Le Petit Cabaret’s board wants it to be new Brennan’s
6th July 2011 · 1 Comment
By Christopher Tidmore
The Louisiana Weekly
Dickie Brennan has argued that his proposal to put a restaurant in a Jackson Square theatrical landmark is the only viable means to save the oldest continually operated community theater in the United States.
However, in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré Guild President Jim Walpole alleged that Brennan is the recipient of a sweetheart deal from that community theatre’s board.
The head of the theatre’s booster club argued that the Le Petit Board of Governor’s proposal to sell 60 percent of Le Petit’s building to Brennan to build a Creole restaurant would “fundamentally change the character” of the community theatre. The loss of critical set, costume, and performance space would essentially turn Le Petit “into an auditorium”, not a working theatre.
The Guild’s charges had enough resonance that Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese extended a restraining order on Monday, June 27, preventing any sale through July.
Dickie Brennan countered in a press conference late Thursday evening that the $3 million that he has offered to purchase the majority of Le Petit’s building is the only viable financial plan to keep the community theatre’s doors open.
Brennan spoke to the media on the Murial’s Cabaret Stage — formally known as the Children’s Theater — maintaining that his offer of $50 per square foot is higher than the value of other properties in the vicinity. Moreover, the restaurateur continued, the $3 million to $4 million in renovations the Brennan Group plans for their side of the building would only enhance the theater, as would the subsequent maintenance of common areas such as the court yard and bathrooms.
Brennan would build within that current cabaret theatre a French Creole-style restaurant decorated in a 19th-century fashion, flanked with crimson and gold curtains and pale green rooms. The paintings on the wall would evoke The Drawing Room Players, a French Quarter theater club that preceded Le Petit. Waiters would wear 1880s-style uniforms as they served the proposed 100-seat eatery.
Brennan said he and his partners believe they can “run a successful operation and at the same time this theater can evolve to the next level.”
Walpole disagrees that the Brennan offer is the only option. According to him, “The board of governors have said that it’s Dickie Brennans or nothing!
“There is a comparable deal out there that would accomplish the same thing,” Walpole explained. Gary Solomon, Jr., according to the Guild president, has organized a group to pay off the over $700,000 in mortgage and $200,000 in subscriber debt that Le Petit has on its books. “It would be purely a philanthropic venture.”
Solomon reportedly asks for nothing other than the stipulation that the Le Petit’s Board of governor’s open their books to scrutiny by the members.
Of that, “the board is leery”, according to Walpole.
The board has questioned whether Solomon can come up with sufficient contributions to pay off the debt, and provide a million dollars in capital improvements. Walpole believes that Solomon can, based on the young theatre investor’s work with Le Petit in the past. Regardless, though, even if Solomon could not, Walpole does not believe the Le Petit Board of Governors is being honest in the way it raises money for the theatre.
“One of our main concerns is that the board did not open the process for other investors,” Walpole explained. No one besides Brennan was “asked to invest or to make a deal for the board.”
In fact, the owner of Murial’s Restaurant, located on the other side of Jackson Square from Le Petit, had asked several board members whether they had any interest in an offer from his company.
Murial’s is a long time benefactor of Le Petit, hence the full name of the cabaret stage.
He was not allowed to even offer a bid, according to Walpole. While the Guild president does not think it is a good idea to build an eatery, he added, “if the board of governors is determined that part will become a restaurant, if you can get more money, get it.” A better deal for the community theatre might be out there.
The fact that the Le Petit Board has not sought other bidders besides Brennan has made the booster club president suspicious.
As has the fact that “only three members of the board governors bought season subscriptions,” the minimum needed to be a voting member of Le Petit. The fact that several of the people seeking to sell 60 percent of the nearly one hundred year old theater are not actually voting members, according to the organization’s bylaws, seems improper. (Board members are nominated by other board members, and then usually presented to the general membership in August for confirmation.)
“The charter of Le Petit is not just to put on plays, it is to preserve the building,” the Guild Pres. continued. By not taking into account that second part of the mandate of the founding documents, he charged that the theatre board of governors has overstepped its authority.
By changing the bylaws to attempt to approve a sale prior to the August General Membership Meeting, the governors have definitely exceeded their mandate; hence, Walpole explains, the Guild’s success in gaining a restraining order until the General meeting.
Walpole contends that, “the bank is not ready to foreclose on our building,” he said. “Foreclosure is not an issue…There is plenty of time for the board to consider other options.”
Nor is the argument that the cabaret stage is not a historic performance venue relevant. The board says there were not performances prior to 1962.
“Well 1962 was not yesterday,” Walpole pointed out, adding that the Guild has evidence that there have “been performances for many years before 1962” on the corner stage.
He recounted a Guild meeting where television personality Bob Carr remembered his son acting in what is now the corner theatre in the 1950s.
That part of the building was reconstructed in 1962, but it served the same purpose prior to that time.
Brennan, however, noted that there had been a restaurant on that corner spot in the 1800s, Café de la Louisiane, long prior to Le Petit’s tenancy. It is one of the names that Brennan has considered for the restaurant.
Others monikers have included Le Petit Bistro and Tableaux at Le Petit Theatre.
The restaurateur argued that time is of the essence. His proposed restaurant, if approved by Le Petit’s membership in a meeting scheduled for late July could be in operation in eight months, with the corresponding capital investment refilling the community theatre’s coffers by next season.
Because of the courtyard, a bank of new restrooms and a thick firewall that would separate the restaurant from the theater, Brennan anticipated that the restaurant would not interfere with the operation of the theater.
Brennan Group partner Steve Pettus justified their position with a photograph to point out that the legendary Sardi’s restaurant in New York shares a wall with the Helen Hayes Theater.
Walpole called that argument nonsense, since the Brennan’s restaurant would also take most of the main theatre’s dressing rooms, set construction facilities, and prop storage. “The board has said that we might rent space off sight, but how is that saving any money for Le Petit?”
“The amount that Mr. Brennan is offering is not that much, in the grand scheme of things. We can raise two million dollars. And, the third million [that he has offered] for an endowment, would only produce about $40,000 [in payments]…very little in real terms.
“We can get a better deal,” Walpole concluded to the Weekly. “At our website www.savelepetit.com, over 2,000 people have signed our petition. There are people all over the United States interested in saving Le Petit.
“We want the board of governors to exercise their fiduciary right,” he maintained. Le Petit’s problem is that the board will not do their job. “The national average of fundraising for boards is 60 percent. Our board is six to seven percent.
“The board did not take the bull by the horns…They do not want to do a capital campaign.”
Le Petit, which has operated a theatre at Jackson Square since 1916, has had the problem of large debt previously.
Approximately a quarter of a century ago, it faced roughly the same debt, and many of the same infrastructure problems.
Under then Board of Governors Chair Bill Coe, the theatre raised nearly a million dollars to pay off the mortgage and fund a makeover.
This article originally published in the July 4, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.