PA's Rockwell Hits Rock Bottom as Media & Grand Candlelight Venues Lose Producing Arm

News   PA's Rockwell Hits Rock Bottom as Media & Grand Candlelight Venues Lose Producing Arm Rockwell Productions, which manages musical theatre productions at the Media Theatre in Media, PA, (just outside Philadelphia) and the Grand Candlelight Theatre in Milton, PA, abruptly announced Friday that it will cease operations early in December.

Rockwell Productions, which manages musical theatre productions at the Media Theatre in Media, PA, (just outside Philadelphia) and the Grand Candlelight Theatre in Milton, PA, abruptly announced Friday that it will cease operations early in December.

The closing night of Rockwell’s current revival of Singin' In the Rain on Dec. 3 will mark the end of a series of revivals of classic musicals. Jesse Cline, artistic director of Rockwell, said that the company had 15,000 subscribers and was making a profit. The reason for the ending, according to Cline, is to allow the theatres to expand "in other directions" and to allow other producers and promoters to lease the Media and Grand Candlelight venues for their own projects.

Rockwell’s press release said, "The producers of Rockwell Productions, Ltd., have announced they will not present the Grand Candlelight Theatre's five Broadway shows of the 2001 season." The release mentioned nothing about a cancellation in Media but, when it referred to the historic Media Theatre, added that its musical series "originally was intended to reacquaint people in the Philadelphia Wilmington region with the restoration of the theatre's historic structure and with its potential for use in live performing arts. Having completed seven successful seasons, the producers believe they have succeeded in accomplishing their goals, and it is time for a new direction."

Cline expanded on that to say Media indeed will go dark but will be available for independent projects. He, himself, is planning a production of The Heroine of Heartbreak, based on the Tammy Wynette song, for the Fall of 2001. There will be a children's theatre show, The Magic Circle, in February. The Media Theatre also will continue as home of a children's theatre school. Cline says the school, now run by the for-profit Rockwell corporation, will be transferred to a not-for-profit organization, and Rockwell "no longer will be in existence."

Since 1994, Rockwell has produced shows that played in Milton, then in Media, usually for five weeks each. Media – so-named because it is halfway between Philadelphia and Wilmington – became a destination for many theatre-goers who had been patrons of the nearby Valley Forge Music Fair, which closed in 1997, just shy of its 50th anniversary. That theatre started as a summer home for musicals in the round and later expanded to permanent building that housed all-year productions. Its site was sold to a supermarket chain. The Media Theatre was constructed as a movie palace in 1927. The building was purchased by the family of Walter & Alice Strine, who refurbished it and re-opened it as an opulent 638-seat home for live theatre in February 1994. They also operated restaurant facilities for pre-theatre dining. Many in the theatre world considered Media to be an attractive showcase for talent and productions.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson, then unknown, appeared at Media just before his Broadway debut as one of the three sailors in George C. Wolfe's production of On the Town. Walter Willison, who starred in Two by Two and directed Meet Me in St. Louis there, said: "The Media Theatre is a gem of a building, and so close to New York that it had the potential, under different management, of becoming something akin to Goodspeed." By coincidence, Willison will be involved in the Jewish Repertory Theatre's 30th anniversary production of Two by Two in April, 2001, in New York.

The company had great success with faithful revivals of 1920's musicals that are rarely done, such as The New Moon, Rose Marie and The Desert Song. Yet its biggest box office came with the revised version of Meet Me in St. Louis. In 1997, in a departure from its usual fare of old shows, the Media presented the world premiere of The Molly Maguires, a musical about a historical labor uprising in Pennsylvania, directed by Dan Foster. It won respectful reviews and is in development for a New York production.

Camelot was scheduled to follow Singin' in the Rain and Rockwell already had advertised audition notices. The entire 2001 season recently was announced in mailings, so Rockwell staff and patrons were surprised by the announcement. Subscribers and individual ticket purchasers will receive refunds.

Actors are unhappy to see the loss of highly-visible job opportunities, but many of them have been criticizing the theatre management for some time, primarily about housing. Some people connected with the theater said [on condition of anonymity] that a closing had been rumored for months, ever since the shutdown on May 31 of two of the nursing homes owned by the Strine family's real estate company. The Candlelight Theatre in Milton is housed inside the Rockwell Nursing Home. The Saint James Nursing Home in Chester, PA, was used by Rockwell for housing some cast members and crew during the runs of shows at the Media Theatre. It also had a large population of residents, mostly elderly, who were on Medicare and Medicaid programs. Cline said that he didn't know why the nursing home was closed.

In May 2000, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Strines were the subject of a federal law suit that accused them of "defrauding taxpayers by failing to provide adequate care while billing the government through Medicare and Medicaid" at their nursing homes. According to the Inquirer, "The allegations centered on a federal inquiry into the deaths of five elderly patients at two of the homes." The homes were the target of an investigative report on Michael Moore's television series, "The Awful Truth," which focused on what it called "mysterious deaths" of patients. Before the law suit came to court, the homes were closed May 31, 2000. Walter Strine, Jr., stated then that "the cost of licenses, reduced government reimbursements and tension with regulators all contributed to the decision to close the homes."

What does this have to do with the closing theatres? For one thing, actors were housed at two of the Strines’ nursing homes. Another connection is that, as soon as the homes closed, employees began to wonder out loud whether the owners would keep the theaters running. The link between the nursing homes and the theatre became news in 1998 when performers brought charges to Actors Equity of "unacceptable living conditions." Actors Helon Blount and Alden Fulcomer later testified that they were robbed at gunpoint in the parking lot of the nursing home. That same nursing home became the target of an investigative report on Michael Moore's television series, “The Awful Truth.”

According to Rick Berg, senior business representative for Artists Equity, Rockwell moved the cast of Meet Me in St. Louis after the complaints by Blount, Fulcomer and the rest of that cast. But actors in the next show, Carnival, were again housed at St. James, and the nine-member cast filed a complaint in January of 2000. Equity representative Joe Erdey visited the site and reported that the neighborhood was dangerous and that the rooms were not safe because the actors couldn't lock them while they were sleeping, since they were designed for constant-care patients. Neither were the actors' belongings safe while they were out, because the rooms had no locks. Erdey also said the security was inadequate. After Erdey's report, Rockwell housed its casts at the Media Inn, a motel owned by the Strines that is two blocks from the theatre.

The St. James facility is in Chester, a low-income, densely-populated city, many miles from the theatre. Media itself is a quiet suburban town. When they were housed in St. James, the actors were transported in nursing home vans to and from the theatre.

Closely connected with the theatres and Rockwell Productions is The Society for the Performing Arts of The Media Theatre, which claims to be the largest non governmental presenter of varied, professional musical performances in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The Society is a 501c3 (not-for-profit) organization dedicated to contributing to the cultural development of the community and to supporting performers. Its president is Alice W. Strine, who is also executive director of Rockwell Productions. The heads of many Philadelphia-area cultural institutions and industries are on its advisory board. According to Cline, the Society will remain in operation.

The Society, however, served as a front to make money for Rockwell's owners, according to Kirsten Felix, a former staffer at Rockwell. She says that the Society raised money for the noble cause of sending kids to see live theater. But the money was spent to buy tickets, and the proceeds from those ticket sales went to the for-profit Rockwell Productions. Cline says that Felix is only partly correct, and "the money does go to buy tickets for children who otherwise wouldn't get to see live theater." He says that Felix was dismissed from her job as Assistant Director for Marketing for issues related to how she performed her job.

"Strange," Felix responds. She says that Cline spoke at a subscribers' dinner December 6, 1998, "and he said I was doing a fabulous job. In the year after that I increased tickets sold from 27,000 to 44,000 annually in Milton. Then I was fired." She also relates that Cline and another Rockwell executive instructed her to pressure her father, a theatre critic, to write specific things in his reviews.

"During West Side Story we had an actor with a good voice but no acting ability," said Felix. "Jesse came into my office and said: ‘Tell your father not to write anything about his acting.' Then, during Meet Me in St. Louis company manager Roger Riker came to my office and said: ‘Tell your father to say that the cast is very good but the director is bad.' Roger, at that time, was trying to over-rule our director on issues of staging." Kirsten Felix's father, John Felix, writes for the Williamsport Sun Gazette, Milton Daily Item and Lock Haven Express. Kirsten says she never tried to influence her father, and didn't tell him of these incidents until after he had written his reviews.

Felix says she was fired right after she refused to ask her father to slant his reviews. Cline responds: "I never asked her to do anything like that. The important thing is to remember that the Strines are powerful people with a lot of businesses, so naturally they've made some enemies along the way, and some of them are coming out now and trying to settle old scores. Overall, the Strines have done a great service to the community with their theatres." Riker responded (Nov. 16), "Felix was let go because she wasn't selling tickets, and since then she's been bitter. I've been with the company for ten years, and I'd never do that sort of thing."

About 30 people, according to Cline, will lose their jobs at the two theatres because of the closing.

— by Steve Cohen
Special to Playbill On-Line, used by permission