By Wayne Harada
Above: Ruth Bolan, president of Hawaii Theatre Center; right, Burton White with the Brothers Cazimero. Star-Advertiser and MidWeek photos.
What just happened at the Hawaii Theatre — the termination Jan. 31 of Burton White, the artistic director and general manager, and Matt James, the house manager — is a reflection that plagues other community cultural groups.
Now led by Ruth Bolan, who succeeded Sarah Richards last June as president of the Hawaii Theatre Center, she and the Hawaii Theatre are struggling for survival, with a $350,000 deficit expected in the upcoming 2015-16 season starting this fall. Its budget for the season also is an identical $350,000.
Thus the Hawaii board of directors had to mandate trims to remain afloat, so White (who joined the theater administration in 1995) and James — were part of the belt-tightening strategic planning decision, said Bolan.
Ruth Bolan, the Hawaii Theatre Center’s president who succeeded longtime honcho Sarah Richards last June, said two of 14 staff positions were terminated as part of the theater’s strategic planning.
“The financial reality, after six months or so, meant we had to flatten out some budgetary items,” said Bolan. “The reaction, from the board, is that we had to let go Burton White and Matt James.”
White declined immediate comment, but replied via email after mounting buzz that he was out: “It’s true, nothing for the record yet.”
White has had a long relationship with the historic downtown venue, from the time he produced with Tommy Aguilar the “Dreamgirls” musical which featured then-unknown Loretta Ables (now Sayre). Over the yers, he championed Hawaiian music spectacles with The Brothers Cazimero and produced the popular winter bonbon “A Merry Christmas With Friends and Nabors,” starring Jim Nabors and a coterie of island stars, which ran a decade largely as a benefit for the theater.
That’s what the entertainment community needs — but at a price. While his salary has not been disclosed, nor that of his successor as director of programming, John Parkinson, the challenge is to maintain and build on White’s accomplishments and level of professionalism. On future show bookings, Parkinson — formerly Ballet Hawaii’s honcho —is a new hire already at work who will collaborate with Bolan, who’ll don the hat of artistic director and help shape the programming.
James, whose duties as house manager, was to oversee the bar concession. That role now will be provided by an outside concessionaire, Christian Self of Bevy, a Kakaako specialty bar hangout.
John Parkinson, formerly with Ballet Hawaii, already is on the job as a newly titled director of programming, handling some of the booking chores. He will work with Bolan and map out the performance agenda for 2015-16 season, beginning next fall; Bolan will pull up her sleeves and manage the staff.
Bolan has legit theatrical credits as a former producer on Broadway in the mid-1980s, with additional gigs off Broadway in New York and at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
Among Bolan’s plans over the next two decades:
• Foster growth with an eye on attracting family audiences, but maintain some of the Hawaiiana the theater has been known for as well as incorporate other spokes on the cultural wheel: ballet, symphony, pop music, film, dance, theatrical endeavors.
• Attract a future generation — the iPad, YouTube crowd — whose parents remember the “old” Hawaii Theatre pre-renovations, who may not yet have witnessed one of the productions post-renovations.
• Table plans for backstage expansion, once on the theater’s agenda, to create wing and fly space required by larger, particularly traveling shows. “This would require a $25 million capital improvement project we can’t do now,” she said. “We don’t want to do ‘The Lion King’ and can’t — we would need 800 more seats.”
The Hawaii Theatre seats 1,400 and 600 orchestra seats, with 800 in loges and balcony, appropriate for smaller shows. “I do have some ambitious plans, but can’t divulge them yet.”
“I wish we could book a show daily,” said Bolan, “because a day without a show is a like a day without sunshine.”
She added: “We wish Burton well and hope he will produce a show or two for the theater theater next season,” said Bolan.