City and former Shubert official feud over theater

The most heated dialogue regarding the Shubert Performing Arts Center this past week has not been on stage, but between city and theater officials.

On March 15, Shubert officials told the city that the theater would have a $1.2 million deficit at the end of the year, and the Shubert management would end its agreement with the city in November. Since then, the city has been in contact with numerous arts organizations in hope of finding a new management team for the city-owned theater.

This is the third time since 1984 the Shubert has needed to be bailed out by the government.

Earlier this week, former Shubert chairman Robert Shaw attacked Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and his involvement with the theater dating back to the Shubert’s financial crisis in 1996. Shaw told the New Haven Register the mayor has given no credit to Shubert management for their revitalization efforts and has blamed the Shubert’s financial problems on the theater board.

New Haven Economic Development Administrator Henry Fernandez LAW ’94 said that Shaw’s remarks are completely unfounded.

“Mayor DeStefano’s history with the Shubert is clear,” Fernandez said. “He is responsible for turning the theater around on two occasions, and what we are doing to help the theater now is further proof of that support.”

The Shaw-DeStefano rift followed several weeks of meetings between city officials and the Shubert in an attempt to remedy the theater’s current financial difficulties.

Fernandez said a number of potential arts administrators nationwide have shown interest in managing the theater.

“The Shubert should be working with a group who are running multiple theaters,” Fernandez said. “There has been significant interest since we were able to anticipate these financial problems.”

The not-for-profit Columbus Association for Performing Arts has expressed interest in managing the Shubert. The group already runs three successful theaters in Columbus, Ohio, and another in Chicago.

City leaders are eager to save the theater because of its rich history and economic benefits for the city.

“The Shubert is a beautiful theater with tremendous amenities around it,” said Frances “Bitsie” Clark, director of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. “If the theater closed, people would lose a major reason to come downtown.”

The city has touted the Shubert as one of the cultural cornerstones intended to draw people downtown.

“Being a center of culture is important to us and to how we grow as a city,” Fernandez said. “For that reason, we’ll make sure the theater stays open.”

Fernandez said the reasons for the Shubert’s financial woes are increased competition in the marketplace, the expenses required to stage the Broadway shows the Shubert often features, and a changing market in which some companies are at a competitive advantage because they own both theaters and productions.

The progress the city and theater have made in recent days has been clouded by Shaw’s remarks. Shaw, who told the Register DeStefano was “no friend to the Shubert,” is backing Democratic state Sen. Martin Looney in the upcoming mayoral primary. Shaw recently contributed $1,000 to Looney’s campaign.

Shaw is out of the country and his office declined further comment.

Ward 1 Alderman Julio Gonzalez, who is working for DeStefano’s campaign, said Shaw’s remarks are a personal attack on the mayor related to Shaw’s involvement with the Looney campaign.

“The lack of substance in Shaw’s remarks suggest political motivation,” Gonzalez said. “He can’t point to any public position by the mayor to substantiate his claims.”

DeStefano could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Looney said Shaw’s remarks have nothing to do with his campaign but rather with Shaw’s disappointment with DeStefano’s “inconsistent” handling of the theater’s needs.

“Mr. Shaw has intimate knowledge of the theater and of interactions between the Shubert board and the city,” Looney said. “This puts Mr. Shaw in a unique position to make such statements.”

Current Shubert chairman Anthony Scillia declined comment.

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