Barry Saunders

Saunders: We must save Durham’s Carolina Theatre

The nonprofit Carolina Theatre of Durham has operated the city-owned Carolina Theatre complex for two decades, funded by ticket sales, individual and corporate contributions, and an annual management stipend from the city of Durham.
The nonprofit Carolina Theatre of Durham has operated the city-owned Carolina Theatre complex for two decades, funded by ticket sales, individual and corporate contributions, and an annual management stipend from the city of Durham.

This time, it’s personal.

Sure, that’s the tagline to every action movie sequel ever made, but I’m not talking about a movie: I’m talking about a movie theater. And a concert hall.

I don’t own a stake in the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham, but recent revelations about its financial fragility leave me feeling queasy on a personal level.

When I called interim CEO Dan Berman last week to find out why the theater’s money is funny, I told him “I’m a huge fan of the Carolina Theatre. Let me know if there’s something I can do to help.”

That, Berman said, is how he ended up in his current position. “I have a business background,” he said, “and I have a friend who’s on the board. I called him and said ‘I’m a huge fan. ... Let me know if there’s something I can do to help.’”

They took him up on it and he has volunteered to find out how the theater could conceivably end up in the hole and to help it get out.

I hope Berman succeeds in stanching the flow of red ink before it drowns the theater. The DPAC gets much of the attention as a performing arts venue and it deserves it. The place is magnificent, its acoustics sublime. The only problem I’ve ever had with DPAC is its proximity to the equally architecturally impressive county jail across the street: if you have a couple of highballs before strolling over to catch “The Lion King,” you could conceivably end up darkening the jailhouse door by mistake.

DPAC, as the bright, new shiny kid in downtown gets much of the attention and accolades, but the Carolina Theater is a downtown gem in its own right. Flawless acoustics do not outweigh being able to see the sweat dripping from Eddie LeVert’s face, which you can see when the O’Jays are in town and you’re seated almost anywhere on the lower level at the Carolina Theatre.

Why, though, would someone take the financial miscues of a building so personal?

Remember when you first heard that soul singer Isaac Hayes was bankrupt and forced to sell his gold-plated, mink-lined El Dorado?

I took that personally, too, because by my calculations I figured I’d personally paid for at least the fur on the steering wheel with all of the albums of his I’d bought. How could he be broke when I’ve bought at least 20 of his albums?

I asked the same thing of Berman: How can y’all be broke when I come to just about every show you have and the parking deck is always crowded?

Unlike in the case of Hayes, who went broke splurging on extravagances such as the aforementioned gold-plated, mink-lined El Dorado, Berman said the Carolina Theatre’s money woes stem from no-account accounting.

“The theater has been enormously successful in terms of the number of people seeing shows,” he told me. “I believe this past year was a record year for the number of people who’ve been to shows and to the theater.”

What, then, is the problem?

“It’s just that he management didn’t understand that it was losing money as a result of that success. It all started through faulty accounting and financial assumptions,” Berman said. “Essentially, shows that were thought to have been profitable were not, and the reason is because of faulty accounting, accounting errors. There should’ve been double and triple checks” to catch the discrepancies, he said.

See? No-account accounting.

“The financials were audited by an outside firm that blessed the results, which were completely wrong. This was missed on a number of different levels... I’m working very hard to find out how this happened, make sure it doesn’t happen again and try to restore public trust in this process. It’s a bad situation,” he said.

Indeed, it is, but what we really want to know is “Is the Carolina Theatre in danger of closing?”

“No,” he said quickly, “it’s not in danger of closing.”

Berman, who usually speaks deliberately, thoughtfully, thought for a moment and added “Let me put it this way. There is no immediate danger that it will close, but at the end of the day...”

He stopped and change course, “The city has indicated to us that it’s very important to the city that the theater not close. We’re still brainstorming, and all of our conversations have been about making this work. None have been about closing it.”

Whew.

“This,” Berman said, “is a very, very serious situation, but since I started I can’t tell you the outpouring of support I’ve gotten from citizens and business owners. This place is so important to so many people. That has energized me to go through this work, wade through these numbers. It’s important to me that there be accountability. That’s what I’m working toward.

“When there’s mismanagement that results in this level of problem,” he said, “it’s very easy to have people lose confidence. We know we need to work to get that back.”

Halleluyer!

Lose confidence? Fine.

Lose the downtown gem that is the Carolina Theatre? Unthinkable.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, bsaunders@newsobserver.com, @BarrySaunders9

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