Potential Buyers Circle Around Livent

News   Potential Buyers Circle Around Livent
 
As it becomes less and less probable that Livent will survive its current ordeal as an independent company, the question among theatre and business circles has become which company will be the Canadian theatrical producing concern's white knight? Livent officials will not comment on any potential sale, but recent reports in Variety and other trades have such entertainment conglomerates as Cablevision Systems Corp., Ogden Corp., and SFX Entertainment showing interest.

As it becomes less and less probable that Livent will survive its current ordeal as an independent company, the question among theatre and business circles has become which company will be the Canadian theatrical producing concern's white knight? Livent officials will not comment on any potential sale, but recent reports in Variety and other trades have such entertainment conglomerates as Cablevision Systems Corp., Ogden Corp., and SFX Entertainment showing interest.

SFX, in a sense, has already bought part of Livent, which declared bankruptcy in November. SFX owns Pace Theatricals, which recently took over Livent's struggling national tour of the musical Ragtime. Livent washed its hands of the road show after its Minneapolis stop on Nov. 21. Pace has agreed to shepherd the tour to its Seattle and Boston dates. SFX declined to comment on Livent.

Cablevision, meanwhile, is no doubt looking to broaden its already wide theatrical holdings. A majority owner of Madison Square Garden, and the theatre within, as well as Radio City Music Hall, Cablevision purchased and revamped the musical The Scarlet Pimpernel earlier this year. Cablevision also refused to comment.

Ogden operates theme parks such Tinseltown Studios in Anaheim and Jazzland in Louisiana. It also has interests in live theatre. Ogden's spokesman was traveling and unavailable for comment.

Conventional wisdom has all suitors primarily interested in Livent's real estate holding, specifically its theatres in New York, Chicago and Toronto. Theatres which can house a large musical are scarce in New York, and the shortage of facilities makes the Ford Center an especially attractive prospect. Experts estimate the Livent empire to be worth $60 to $80 million. The Ford Center alone is reported to have cost Livent more than $30 million. In recent days, Livent tried to make itself more attractive to investors by eliminating some 100 of 250 full-time Livent employees, most in Toronto, in the wake of Livent's bankruptcy crisis.

Most of the full-time employees, from managers and producers to press agents and accountants, were in the Toronto office of the beleaguered musical theatre producer and theatre operator. The Vancouver and New York offices lost employees as well, according to Jim Badenhausen, legal spokesperson for Livent.

The most surprising dismissal was longtime Livent executive Marty Bell. Bell was elevated to the rank of senior producer shortly after founder Garth Drabinsky's suspension in the summer. Many thought him a likely candidate for Drabinsky's post as creative director, before that job was offered to Roundabout head Todd Haimes. Haimes was not among those jettisoned Nov. 30.

As senior producer, Bell was in charge of Livent's productions of Ragtime, Fosse, and Parade and was intimate with such developing projects as musicals The Sweet Smell of Success, Pal Joey and The Seussical.

Eleanor Goldhar, director of corporate public relations for Livent, said those in-development shows are still a go, with creative people -- directors, authors, composers, lyricists and presumably Haimes -- moving ahead until money comes in to rejuvenate the company. She indicated that those shows are the future of Livent.

"We're going to be very show-based," said Goldhar Dec. 2, adding that Livent's immediate priorities are the five shows that are currently generating dough. They are: Ragtime in Chicago and New York; Fosse, beginning previews Dec. 26 in New York; the co-production with Lincoln Center of Parade in New York and The Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages Theatre in Toronto.

A Livent spokesperson for Phantom said the challenge this week is getting word out to tour groups, vacationers and general theatregoers that the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (which just celebrated its ninth year in Toronto) is a proven money-maker for the company and that it is healthy and continuing.

The full-time firings happened in every department across the board, according to Livent spokespeople. Phone calls to the company literally took longer to be answered due to the overworked remaining employees and the lack of support staff.

Part-time, hourly employees at the Livent-operated Ford Centres for the Performing Arts in Toronto and Vancouver were let go, too: Of 633 people, representing ushers, house management, cleaning crews and more, 273 were laid off (158 in North York, Ontario, and 115 in Vancouver).

--By Robert Simonson and Kenneth Jones

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