Dream House

In late April, Texas Commerce Bank CEO Marc Shapiro sent out a letter brimming with good news for fans of musical theater. Acting in his capacity as a part-time fundraiser for the Houston Music Hall Foundation, Shapiro told a potential contributor to a new downtown Music Hall that things looked very good for replacing the Depression-era building on Bagby with a state-of-the-art facility that would be second to none.

Already, Shapiro wrote, the city had weighed in with a guarantee of $12 million in "tax-exempt financing" as well as an assurance of a multistory downtown parking garage that would give fans of Theatre Under the Stars and PACE Theatrical's Broadway Series a safe place to stow their cars while they watched Phantom or My Fair Lady. All that remained to make the new Music Hall a reality, Shapiro indicated, was a $15 million naming gift from one of Houston's well-to-do foundations or families, plus a little money from the likes of the person he was writing to. But with the city on board, Shapiro's letter suggested, a new Music Hall was all but guaranteed. The city endorsement, Shapiro wrote, "will be a catalyst in enlisting the support of other Houston foundations, corporations and individuals."

The new facility would offer a brand-new home for the city's major producer of musical theater, Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS); two performance halls, one that would seat 2,700 and one that would seat between 500 and 700; improved acoustics and sight lines; sufficient fly space and substage space to mount the most elaborate shows Broadway had to offer; rehearsal studios; even a restaurant and an after-theater lounge. It all sounded marvelous. But there was only one problem. The claimed city support that would make all this possible didn't exist -- at least not officially.

When asked about the "tax-exempt financing," Bud Franks, the theatrical producerbrought in to run the Houston Music Hall Foundation in 1994, says that it could be a $12 million up-front construction loan from the city that would be repaid out of the operating profits of TUTS and other users of the new Music Hall. But Jordy Tollet, the city's Civic Center director and the official who would be most closely tied to any new downtown performing arts facility, says he doesn't know what Franks is talking about.

"There's no way we're going to front that kind of money," says Tollet. Instead, he says, the city has simply agreed to continue paying the $1 million annually that it already pays for Music Hall maintenance -- and money that's being spent for upkeep can't, at the same time, be spent for construction. As for the parking garage, Mayor Bob Lanier indicates that there may well be one, and then again, there may not. Whichever, he says, "The garage is not a condition of the TUTS [Music Hall] deal." And besides, he adds, before any garage or construction loan was possible, it would have to come before City Council for approval.

The lack of a city-backed loan or a guaranteed city-built garage puts the figures in Shapiro's fundraising letter in a considerably different light. The proposed cost of a new Music Hall, the letter says, is $55 million to $60 million. As of December 1995 (the last month for which numbers are available), the Houston Music Hall Foundation had raised $5 million of that from various donors. With the $12 million loan from the city, the foundation would have been more than a quarter of the way to its goal, and the $15 million naming gift would have put it over the halfway mark, a point at which, according to some professional fundraisers, the snowball effect begins to kick in and extra contributions are easier and easier to come by. But without the $12 million loan, the foundation has, over the last two years, raised less than 10 percent of what it calculates a new Music Hall would cost. Even a $15 million naming gift would put it well below the magic 50 percent level.

Given this, and also given that going public before having most of the major money lined up has been known to hurt fundraising efforts, the question becomes why, after two years of relatively low-key operations, is the Houston Music Hall Foundation suddenly discussing its plans for a fancy new theater to house TUTS? The first public disclosure came only a few months before a timetable for the new Music Hall, one developed this April, called for a public campaign. That timetable -- which posits the opening of a new hall for December 2000 -- also called for a "city agreement" in June, at the same time that a corporate fundraising campaign would be launched.

That "city agreement" might point to another reason why TUTS and the Music Hall Foundation didn't wait until it had more money in the bank before unveiling its plans: politics. TUTS director Frank Young has been trying to get a new home for his musical theater operation for close to 15 years. "Kathy Whitmire's people were really tough and not terribly supportive," Young says. That was true in the early '80s, when TUTS first thought of simply remodeling the existing Music Hall, and through the mid-'80s, when there was talk of shuttering the present facility and building something new on land next to the then-planned Brown Convention Center. A few years ago, TUTS finally realized that the only truly viable option was to raze the existing facility to clear way for something that could take Houston musical theater into the next century. "This is the last piece for the downtown theater district," Young says, "the last naming opportunity [for a major donor] in the foreseeable future."  

That TUTS realized this about the same time that Bob Lanier became mayor is probably not coincidental; and that TUTS wants to get the city signed on to the project before Lanier leaves office is probably not coincidental either. Lanier, says Young, has been the supportive figure Whitmire never was. And though Lanier and Jordy Tollet disagree with the Music Hall Foundation's claim of a done deal for a city-backed loan and parking facility, they're both vocal in their support of the idea of a new Music Hall. Indeed, according to Tollet, what a new Music Hall would provide is a "great theater for a company that deserves it." Tollet also claims that the new facility would be "a gift to the city of Houston pure and simple," noting that TUTS and the Music Hall Foundation would pay for the building, then sign it over to the city, much the same way that the Wortham Foundation paid for the construction of the Wortham Center, then deeded it to the city. Unlike, say, the sports stadia proposals that are being bandied about, a new Music Hall would cost the city of Houston nothing, Tollet says.

Compared to what's been trotted out as possibilities for new baseball, football or basketball complexes, a new dual-theater Music Hall does sound like something of a bargain. But whether it will actually cost the city anything depends on whether the $12 million in financing is the reality that Shapiro's letter suggests it is, or the chimera Tollet claims it to be. And it also depends on what you consider the $1 million annually the city presently pays for upkeep of the Music Hall, and which Tollet says the city has agreed to continue paying for the upkeep of any new TUTS facility. (The money comes from the hotel occupancy tax.) It further depends on whether the $1 million that's enough to maintain an older facility will also be enough for a newer one: the Wortham Center, for example, ended up being more expensive to maintain than anticipated and costs the city $2.8 million annually to operate; Jones Hall's bill is $1.8 million. The working proposal for the new Music Hall puts its annual maintenance at $1.8 million as well, but Tollet says that a new Music Hall wouldn't end up costing extra because TUTS has said it will pick up any additional operating expenses.

Of course, to do that, TUTS would have to turn a profit, and it's there, TUTS' Young says, that a new Music Hall would be particularly helpful. The existing venue just can't cut it where modern musicals are concerned, he says, and audience surveys consistently reveal that a new facility would result in a happier crowd. He also points out that Disney, which had tentatively planned to develop a stage musical based on The Lion King in conjunction with TUTS during the 1997-'98 season, backed out on the deal due to concerns about whether the Music Hall could handle the $20 million project. (Don Franz, a spokesman for Disney Theatrical, agrees that the Music Hall's limitations were part of the reason The Lion King was pulled from Houston. He adds, though, that Disney's purchase of its own theater in New York's Times Square means that it will be developing most of its shows there, regardless of what's done with the Music Hall. Still, says Franz, if a Disney hit should tie up its New York theater for a couple of years, it might look elsewhere to develop other properties.)

But some other downtown arts observers express concern that TUTS isn't doing enough to attract a fresh, younger audience, and that if all the new Music Hall does is make its present, predominantly older crowd happy, then early in the next century the TUTS-goers might die off, leaving the city with an elegant, but mostly empty, facility. As for filling a new Music Hall up with shows from other presenting organizations, that doesn't seem likely at the moment. Though Young says he anticipates that groups such as the Society for the Performing Arts would make use of the smaller theater, SPA director Toby Mattox indicates that's unlikely. The SPA, he says, is perfectly happy using Jones Hall for its bigger programs and the Wortham Center's Cullen Theater for its smaller productions.  

Where, exactly, that leaves TUTS and its proposed new Music Hall is uncertain. Despite the number of unanswered questions, Frank Young insists that it's only a matter of time before the inevitability of a new downtown performing arts facility becomes clear. And if that doesn't happen -- well, Young might not be proposing a new stadium, but it seems that he's learned something from Bud Adams' playbook. Already, he warns, TUTS has been offered space in the Galleria. And if the downtown powers don't realize how important working with him to get a new Music Hall is, he says, "We'll leave.

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