Final curtain falls on North Shore

'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' was among the theater's final productions. "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" was among the theater's final productions. (Paul Lyden)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / June 17, 2009
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North Shore Music Theatre, which during its heyday was the largest nonprofit theater in the region, announced yesterday that it failed to raise enough money to reopen this summer and will close for good.

People who bought tickets for the now-canceled season will probably not get their money back.

The closing leaves a huge hole in the arts scene on the North Shore, where as many as 350,000 people a year attended the theater’s slate of lavishly produced musicals staged in the round.

“There’s no doubt that the theater and myself have disappointed and angered a lot of subscribers,’’ David Fellows, trustee chairman, said yesterday. “I apologize for that and I’m heartbroken about that. At every step of the way, we tried to do what we thought our job was.’’

Fellows said the theater cannot survive with $10 million of debt. North Shore owes banks roughly half that total and the other $5 million is owed to vendors and subscribers. Fellows said the lone scenario in which subscribers would get refunds is if the theater’s Beverly property is purchased for more than $10 million. The 22-acre site is currently appraised for about $5 million, he said.

Theater officials say they still hold out hope that a buyer might lease the venue back to the organization.

North Shore has tried to stay alive for months after being forced to shut down earlier this year. In January, it laid off 57 workers and, with a skeleton staff, began working to raise $4 million to stage a season. In April, organizers cut that goal and said they could start productions for $2 million.

They never got close. Donors had pledged just $500,000, even after fund-raisers in New York and at the theater, where performers included such North Shore mainstays as David Coffee, the longtime “Scrooge’’ of winter favorite “A Christmas Carol.’’

According to Fellows, just last week an unnamed potential donor said he would give the theater another $500,000 if it could raise the remaining $1 million, but on Sunday night, theater leaders decided they wouldn’t be able to find the money.

North Shore opened in 1955 as an open-air summer-stock theater, bringing Broadway glamour to a former gravel pit off Route 128. The first seasons featured “Kiss Me, Kate,’’ “Annie Get Your Gun,’’ and “South Pacific.’’ Permanent walls, along with heating and air conditioning, were installed in the 1960s and the seating increased from 1,000 to 1,750.

In the ’80s and ’90s, artistic director Jon Kimbell added educational programs and the smash annual production of “A Christmas Carol.’’

But a 2005 fire destroyed the company’s stage, orchestra pit, lighting, and seats. A renovation left the theater $5 million in debt. Then, in 2008, poor ticket sales to “Disney High School Musical 2’’ threw it into crisis. With less ticket revenue than it had expected, the theater’s leaders decided it could not afford to launch the next season.

In December, when North Shore suspended ticket sales, the number of subscribers had fallen to 4,400. At its peak, the theater had 10,000 subscribers.

Danvers resident Janet Guerette, 77, was one of them. For 17 years, she’s subscribed along with two girlfriends. She said yesterday that she doesn’t expect to get back the $279 she had sent to the theater for the canceled season.

“How upset can I be?’’ said Guerette. “I’m upset I lost my $300. But everybody else lost theirs, too.’’

Carolyn Pilanen, the choral director at Beverly High School, went to the theater for years with her mother.

“It’s been a landmark here for a long time, a place you could see a really good show without having to go to Boston,’’ said Pilanen.

Caldwell Titcomb, the president of the Elliot Norton Awards, given by area critics to local theater productions, said he was shocked by the closing. He noted that North Shore recently scored the best musical award for “Show Boat.’’

“Whenever I went to openings, which was most of them, there was a big house,’’ Titcomb said. “I can’t understand why the community hasn’t supported it more strongly.’’

There was at least a little good news for North Shore supporters yesterday.

The smaller Stoneham Theatre said it would offer subscribers one free ticket to a Friday night performance of its own upcoming season’s productions.

“After 50 years, it’s as shocking to me as anyone,’’ said Weylin Symes, Stoneham Theatre’s producing artistic director. “We wanted to do the little bit we could do to try to help these patrons, who we know love theater and wanted to be a part of another season of theater.’’

And Catherine Peterson, executive director of ArtsBoston, which works with theaters to offer discounted tickets, is organizing a group of 10 or more theaters to offer free tickets to North Shore subscribers.

“The details haven’t been worked out fully but the message is that there’s a home for you at another theater close by,’’ she said.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at

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