Know Your History

Historic Theatres have a unique opportunity to continually celebrate their history. From old newspaper ads and clippings to oral histories, our theatres are a virtual gold mine of nostalgia. Having said that, its often hard to find the time to “work” that material to our own ends, given the other tasks that fill our days. With changing audience demographics, it will become harder and harder to engage patrons in our history, if we aren’t masters of it. Here are some suggestions to consider as we all struggle to stay relevant in the future, but pay homage to our past.

Use Volunteers to Research your History – Many times your volunteers can be the perfect resource for research. Not only have they demonstrated an interest in your theatre, but often they have the free time to spend at the library, on-line or interviewing the public for stories. Establish some goals and assist with direction and recognition and prepare to be wowed by what comes in.

Look Everywhere – Many times we forget to ask for help from obvious sources. Might there be plans of your theatre in the local historical society or building department plans review department? Will the local paper help to solicit stories and photographs from readers? You don’t know until you ask – or have a volunteer ask for you.

Celebrate Your Finds – Once you have some significant research/history at your fingertips, don’t keep it a secret – let the world know about it. A simple lobby display, page or two on your website and press release to the media, will no doubt lead to more information.

Communicate/Educate – It’s crucial to also share what you find with your staff and volunteers. There’s nothing worse than overhearing a volunteer tell inaccurate information to a patron. Make an effort to educate any staff that comes in contact with the public, as well as all volunteers, about the history of your building.

Who’s In Charge?

Management of a non-profit organization presents an unusual structure that can be both successful as well as prone to failure. While many historic theatres operate under a non-profit management structure, with a board of directors, there are as many horror stories as there are success stories.

Finding the right mix of talent, passion and ego in support of an organization’s mission can often be challenging, and smooth operations can often be cyclical with troubled times, depending upon the composition of key members of the management staff and board of directors. An important starting point is a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of each party. For example, a non-profit board is tasked, by definition, to guide the overall actions of the organization and make sure it stays true to its mission. They are responsible for the fiscal health of the entity, as well as the legal compliance related to the tax-exempt status. They are responsible for the evaluation and performance of the C.E.O./executive director. A good board operates at a level far above the daily operations. By contrast, a board is not responsible for the day-to-day operations of an organization, they are not responsible for acting as the chief spokesperson, or for reviewing staff performance issues.

An executive director of an historic theatre also has specific roles that need to be filled while not doing the board’s job. A good director will interface with the board to keep them up to speed, will offer counsel on how board decisions relate to operations and will support board activities in regard to fundraising. A good ED will also represent the organization to the community, be the liaison to the full staff and will be accountable for implementing the board’s vision of the organization.

So who’s in charge? Ideally a partnership should exist between a board chair and an executive director. A relationship based upon trust, respect, shared goals and communication. The challenge is to keep that relationship intact through changing board leadership and both good times and bad times in a theatre’s life. Much like the hiring process for an executive director, board leadership should be carefully vetted with the goal of an harmonious working relationship as the goal.

Thank you for your leadership in sustaining historic theatres for the benefit of their communities and future generations.

Fran Holden
Former Executive Director, League of Historic American Theatres, Inc.