Recession isn't pulling the curtain down on holiday shows

A performance of 'A Servants' Christmas'
Eric (Clark A. Cruikshank) kicks up his heels with his old friend Lillian Russell (Nancy Marvy) to celebrate Christmas.
Photo Courtesy of the History Theater

With all the frantic belt tightening going on this holiday season, regional arts groups such as the Choral Arts Ensemble in Rochester should be feeling some pain at the box office. Shouldn't they?

There are way too many arts groups producing holiday shows in Minnesota to contact all of them. But, the majority MPR talked to are reporting healthy ticket sales, or at least sales that are meeting expectations.

Jim Lichtscheidl plays Jacob Marley along with 17 other characters in "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol." Park Square Theater staff say ticket sales have been strong.
Image courtesy of Park Square Theater

Some might be taking advantage of special offers or buying closer to the performance date.

Kathy Foran is Executive Director of In the Heart of the Beast Mask and Puppet Theatre in Minneapolis, which is presenting La Natividad for the third year in a row.

"We expect the show to sell out," Foran said. "Four of the shows are already sold out, and with very limited tickets for some of the others."

St. Paul's Park Square Theater is offering its first holiday-themed production ever, the one man show "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol." Park Square's director of external relations, Michael John Pease, reports it's been very well received.

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"So far we're at about 81 percent to our sales goal, and we just opened last Friday," he said. "So we're feeling pretty good about that."

Kathy Foran, Executive Director of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis. Foran says the theater's production of La Natividad is expected to sell out.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Ticket sales for the Guthrie Theater's venerable "A Christmas Carol" are meeting projections. The same is true for the Ordway Theater's "White Christmas" extravaganza.

Two years ago, the then brand new "White Christmas," was so popular, its downtown St. Paul neighbor The History Theater took a bath with its holiday show "The Lutefisk Champ."

This year, The History Theater brought back a seasonal favorite, "A Servant's Christmas," and Artistic Director Ron Peluso said audiences are responding.

"A Servant's Christmas has been selling great," Peluso said. "We're two and half weeks in and we're at 50 percent of our goal and we should make our goal for a change."

All the groups are equally positive about season tickets. In fact, The Ordway's subscription ticket sales are up 35 percent over last year. So, where's the impact from the recession?

"People are now just tired of the horrible news and want to get out and escape and see something that makes your heart feel good."

Ron Peluso thinks holiday theatergoers might be taking refuge from the economy.

"People are now just tired of the horrible news and want to get out and escape and see something that makes your heart feel good," he said.

Peluso said in a time of economic upheaval, holiday traditions are reassuring.

Park Square Theater's Michael Jon Pease has noticed that wealthier patrons are cutting back on fancy holiday vacations and opting for arts experiences closer to home.

"People who don't have as much money say 'Do we really need more stuff?'" Pease said. "'Let's get together and really connect whether its just myself or just us as an immediate family or with friends we keep promising to get together with and we never do.' So I think more people are taking fewer vacations and buying more local experiences."

A performance of 'The Holiday Pageant'
'The Holiday Pageant,' a retelling of the Christmas story through the eyes of Lucifer, is being put on by Open Eye Figure Theater for one night only at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis.
Photo Courtesy of Susan Haas

Well attended holiday productions are vital to the bottom lines of arts groups. But foundation grants, corporate gifts and sponsorships and individual donations are what keep most of them afloat. And that's where the concern comes in.

Carolyn Hiller, executive director of the Choral Arts Ensemble in Rochester, said her group is starting to feel the squeeze from businesses.

"[People] who are feeling the squeeze on their bottom dollar and may not have as much to give for sponsorship," Hiller said.

Other business are starting to steer their giving away from the arts toward social services. Many arts groups have become more dependent on individual donors as other sources of funding have dried up. That is why In the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theater's Kathy Foran is feeling so anxious.

"My biggest worry is people lose their jobs or are fearful of losing their jobs, that they too are going to be needing to cut back," she said.

Young actors in 'A Servants' Christmas'
Monica (Nicky Schuenke) teaches the Warner children (Taylor Bolstad and Lucas Bolstad) the story of Hanukkah in A Servants' Christmas playing at History Theatre, through December 28.
Photo Courtesy of the History Theater

Foran said even with strong ticket sales now, if the economy continues down its current path, by this time next year arts groups will truly be suffering.