By Richard Whitby
The Daily Star
---- — The Oneonta Theatre, buffeted by losses, will close its doors at the end of December, its owner confirmed Tuesday. But he’s not necessarily locking them.
“I’ve weathered this for a long time by myself,” said Tom Cormier. “I’m just at the point now that … I can’t stand here by myself and weather this anymore.”
He said that while he has put the building on the selling block, he’s not ruling out a partnership with a nonprofit organization committed to operating the theater.
The theater’s future “depends on whether I can muster the support for what I see really needs to happen for this place to stay alive,” he said.
“You have two choices: somebody with a lot more money than me walking in and buying the place and doing whatever they’re going to do with it.
“Or, what I would like to see, is a community, not-for-profit group come in and partner up with me and make this a lasting gem of this community, something that has the ability to educate, to nurture the arts, create entertainment, be an economic driving force and, in the process, not bleed me dry.”
Cormier will meet next week with the board of the nonprofit Friends of the Oneonta Theater, its president, Patrice Macaluso, said.
“I’m not sure where it will go from there, but we’re going to meet next week,” she said Tuesday night.
“I think it is safe to say the members of the board are very positive, they’re very pro-Tom Cormier,” she said. “He’s done a great job on the building. He’s done a good job of kind of pulling things together.”
Cormier bought the 115-year-old theater for $225,000 in June 2009. Initially, he worked with Friends to upgrade the building, which he described Tuesday as being in “disgusting” condition at the time.
“But after watching them for awhile, I realized they were really struggling, and it would take forever before the building was ready to put on shows and be an operational venue,” he said. “I didn’t know if they’d even survive that long. So … I stepped in and got the thing up and operational. But my goal in life is not to run a theater.”
Macaluso, who is chairwoman of the theater department at the State University College at Oneonta, agreed that Cormier was able to get the theater up and running faster than Friends would have been able to do.
But while the group was pushed to the wings, it remained an interested observer, she said.
“We did not disband it, because there was always the likelihood that at some point there would have to be a not-for-profit presence in the operation of the theater,” Macaluso said.
She said very few U.S. theaters operate without a nonprofit component, citing Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas as an exception, but only because it operates free of taxes and has a full house for every performance. Even Broadway theaters have nonprofit components, such as the TKTS ticket outlet, she said.
“I’ve been in theater for 40-something years now,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who runs off pure, straight off the box office.”
She praised Cormier for getting as far as he has.
“He bought a shell of a building,” she said. “He bought quite a wreck. And he has made it clean and dry and all of the parts of it working.”
The building also has six apartments and three storefronts.
“If I shut the theater down, paying my bills is easier,” Cormier said. “Operating the theater is what loses money.”
And low attendance was a major problem with the operation, he said.
“Otsego is one of the slowest recovering places in the country,” he said. “A number people I’ve talked to have said, ‘You’ve got this show coming up this weekend. I would love to go, but I don’t have the $25 for a ticket.’”
“It’s a real challenge to find the right acts at the right price that people can afford to come and enjoy it.”
Cormier said he had “several” full-time employees and 20 to 25 part-timers who will be out of work after the final show, First Night Oneonta on New Year’s Eve.
The theater was built in 1897 and is on the state and national registers of historic places.
“It is older than 95 percent of the theaters in North America,” Macaluso said. “It is really historic.”
It hosted vaudeville shows in its early years and was a first-run movie theater before Cormier took over.