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Sioux Falls community theater lowers curtain
By Cara Hetland
Minnesota Public Radio
May 8, 2002

The competition for people's entertainment dollars is tight, and many regional theaters are struggling. In Sioux Falls, the 72-year old Community Playhouse closed mid-season. Two years ago, the playhouse asked the city for a bail out. So, the city purchased a downtown auditorium and a neighboring building. The plan was to connect the two into an impressive theatre facility. But instead, the project stands unfinished and in debt.

Sioux Falls Community Playhouse
The unfinished "link" is on the left, and the Orpheum Theater on the right. These are two of the three pieces of the Sioux Falls Community Playhouse complex, which is unfinished and about $220,000 in debt.
(MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)

Only a few people know how the playhouse spent its money. There is speculation the board spent money on staff salaries rather than relying on volunteers. Sioux Falls Mayor Gary Hanson worked with the playhouse board two years ago, and he says the numbers are disturbing.

"I was disillusioned, I was surprised, I was disappointed - I was really taken aback when I saw the numbers," Hanson says. "They've lost a significant amount of money in the last year or so, and they've accomplished that mainly because they've hired additional staff and they lost a number of memberships."

The playhouse board did raise nearly $900,000 for a big project known as "the link," which would connect two downtown buildings. But the project is unfinished, and about $220,000 in debt.

Some say money raised for the construction project went to playhouse operating expenses. There's some concern the city will now become responsible for the half-finished project.

The Actors Studio
The Actors Studio building is the third structure included in the playhouse complex.
(MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)

Mayor Gary Hanson says the city can't sell buildings with holes punched in its walls.

"At the same time there's a tremendous opportunity here for the city of Sioux Falls to have one of the best playhouses in the entire Upper Midwest," he says. "It just has to be structured properly, so that we don't end up with a situation where we end up losing a significant amount of money."

Hanson steps down as mayor in two weeks. He says a task force will make recommendations to the new mayor and city council. Hanson says the playhouse board has dissolved.

Members of the former playhouse board wouldn't talk for this story. But former board member Gene Mogan says when he served on the board in the 1980s, it was an all-volunteer organization. Board members painted sets after meetings, and everyone struggled to make every production happen.

Sioux Falls Mayor Gary Hanson
Sioux Falls Mayor Gary Hanson says he was disillusioned and disappointed when he learned the extent of the community playhouse's financial problems. He says a task force will make recommendations to city officials about how to proceed with the project.
(MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)

"The emphasis was on the production aspect as opposed to how nice the seats were," Mogan says. "I can remember an occasion in those early years where snow came through the roof."

Mogan says the playhouse made a series of financial mistakes over several years. Those decisions came at a time when competition for entertainment dollars is tight.

"If you have a product for which you charge more, and your product isn't as good as a competing theater, the results are most predictable. And that's some of what happened," Mogan says.

The people most reluctant to talk about Sioux Falls' Community Playhouse are the actors in town. Many volunteer at theaters in neighboring towns, and none were willing to talk about the problems at the playhouse. They said they weren't included in financial decisions about the organization.

In the weeks to come, Sioux Falls residents will learn how much debt the playhouse has accumulated, and city leaders will have to decide how to handle the debt. They may have to ask construction companies to absorb some of it. But there's still some hope that another group will come forward and start a new volunteer-based community theater.

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