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A tap-dancing Tony Curtis? Yet another My Fair Lady? The shows may be aging and tired, but TUTS remains Young at heart.

Still, stars will come in only after the piece leaves its Houston premiere. "Houston audiences might be disappointed when we ultimately put some major stars in it," Young says, "but if you start putting Shirley MacLaine and Bette Midler in this piece now, it's gonna be 'No, I need a comedy song here,' or 'No, I don't like that line.' We want to find the heart of the piece, and once the writers are comfortable with what we've done, then we can put the stars in and you tailor the roles to the needs of these ladies."

Baby Jane was scheduled to premiere last season, but -- even after seven years of workshopping -- it wasn't ready. New set designs have made all the difference, Young says. While he admits "you never know," you can't be a theatrical producer without dreaming you've got a hit on your hands.

Joe Forkan
Young has been TUTS's heart and soul for 35 years.
Deron Neblett
Young has been TUTS's heart and soul for 35 years.

Does he need a hit? Probably not, but even as TUTS enters its glamorous new home it faces pressing questions. The subscription base -- the bread-and-butter, money-in-the-bank people -- is aging.

"The demographics are changing dramatically everywhere," says Jenkins of Dallas. "The new -- I don't want to use the term 'dot-com,' but the dot-com crowd doesn't want to buy subscriptions. They don't want to commit to an entire season."

"Most places around the country are reporting lower subscriptions," says TUTS's Breckenridge. "People live for the moment, and they don't plan their lives out a year in advance."

TUTS is coming off three tough years, where it has been forced to mount shows in the summer ("Our audiences are not trained to see shows in the summer," Young says), in various venues around town.

Currently there are about 18,000 subscribers, Breckenridge says. That's down from a high of about 30,000 in the mid-'90s.

TUTS has just launched its newest annual subscription campaign of mailouts and advertising. Results won't be known for some weeks, but the organization's goal is 25,000 subscribers, the number it had in its last full year in the Music Hall.

As always, the campaign requires keeping current subscribers while attracting new ones. Sometimes those are two differing goals: People who renew do so because they like what they see each year; people who haven't signed up may have passed because they haven't been enticed by what's offered.

"The core that renews each year is 70 percent -- those are the diehards who are going to renew every year as long as there's some mainstream stuff and reliable titles," Breckenridge says.

Other customers -- who will have to fork over up to $370 for the six shows -- have to be lured by the lineup.

The dichotomy is demonstrated clearly in Dallas, which puts on a summer season full of traditional, TUTS-like shows (this year includes Cats, 42nd Street, My Fair Lady and Some Like It Hot) and a fall season with edgier stuff like Rent and more obscure pieces. The summer season has 32,000 subscribers, the fall has 7,800, Jenkins says; a mere 500 people subscribe to both.

Young says TUTS considered shutting completely for the three "nomad" years between the demolition of the Music Hall and the opening of the Hobby Center. A marketing study showed that if they kept performing they would lose a quarter of their subscriber base ("And arrogant Frank," Young says, "said to them, 'Oh, please, it's TUTS; those who know us will stay with us, they'll get first choice of seats'; well, we lost 27 percent").

The organization raised $4 million in grants and donations as a "bridge fund" to tide them over while they waited for the Hobby Center.

Not performing would have been worse, Young says: "They told us, 'You would have no subscribers.' "

Moving into a sensational new facility might seem an easy sell -- after all, the Astros drew more than three million fans their first year at Enron Field despite one of their most dismal seasons -- making it perhaps a good time to try to stretch by doing something less tried-and-true.

Not at TUTS. "We have been very careful in planning this first season around things that we know are going to be popular with audiences," Young says. "So we can get a double whammy, because this [marketing] group also said, 'The minute you come back your subscriptions could double, they could go through the roof. But it's a temporary thing; they might stay one or two years, and if you don't win them over they're gone, they'll try something else.' "

So the first season will be much like the seasons before it. Young may not always agree with what he is sure is the conservative nature of TUTS audiences, but he has no doubt he has them pegged.

On a recent New York trip, he took in a one-woman autobiographical show by Bea Arthur, the star of the old TV series The Golden Girls.

"Bea Arthur's show is really nasty," he says. "She says 'fuck' ten or 12 times, she says 'cocksucker,' so it's not for the faint of heart. I kept thinking, 'Oh, God, how are my blue-hairs going to handle this?' She tells these wonderful stories, about things like Tony Curtis fucking his first movie star, and I stood there thinking, 'Oh, God, I don't know how Houston is going to take this.' I think there's a place for that in Houston; I don't know if it's something for TUTS to do, but it's something the Hobby Center might could do, it's very commercial, every place she played [on tour] it really sold out."

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