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VALLEY BUSINESS | THEATER STAGES: THE MONEY'S THE THING

Marshall Is Financial Wind Beneath the Falcon's Wings

Arts: The producer/director of 'The Odd Couple' and 'Happy Days' is the Burbank venue's founder and patron saint. His goal is to make it self-supportive.

May 16, 2000|CHRISTOPHER WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BURBANK — The Falcon Theatre faces the same hurdle as any for-profit playhouse when it comes to making money: coping with the dozens of unseen expenses that cut into profits.

What sets this Burbank venue apart is the financial wherewithal and show-biz clout of its patron saint, producer/director Garry Marshall, who founded and built the theater in 1998.

"What you do when you're a nonprofit theater and you need money is you write a grant," said Marshall. "There's no writing here. I'm the grant."

In addition to the obvious benefits of his financial backing, Marshall brings the name recognition and industry connections that have allowed the 99-seat theater to attract the likes of Al Pacino, Jack Klugman and Morgan Fairchild, among others.

"You have a certain built-in cache with him around that other theaters don't have," conceded Meryl Friedman, the Falcon's executive producer. "But we try not to be exploitative of that."

Born in the Bronx, Marshall grew up on live theater, and when the 1994 Northridge earthquake destroyed a building on property he owned in Burbank at the border of Toluca Lake, he saw a chance to fulfill his dream of opening a playhouse.

"I guess God helped with the earthquake. There was a used-car repair place there, and suddenly it was flattened. I said, 'There's a sign. I think maybe we should build a theater,' " Marshall said.

Marshall started out as a Hollywood scriptwriter and went on to produce and direct such television sitcoms as "The Odd Couple," "Happy Days" and "Mork and Mindy." The director of last year's "Runaway Bride," Marshall is perhaps best known for his role as the feared network executive on television's "Murphy Brown."

"I've lived in the Valley since I moved out here," Marshall said. "I just thought the community could use another theater."

The 11,000-square-foot theater at Riverside Drive and Rose Street has amenities not usually found at most small playhouses, such as on-site parking, spacious dressing rooms, a rehearsal hall and professionally engineered lighting and sound.

"The physical advantages are terrific," said Lars Hansen, president of the Theatre League Alliance of Southern California, a nonprofit trade and marketing group. "A lot of theaters are created out of spaces that had other purposes when they were built. In Garry's case, he had a piece of property, and he was able to build something that took into consideration real needs of a theater."

Marshall, 65, declined to say what it costs to subsidize the theater each year and won't tell how much he paid for the building other than to say, "It cost a pretty penny."

The building also serves as headquarters for his television and film production company, Henderson Productions.

The fact that the Falcon has been taking a loss begs the question: Why not run it as a nonprofit theater, rather than a for-profit operation? Friedman, who formerly ran a nonprofit theater in Chicago, said the competition for donations and grants for nonprofits is intense. Because Marshall has taken a highly visible role in running the theater--not to mention housing his production company there--it would be unlikely the Falcon could attract the donations it would need to survive, Friedman said.

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So it falls to Friedman to build the theater to the point that it pays for itself. "The goal is for the business to be self-sufficient sooner, than later," she said.

That can be a daunting task in a business notorious for its many expenses. A major production at the Falcon typically costs $30,000 to $50,000 depending on the size of the cast. Even for a theater its size, the Falcon hires set, lighting and costume designers, music directors, sound designers, choreographers, construction workers, electricians, and of course, directors and actors.

The Falcon seeks to put on at least three major productions aimed at adults and three for children each year, with the average ticket price of an adults' show about $24 and the average kids' show $8.50.

The theater currently is hosting a production of "Hansel and Gretel," starring JoAnne Worley.

"We need about 45 people a show to just break even," said Friedman, who also directs and came to the Falcon a year ago from Chicago. "If we can't get that we probably shouldn't be doing the show. I've found if we put on something that captures people's imaginations, they'll come."

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Actors' salaries can cut into any theater's profits, but because the Falcon is a small venue, Actors' Equity, the labor union representing actors, agreed to grant it a waiver. For instance, a 500-seat playhouse would have to pay its actors a minimum of about $450 a week.

Because of waivers, small venues like the Falcon can get by paying actors $5 to $25 a show.

"We try to pay actors more than $5 per performance. I believe they're worth it," said Friedman, who declined to say specifically what actors at the theater are paid.

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