In the end, it was the shoe store that did it.
Karen Lotman knew that the Prince Music Theater was in trouble: As a member of Prince’s board since 2000, she had seen the organization’s original mission of presenting seasons filled with new American musicals fall prey to a growing budget deficit that ultimately led to a 2010 bankruptcy filing. While the Chestnut Street landmark was still open, its schedule had been drastically curtailed because of lack of funds, and it was getting harder to book for upcoming seasons.
In 2012, she kept hearing a rumor that the theater, which had been operating since 1999, when it first opened as the permanent home for the American Music Theater Festival, was going to be shuttered and the space converted into a shoe store. She knew something had to be done to save it. And so it was that she found herself interrupting her husband Herb’s cherished Sunday ritual of reading the Sunday New York Times at their Haverford home.
“Karen said, ‘I need to talk to you,’ ” Herb recalled during a joint phone conversation. “I said, ‘OK, fine. I’m in trouble.’ ”
She asked her husband if he remembered how, when Mayor Michael Nutter called him in 2009 to save the Dad Vail Regatta when it lost its sponsorship, he made sure that the May tradition continued on with new corporate support. “I said I did. Then she told me, ‘Well, I need you to save the Prince.’ I told her it was going into foreclosure and was going to become a shoe store!”
Evidently, Karen Lotman’s powers of persuasion over her husband were just as potent as were his over the group of investors he put together following that conversation. A few months later, in November of last year, it was announced that the Prince Music Theater was no longer in bankruptcy. And beginning with a special Shoah Foundation event on Sept. 12 to mark the 20th anniversary of the release of Schindler’s List, the Prince will offer a full slate of programming for the 2013-2014 season.
Herb Lotman, a Philadelphia native who is the founder and former CEO of Keystone Foods (in addition to being inducted into the Meat Hall of Fame, he is also responsible for creating and supplying McDonald’s with the Chicken McNugget), said that it took less than two months to work out the details of resolving the Prince’s $5 million debt with TD Bank. “It was probably the hardest thing I have ever been involved with in business, and I never want to do it again,” he said.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this for the Prince. Located in the former Midtown movie theater, the organization opened to great fanfare in 1999, with the blessing and the name of legendary Broadway director-producer Harold Prince, who has won 21 Tony Awards by bringing classics like West Side Story, Sweeney Todd and Cabaret to the stage.
For years, the Prince lived up to its mission: It produced 92 world premiere plays, sending 81 of them on to be produced in New York and around the world. Among the more notable productions to debut there have been Julie Taymor’s The Transposed Heads; Duke Ellington’s Queenie Pie; and Bob Telson and Lee Breuer’s Gospel at Colonus.
Ultimately, though, focusing solely on new works was an unsustainable business model, said Karen Lotman. “The mission of the Prince was a wonderful one. The problem is, it’s hard to only do that kind of show, not knowing what the audience reaction will be. By the end, as it was failing, we tried to balance one or two familiar shows with one or two new ones.”
Her husband, who is now the chairman of the Prince, agreed with his wife’s assessment about the focus on new works. Accordingly, for the 2013-2014 season, the theater will be presenting, rather than producing events. Among the shows booked into the main 455-seat theater are a live musical version of the Sam Raimi cult favorite, The Evil Dead; Potted Potter; a two-man, 70-minute performance that will encompass all seven Harry Potter books; and I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Musik from the Weimar and Beyond, starring the cabaret artist Mark Nadler.
Karen Lotman said that after seeing Nadler’s show, “You’ll never think of the Weimar Republic in the same way again.” And she should know: She has produced not only all four of his albums but the show itself, which was most recently at the York Theater in New York.
That relationship with Nadler also led to the revival of a cabaret series for the Prince’s second stage, the 146-seat Morgan’s Cabaret. The series, which will bring Patti LuPone, Karen Akers and Barbara Cook to town, was something fans must have been looking for: All three shows sold out within three days of tickets going on sale earlier this month.
The lineups aren’t the only changes that theatergoers will notice. Karen Lotman, who has 25 years’ experience as an interior designer, took charge of refreshing the interior of the theater, replacing everything from the seats to the lights to the concession stands. There is also a new high-definition 3-D movie projection system and an improved sound system.
According to Herb Lotman, the next change will be the most visible. The Prince is in preliminary talks with corporations interested in purchasing the naming rights for the theater. Harold Prince has gone on record saying that he doesn’t want to be associated with a theater that doesn’t produce new shows, telling Playbill magazine in 2010: “A number of years ago, I disassociated myself from the Prince Music Theater because it had not nurtured new musicals in the way that I had originally hoped when I agreed to lend my name.” He has indicated, however, that he is still fine with the theater named after him at the Annenberg Center.
Herb Lotman said he sees no downside to the name change. “It’s a great opportunity to put your name in front of the 4 million people a year walking down Chestnut or Broad.” He added that it should take four to six months to finalize a deal.
This type of hands-on involvement is nothing out of the ordinary for the Lotmans, both in their 70s. They founded the Macula Vision Research Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to finding a cure for macular degeneration and other retinal diseases, 20 years ago after Karen’s mother was diagnosed with the condition. In the years since, the foundation has raised $20 million for research. And in addition to their support of the Shoah Foundation, Herb Lotman has been active for years at Main Line Reform Temple; worked to upgrade housing for Jewish seniors in Northeast Philadelphia; and led the McDonald’s LPGA Championship to raise $49 million for the Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing for families whose children are undergoing treatment in hospitals. His wife continues to work with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
“We have two main things in our lives,” she said. “One is our family, and the other is giving back to the community.” Her husband’s commitment to tzedakah goes back to what his father, a butcher, taught him about social responsibility. “I was always taught, you take a lot out of the community, you have to put a lot back in for the people who need help,” he said.
Or, in the case of the Prince, the people who need quality entertainment.