Starlight's Magic Magnetized Blank Checks - Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Starlight's Magic Magnetized Blank Checks

The theater, now in bankruptcy, has inspired dramatic donations
of money, time, energy and emotion since the 1940s.

 

They conferred on her the title of “Starlight Lady,” and she enrobed herself in the mantle.

Cinda Lucas gave San Diego’s outdoor musical theater company, Starlight, about $100,000 yearly and forgave a seven-figure loan to the company in the 1990s, she said. As chairwoman of the board after a particularly rough patch in the 1990s, the fair-haired doyenne folded programs, sat in different spots in the bowl during sound checks to give her two cents and planned galas to commemorate the theater’s milestone birthdays, 50 and 60 years. She told the theater to put one $5,000 expense on her credit card.

She didn’t stop caring, and hasn’t yet. By her count, in addition to her donations and the forgiven loan, Lucas lent the theater more than $336,000 and personally guaranteed another line of credit the theater withdrew from Wells Fargo. That one’s for nearly $650,000, and Lucas is still paying the interest on it.

“I am definitely certifiably crazy; I admit it,” she said. “Many people tried to say, ‘What do you think you’re doing?'”

When the theater decided earlier this month to file for bankruptcy, Lucas heard the news through the grapevine, she said.

She cried.

Not chiefly because of the chance she won’t be paid back. She cried, she said, because of the chance this institution she so loves might not pull out of this one. She cried because she has, many times, returned to Starlight and given transfusions.

For Lucas and several others, there’s an elusive enchantment with Starlight. It’s been a magical place for them, an unrelenting magnet for huge sums of money and time and emotion. The motivation for such profuse love and philanthropy is different for each and not always entirely tangible. For some it’s the smell of the park at night; for others the electricity of a child’s rapt attention hours past bedtime.

To begin to grasp the greater sum, take a few of the parts. The theater is perched in the center of the city’s crown jewel park. It’s long been a labor of love for local thespians, the place hundreds of professional singers and actors and musicians and dancers got their start. For more than 60 years, San Diego sat outdoors and watched otherwise plainclothes neighbors dazzle with talent. Families piled in to the top rows for an inexpensive night out. Even the planes roaring overhead became a kitschy family joke, a bane to some ticketholders but a warm bit of familiarity and part of the theater’s charm to others.

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And for the people behind the scenes, it still beckons, even as it has wounded.

“If you asked me to bet on it, I wouldn’t put a dime into it,” said Brian Wells, artistic director for about a dozen years, who says he’s owed tens of thousands of dollars in bounced and missing paychecks. “But if you asked me to run a show, I’d probably say OK.”

‘Everybody Tried to Keep the Heart Pumping and Air Going Into the Lungs’

On Tuesday morning, many of those to whom the iconic theater owes money, like Lucas, will meet in a conference room downtown, a few weeks after Starlight announced filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

The creditors are people with tickets for a 2011 season that never materialized, they are ex-employees of the theater whose paychecks bounced, they are Lucas, they are board members past and present who’ve put down their personal credit cards when a show was in danger of not opening.

They are caterers owed for food consumed years ago, they are musical theater companies owed royalties and rents for productions long since closed, they are local governments and utilities owed fees and fines. They are the unions for stagehands and musicians whose benefit and pension plans weren’t paid, they are the owner of wigs for “Hello, Dolly!” owed $1,000, they are a magazine who ran ads for the theater in 2005, they are a piano tuner.

The creditors also are the IRS, owed potentially $200,000 for “various issues from 2007 to 2010,” and the state employment department, owed $50,000. It’s hard to picture such agencies have the soft spot for Starlight that many of the other creditors might.

The debts are staggering. Though Starlight listed almost $1.32 million in total assets, seemingly tempering the $2.28 million in liabilities on its 2009 tax return, the fine print on the tax form paints a far bleaker picture.

Cash: $4,897 in the red. The vast majority of its assets are listed as “intangible,” like improvements to the bowl amphitheater literally nailed to the ground. They don’t appear to be the kind of things you can just pawn off to pay the bills. Otherwise, the theater’s belongings listed in its bankruptcy filing appear to be meager: some costumes, wigs, sets, old office equipment.

But what’s also staggering: The lengths people have gone to inflate life rafts for the theater.

Last year, the stagehands union, even though embroiled in a public lawsuit over back wages and pension benefits, sent volunteers down to set up the 2010 season anyway.

Even when paychecks were bouncing and Wells, was putting expenses on his own credit card, he said, he kept working.

“Everybody tried to keep the heart pumping and air going into the lungs,” Wells said.

The courts said in late 2009 that Wells is owed tens of thousands of dollars in back wages and interest. But he still winced to see Wells versus Starlight on the papers filed in Superior Court, the formality of another blow to his beloved theater staring at him in black and white.

‘If We Take Enough Hits We’re Going to Go Down’

Starlight needed help.

A couple of years ago, the theater’s board brought in John Redman as an adviser. Redman worked at the San Diego Repertory Theatre for more than a decade, playing the business counterpart to Sam Woodhouse’s artistic direction. The relationship taught Redman, a theater admirer, about budget-drafting and balancing artistic risks with surefire crowd favorites. He agreed to help Starlight as a side note to his job at a nonprofit.

But the legacy of debts plagued the theater. It looked as if there wouldn’t be a 2009 season. Disorganized bookkeeping left the theater blindsided by old debts popping up. Invoices and bills came in, which Redman said weren’t always verifiable in Starlight’s own records. Was a sum a loan? Was it a gift?

He began to push for bankruptcy.

“I said, ‘We’ve patched up the ship and we’ve pumped out as much water as we could but if we take enough hits we’re going to go down,” he said. “The board was reluctant to pull that trigger.”

But at some point, Redman said, the theater needs to know everything that’s out there. For an entity that magnetized so much goodwill, financial investment and camaraderie, bankruptcy court will surely pull the creditors out of the woodwork.

“It can’t just be this handshake or idea or ‘I did this 20 years ago,'” Redman said. “If it’s to survive, [Starlight] needs to change the way it’s done business.”

After reorganization, the theater must determine how, as Redman had to learn at the Rep, to balance the shows it wants to do with the money it can expect to bring in at the box office.

Kimberley Layton, Starlight’s board president, did not return a phone call or email last week.

Redman questions the extent to which sympathy should be extended to some people whom Starlight has left in the red.

“It doesn’t matter what those people with all those good hearts gave and donated, if you didn’t change your business practices and you’re on the board, then who’s at fault?” he said. “If you’re donating to a false economy, you’ve got to know that that’s what it is. And it’s all for love.”

‘The Entire Time I Was There It Was a Smell’

When Wells tries to explain why Starlight compels such devotion, he uses his nose.

He was a young boy when he first saw a play at Starlight, and by the time he was old enough to act in the productions, the Starlight essence had grabbed hold of him and infiltrated his senses. And by the time he began directing shows there in the 1990s, the attachment was spiritual.

“The entire time I was there it was a smell. The park has a very distinctive smell,” he said. “Sea breeze, eucalyptus. You know exactly where you are on a summer evening in Balboa Park. And couple that with a live show, with theater….”

He left the rest of the equation unspoken.

For Lucas, the Starlight Lady, the theater incarnated the feeling she had as a child watching the stage production of “Peter Pan.”

“I really thought, as a kid, by my own applause I was keeping Tinker Bell alive,” she said. “And that’s what I wanted to do with Starlight.”

After the 60th anniversary gala five years ago, trying to keep Starlight going had become more draining than fun, Lucas said. She left Starlight and picked up more gigs training college women, invoking some of what she learned as the former director in charge of institutional and corporate sponsors and licensing at SeaWorld. At the theater’s helm, she’d tried to make contact with every creditor Starlight owed money to, just to keep the communication open.

But this time around, she said, no one from the theater called her to let her know the bankruptcy filing was happening, despite the hundreds of thousands of her dollars on the line.

“I don’t honestly think I will see the money back,” Lucas said. “I’d love to say that’s OK. It isn’t OK, but it may be what is. And I may just have to get really good at other stuff I’m doing.”

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

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