest Park, just as it has been for 91 years. We've always encouraged the discussion of new ideas and opportunities to increase the breadth of theater in St. Louis."

Two other rooms would be renovated for use as banquet halls and another as a VIP club. "We're looking to have all sorts of community and corporate events there," he said.

Munoz said a "high-end restaurant" is planned for the old Kiel Club space on a lower level, "one that would be not just for the Opera House, but open for business on other nights as well."

The revenue from the restaurant, ticket sales and rental fees for the renovated assembly rooms will help offset debt, he added.

Gelfand said also that SCP has been talking with city officials about parking, and that "everybody is very comfortable there will not be a parking problem."

William Kuehling, an attorney who represents the St. Louis Treasurer's office, said it already has a 538-car garage under construction at Tucker Boulevard and Clark, and plans to build a 131-car garage in the basement of a building just west of the Opera House. What's in the works, along with existing parking, and the possibility of yet another new garage just east of the Opera House, should resolve any parking problems, he said.

To oversee the Opera House's renovation, SCP has gone to Martinez & Johnson Architecture in Washington, D.C., which drafted Breckenridge's renovation plan. The firm has done similar projects around the country, including the Boston Opera House. It cited Kiel Opera House on its webpage as "among America's finest performance venues."

Although it is still in basically good shape structurally, the Opera House is dusty and worn, and needs major renovation work.

"The mechanical systems need to be completely replaced, and it will be no small job to restore this legendary building," Gelfand said. "But our intent is to make it as grand as it looked when it opened the first time."

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, covers development.

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