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Musicians from Burnsville shows say they were hoodwinked

  • Article by: JOY POWELL
  • Star Tribune
  • December 25, 2010 - 9:21 PM

Some angry musicians say they've run into a Scrooge in Kevin Von Feldt, producer of "Mame," "A Christmas Carol" and the upcoming "Peter Pan" musical at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center (BPAC).

Von Feldt, the shows' producer, hasn't paid them stipends for their work; it's a repeat performance, they say, of his past failure to pay his debts to performers and others. The Wisconsin man has a checkered history, including a conviction for false advertising in a movie-promotion scam and for "job training" for a nonexistent airline.

Von Feldt, however, said the $50 stipends were to be paid to musicians and actors only if the shows earned enough to break even. "Mame" grossed less than half that, and "A Christmas Carol" grossed two-thirds, he said.

But, Von Feldt said, there was a communication problem involving the person who hired the musicians. Von Feldt would not say who that was, but musicians say it was his conductor. As far as the "communication" problem, Von Feldt said, "they made a big fuss about it and there's not much I can do about it."

About a year ago, his touring production of "A Christmas Carol" was canceled before opening at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis after he failed to come up with money to secure that theater.

Von Feldt has paid what he owes to the publicly owned Burnsville Performing Arts Center, said Executive Director Jon Elbaum,, who said proprietary concerns prevent him from disclosing that amount. The center paid stagehands.

Elbaum said that, despite Von Feldt's background, the shows went on after his assurances that he had changed his ways. Elbaum, who works for the management firm VenuWorks, of Ames, Iowa, is now expressing dismay.

"There are some not-nice people," Elbaum said. "There are some Bernie Madoffs of the world, and that's true in any industry."

Some musicians are complaining in letters to the Burnsville City Council, to Mayor Elizabeth Kautz and to Elbaum, saying they didn't know the stipends were conditional. The mayor and Elbaum apologized to them.

Paul Jacques, co-chairman of an advisory commission overseeing the center, suggests that it establish benchmarks to consider when hiring promoters.

Von Feldt said a only a handful of the 21 Mame musicians are complaining.

They say Von Feldt had his conductor advertise on Craigslist for musicians, offering a $50 stipend for each of four shows, though one was cancelled.

Melissa Cummings, who played flute and piccolo in "Mame," wrote to Elbaum, the mayor and the City Council, saying she was initially offered $200.

"Approximately two weeks after 'Mame' closed, none of us had received our checks, and Mr. Von Feldt sent an e-mail to all the orchestra members stating that due to unforeseen expenses and poor attendance for 'Mame,' and his obligation to pay [Burnsville Performing Arts Center] staff before any other members of the production team, he would not be able to provide the promised stipend to the orchestra members.

"However, he did promise that his upcoming production of 'A Christmas Carol' would bring in more revenue due to lower production costs, and he would be able to provide the orchestra with our payments after that show."

Von Feldt, however, soon wrote to musicians and said "the worst storm in 20 years" essentially killed "A Christmas Carol." It grossed $30,800, $15,000 short of what he'd expected.

Three-quarters of those who bought advance tickets for the Saturday, Dec. 11, show didn't attend, and half didn't show on Sunday, even though they had tickets. Few bought at the door.

"Mame" grossed $19,800, less than half of what was needed to break even. That show lost $62,000, he wrote, adding that his firm, Burnsville Civic Light Opera, "is not in a position to pay any of the MAME debt, including stipends for musicians."

Von Feldt said now, he'll convert to nonprofit status and won't do future productions until getting grants, donations and other arts revenue.

He said his upcoming productions, beginning with "Peter Pan" Jan. 20-23, will use back tracks, with recorded instruments but no musicians.

Gregory Whitcomb played trombone in Mame but says he'll never again work for Von Feldt.

Whitcomb wrote to Elbaum and others, questioning why Von Feldt "spent so much money on elaborate sets when they were not making budget."

Whitcomb also blasted the performing arts center's staff "for allowing so many local people to get 'stiffed.'"

Joy Powell • 952.882-9017

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