The ongoing success of the Majestic Theatre in West Springfield certainly wasn’t scripted. Instead, it’s been the product of determination, dedication, and imagination exhibited by a team of managers who understand that, in the theater industry, there is no such thing as business as usual.
It’s the climactic scene of the second act of the musical Miss Saigon.
A helicopter — or something approximating one — is lowered to the stage and then raised again as the last Americans are evacuated from the roof of the U.S. Embassy as the city falls to the Vietcong in 1975.
Large theater houses often struggle with the logistics of the demanding scene, and management at the Majestic Theatre in West Springfield, a small but popular venue, certainly had their doubts about whether they could pull it off. But like many of the other fears and concerns raised during the Majestic’s first decade of operation, this one proved unwarranted.
Indeed, the helicopter scene went off without a hitch, and Miss Saigon, staged just last season, would go on to become the theater’s highest-grossing show to date, pulling in more than $190,000 after extending its run for a week to meet audience demand.
“There hasn’t been a season when we haven’t wondered about a particular show or decision,” said Todd Kadis, the Majestic’s treasurer. “But it seems as though we’re always wrong; shows we’re not sure about always find an audience, and that helps us build our base.”
Like the shows it stages, the Majestic’s history is a compelling story, one with many plot twists and intriguing characters, including the theater’s founder, Danny Eaton. An actor, director, playwright, and entrepreneur, Eaton formed a theater troupe, known as The Theater Project, in 1993.
It began staging shows at the Church of the Good Shepherd in West Springfield, just down the street from its current home, the former Majestic Theater movie house, which the troupe moved to in 1997, adopting that name in the process. After first renting the 78-year-old landmark, The Theater Project (still the formal name for the non-profit corporation) purchased the property from United Bank in 2003 for $400,000.
Eaton said the venture’s first decade has been filled with challenges, triumphs, a hugely successful classic car raffle fundraiser — and plenty of sweat equity.
“It would be nice to have just one typical, standard year,” he said, “But we haven’t had one yet.”
The Play’s the Thing…
Indeed, the theater industry is one that requires constant upgrades in terms of technology and infrastructure, as well as diligent attention to cultural trends and audience preferences, to ensure that seats remain filled.
Marie Susen, the Majestic’s company manager, said a number of elements contribute to theater experience, and the devil is in the details.
“There are so many factors,” she said. “Everything factors into whether or not a ticket is purchased for the first time and into whether or not a person comes back — how they’re treated on the phone, if they are greeted at the door, the service at the cafe, the ambience … people are predisposed before they ever see anything on stage.”
Eaton agreed that all aspects of the Majestic, from the ticket price to the freshness of the popcorn, create the overall experience that the theater is trying to sell to a public that, unlike other regions, doesn’t already have a strong cultural undercurrent.
“Finding new audiences is tough,” said Eaton. “Western Mass. doesn’t have a cultural tradition like Boston or New York. We have to first sell people on the fact that theater isn’t necessarily a departure from the rest of their lifestyle. Then, it’s on to choosing shows that will appeal to wide audiences, while not requiring technical aspects that we can’t handle.”
The Majestic has already proven, through the helicopter scene in Miss Saigon, that it can clear logistical hurdles that some may have originally thought beyond its reach. But Eaton said the focus is always on the next challenges, not those in the past tense.
“I certainly recall when we first opened, how many people commented on how our dreams had just come true,” said Eaton. “But that suggests that we had reached the end of a long road, when in actuality, opening a theater is the easy part. Keeping it open is the real challenge.”
The Majestic has several plot points in its history that speak to that concern and its ability to address it through proactive steps designed to boost revenues and keep the venture financially sound.
Shortly after the Elm Street property was purchased, a cafe was added to the space for use during shows and to rent for private functions. And in addition to its current venue, Eaton said The Theater Project also purchased a second property on Baldwin Street in 2004 for use as a set shop, rehearsal space, and living quarters for actors.
The theater has also seen its share of renovations and upgrades each year, all geared toward continuous improvement of the space and the theater experience.
Kadis said most of those improvements come with large price tags.
A new sound system, for instance, recently cost the theater $60,000. The current challenge facing the Majestic is the installation of a new sprinkler system, mandated by the state, which has necessitated major construction on site at a price tag that is expected to exceed $115,000 when completed.
It’s not just these larger expenses that add up, however; regular operation of the theater and staging of its five shows each season also necessitates a number of expenses. These include rental fees for scripts and music scores, and salaries for actors and stage hands — all of the Majestic’s staff members are paid, Eaton said. And in the case of equity actors (those who are unionized), a minimum salary of about $380 each week is required for each, as is health insurance and living quarters.
“There are all of those things to take into account, as well as the prevailing goal of producing top quality theater,” said Kadis. “To offset costs, ticket sales are number one.” The theater’s season subscribers number approximately 3,800, and individual ticket sales usually fall between 22,000 and 25,000 annually. But Eaton added that box office sales alone aren’t nearly enough to cover expenses, and although sales have remained mostly steady for the Majestic, they are a source of revenue for all theaters that never holds a guarantee.
“The line-up is the line-up,” he said, “and we’re not going to win over every single audience with every play we do; people have different tastes and preferences. People’s time is worth so much more than that $26 ticket, and if we ever get to the point where people feel their time is being wasted, we’re in trouble, and we’re very conscious of that.”
Rewriting the Script
The theater actively seeks corporate sponsors each season, offering advertising in programs and on billboards throughout the year. However, it’s the theater’s largest fundraiser, a classic car raffle that began 11 years ago, that does the most to keep the Majestic in the black.
Each year, Kadis explained, raffle tickets are sold for a chance to win one of two classic cars or motorcycles, which are purchased by the theater from a variety of sources — from private sellers as close to home as Springfield or from dealers as far away as El Paso, Texas.
“Originally, the raffle was tied into the first show we held at this location — The Buddy Holly Story,” said Kadis. “We were selling tickets before the theater had even opened. It was such a hit, that we kept going. The raffle gave us the cash flow to open the Majestic, and now it helps us grow consistently every year.”
And that growth has allowed the Majestic to take some important creative leaps in the last few years. While its distinction as a professional theater (as opposed to an amateur operation) has its downsides, such as increased fees for script use based on box office revenue, it also holds some cache in the theater world, and sets the Majestic apart from other venues in the area — few hold such a distinction and employ largely local talent, as the Majestic does.
In turn, that reputation for quality has allowed the theater to stage some original shows without sacrificing audience turnout. Eaton has written three plays — titled Winds of Fashioning Time, inspired by the letters of Ethel Rosenberg; The Ride, which details a cross-country motorcycle trip of Vietnam veterans, traveling to the Washington, D.C. memorial; and Anthem, a musical co-written with Kadis.
Eaton would like to stage more of these original shows, perhaps by rehabbing a portion of the Baldwin Street property in the future to serve as a studio theater, or black box, space for additional performances. “That would make for more flexibility,” he said.
Such an endeavor would necessitate more grunt work for Majestic staff. There would be more concrete to pour, more cement blocks to place, and twice as many sets to paint. But a smaller venue would likely negate the need to cable a helicopter to the ceiling.
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]