...And the show goes on


by Mike Kroll


Often described as “the jewel of Galesburg,” the restored Orpheum Theatre is facing twin challenges as the new year dawns. First, the ever precarious financial situation at the Orpheum seems just a bit more of a concern with the 2007 Galesburg city budget out of balance. Some city council members have suggested that reducing or eliminating funding of organizations such as GREDA, the Knox-Galesburg Symphony and the Orpheum may be one way to help re-balance the city budget. Secondly, the theater's managing director since February 2004, Jennifer Rakestraw, recently resigned with no warning and little explanation as to why she would leave the post other than to say that it was “for personal reasons.”

Both challenges struck the Orpheum during December; when the city council refused to approve two tax increases that were considered key to balancing the city budget and when Rakestraw tendered her resignation on New Years weekend. While members of the Knox County Civic Center Authority board that oversee the Orpheum are publicly concerned about the potential loss of $100,000 annually from Galesburg's Hotel-Motel tax they are emphatically unconcerned publicly about the impact of Rakestraw's surprise resignation. In fact there is most likely little reason for fans of the Orpheum Theatre to fear either development.

Civic Center board chair Mark Blackburn is very concerned about the potential damage loss of this funding would do to the Orpheum Theatre. He points to some number his board has developed to help show how far the Orpheum has come in just a few years of concerted effort to achieve strong financial footing. “We would love to be self-sufficient as an organization and I hope to get to that point someday but today we are very dependent upon the Hotel-Motel tax money. Our 2007 theater budget depends upon this $100,000 for about 24 percent of our annual revenue and like everyone else we are expecting to be hit very hard by increases in our utility bills. Current estimates are that we will pay about $52,000 in 2007 for utilities, that represents a 93 percent increase over what we paid for utility expenses in 2005!”

“Meanwhile the Orpheum has made great strides since 2002 when the Hotel-Motel tax funding was initiated. Overall attendance is up 90 percent since 2002. That represents the good results of lots of things we have done at the Orpheum including many more events, improved marketing, a greater number of marque events and just greater community support of the theater in general. We are working toward establishing an endowment to help cover the costs of maintaining the building itself and subsidizing operational expenses such as utilities and we continue to seek ways to schedule more and more events in the Orpheum. We now average about 2.5 events weekly over the course of a year.”

With respect to the city funding, few observers of Galesburg's city council really believe the Orpheum funding is in any serious jeopardy. It is considered unlikely that the city council will use money from the Hotel-Motel tax to help balance the city budget as it would inflame a number of loud and politically powerful constituencies.  Recent history has shown the city council to be easily swayed by such constituencies and we are in the midst of reelection season for half of the council. Whether or not the city council can understand the city budget problems sufficiently to identify a reasonable solution remains to be seen but it is unlikely more than one or maybe two will actually support pulling the Orpheum funding.

As for the departure of Rakestraw, both the theater board and staff are confident that operations of the Orpheum will continue unaffected while the search is on for Rakestraw's replacement. For the time being Jaimie Avery is serving as interim director of the Orpheum and is comfortable directing day-to-day operations of the theater given her experience as Rakestraw's right-hand gal for the past 2 ½ years. “Everything is running just as normal,” assured Avery. “Our 2007 season was already in place and bookings of the theater are strong already for the coming year. It will be a different experience taking the lead in lining up bookings for 2008 and the future but I am totally comfortable handling daily theater operations. Jennifer worked closely with all the staff and we are a strong staff that will do fine while the board searches for Jennifer's replacement.”

In December the Orpheum announced its 2007 “Red Carpet Series” of seven theater-sponsored events beginning with the return of hypnotist Jim Wand on March 3rd. Part of the Orpheum's strategy for achieving financial self-sufficiency is to book events where the theater itself reaps the profits of success. Despite recent increases in the theater's rental rates there is no realistic way to become self-sufficient through such rentals alone. Avery says that there were more than 50 separately booked private rentals during 2006 and she expects that number to either remain the same or increase slightly during 2007.

“While some of us were concerned that increasing the Orpheum rental rates might cost us some theater rentals so far that has not been the case. We have a number of such private rentals that have renewed for years into the future and new rental customers regularly contact us about available dates.”

While some private rentals are done on valuable weekends most take place during the week when demand for the theater is less and rental rates a bit lower. “In recent years we have seen a growing popularity of school groups organizing PTO fun nights where a complete elementary school comes to the Orpheum,” noted Avery. “Just about every school in Galesburg now has either one or two of these events each school year and we have booked schools from Knoxville, Abingdon and elsewhere. These are great opportunities to introduce children to the theater and perhaps they will later attend other Orpheum events or become a theater supporter as an adult. Even before the PTO fun nights it have become common to book special shows for school children during weekdays at the Orpheum and that will continue.”

Another regular event at the Orpheum are the classic movie nights. Thanks to  sponsorships by local businesses the theater now shows a classic movie for teen and adult audiences each month and a second family or children's movie on Sundays sponsored by NAEIR. The attendance at these movies varies from show to show but has been a solid program that will continue into the foreseeable future according to Avery. Another key to obtaining financial independence is growing the profits from concession sales at the Orpheum. For most commercial theaters concession sales is the major profit maker, this is especially true of movie theaters.

For much of the history of the restored Orpheum concessions were a missed opportunity due to concerns over the potential mess and cleanup costs as well as a simple inability to understand or appreciate concession operations. Even before Rakestraw's resignation Avery worked hard to demonstrate the feasibility and profitability of concession sales at the Orpheum. The theater's policies have now changed and concession food and covered drinks may now be taken into the theater during performances. “This has led to a major increase in the profitability of concessions at the Orpheum,” noted Avery. “While before we had nights with less than $50 total sales we are more commonly seeing sales top $300 nightly now.”

On Thursday evening the Civic Center board will meet to discuss establishing a search committee for Rakestraw's replacement. The Orpheum staff is now selling memberships in their Red Carpet series where buys can realize significant savings off regular ticket prices at Orpheum sponsored events and get preferential early seating choice as well. Individual memberships range from $80 to $350 but Avery says they would be happy to work something out if you want to pay more than those amounts. Posters describing the upcoming events are now up across town.

“I don't think we can overstate the contribution made by the Orpheum Theatre to this community,” said Blackburn. “Every show attracts people to visit Galesburg, many from far away who have never been here before. And there are regulars who travel by Amtrak to attend Orpheum events. Each of these visitors contributes directly to the financial future of Galesburg when they spend money here as they support our local businesses and generate sales taxes. Just as importantly these visitors are all potential economic development opportunities discovering Galesburg by virtue of attending an Orpheum show. The Orpheum Theatre is another key to the quality of life in Galesburg that should make our community attractive to outside businesses while it enhances the lives of people who already live here.”