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Casino Royale could be last ever film screening at Northampton, MA

04-Jan-2007 • Casino Royale

Today is the last day to see the new James Bond film at the Academy of Music in Northamption, MA, USA.

Unfortunately, it will also be the last time any movie graces that hallowed screen - at least for a while.

Andrew J. Crystal, president of the Board of Trustees of the 117-year-old theater, announced yesterday that the future of the Academy of Music - the first municipally owned theater in the country - is up in the air as the board "reassesses" strategies for its survival as an entertainment site.

The theater's executive director, Elissa O. Getto, who was hired two years to breathe new life into the Academy, and its manager of 35 years, Duane Robinson, have been "laid off for now," said Crystal. So have 14 part-time workers, according to Robinson.

Patrons will still be able to attend live shows that are scheduled, including "Four Sundays in February," the "Kids' Best Fest," and a Pioneer Valley Ballet production in March.

While not promising to consider possible financial intervention by the city, Mayor Mary Clare Higgins, an ex-officio trustee, indicated she is confident "in the long term, the Academy will still be a lively part of the downtown community."

Located at 274 Main St., the Academy has struggled for years, facing competition not only from other entertainment options but from other fund-raising campaigns.

Movie ticket sales have been down, said Crystal, and "have been down for art and independent filmhouses nationally."

Added Robinson, "The Academy of Music has never had the funding it needed to keep it running."

Besides movie tickets, the Academy has survived on rent for live productions and on "unearned income," which refers to donations and "memberships" (a $100 annual membership includes such perks as occasional free tickets.)

As a charitable organization with 501c3 tax status, the historic theater is eligible for unearned income, said Crystal, but there hasn't been enough of it.

"Typically, for a theater like the Academy of Music, which is nonprofit, which has no endowment and no dedicated source of revenue from the city that owns it - typically, that kind of organization requires 30 to 40 percent of its budget to come from unearned income," Crystal said. "Ours is much, much less."

With 800 seats to fill, including balcony seats, and a vast hall to maintain, the Academy offers a rare movie-going experience, but also has had expenses that smaller theaters just don't have.

When Robinson joined the staff in 1971, the stage was condemned. It was repaired by 1976. Since then, there's been one structural crisis after another. "All of our money has had to go into the repair of the building," Robinson said.

In 1985, the ceiling fell in and had to be replaced with a new fireproof ceiling. Then the boiler blew up, Robinson recalls. In the 1990s came the need for air conditioning and the huge influx of rival theaters. "There were 35 movie screens against us," he said.

A business plan was drawn up to feature more live performances. In the past year, these efforts have included a sold-out Dave Brubeck concert and a recent show by Sonya Kitchell and Ben Taylor.

Since 2000, the Academy has managed to lower its burden of debt from $300,000 six years ago to "under $100,000," said Crystal. A report earlier this year about a surplus of $50,000 was "a little misleading," said Crystal, as those funds were used to lower the debt.

The trustees will continue to meet over the next several months, he said, to "map out a strategy and to come up with some type of reorganization of the business.

"The board is committed to finding a way to keep the Academy of Music open and viable - so it can stay open for another 117 years."

Crystal called the theater an "icon" in Northampton. "It's a wonderful institution that all of us take for granted. But it has to be self-supporting," he said. "The really important piece is whether the community steps up."

Robinson says the board has been "very courageous" in deciding to keep the theater dark for most of this year. "Just think of the number of people who have come through these doors," he said. "They will not be going to bars and restaurants afterwards. They will not be feeding parking meters."

"It's finally come to the nitty-gritty. The city and the citizens who own this theater have got to respond. What the city has got to do," said Robinson, "is include the Academy in its budget."

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