The refurbished Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis may not have the Dolls, but it looks like it does have a future.
Ballet of the Dolls, the theater’s principal tenant since 2006, has been on hiatus since last spring, when longtime artistic director Myron Johnson dropped out, citing intense job pressures.
The Dolls have no performances on the books, Johnson said Monday. For the first time in many years they will not present their popular, Barbie-doll sendup of “The Nutcracker” this winter. The 2015 outlook remains a question mark.
But the Ritz has hatched a new business plan, booked other performing-arts groups for the coming year and negotiated some debt relief, said Michael Rainville, board chair of both the Dolls and the Ritz Theater Foundation, which owns the building in the heart of an art-centric neighborhood.
“For a while there, we were sweating bricks,” Rainville said. “I thought we’d have to sell the building to pay off the debts. The building is assessed at $1.1 million, and the mortgage is now down to $400,000 for the building and another $50,000 for the Dolls, which we assumed.”
The Ritz also owes $100,000 to the Sheridan Neighborhood Organization, which Rainville described as “inactive; we’re not paying on it.”
The good news, he said, is that “today the Ritz is 68 percent booked on weekends through next fall, which is the highest level since 2007. And we are current on our bills. Things are looking up.”
There are shows booked by dancer-choreographer Kenna Cottman, Frank Theatre and Theatre Latté Da, the highly regarded troupe that Ritz officials hope will be the new anchor tenant.
“We haven’t taken over the Ritz,” said Peter Rothstein, founder of Latté Da. “We are producing ‘Into the Woods’ and our NEXT [musical theater workshop] series there this winter/spring. And we are renting office space. But the Ritz Foundation is still managing the building. We are in conversation with them about playing an ongoing role, but nothing has been put in place at this time.”
Sizable debt from get-go
When it reopened in 2006 after a $2.2 million renovation, the Ritz was heralded as a pillar of the up-and-coming cultural district along 13th Avenue NE that includes galleries, artist housing, restaurants, shops and nightclubs. From the start, however, a sizable debt hung over the theater.
“We came up short of our goal” to pay for the renovation and have some operating reserves for the Dolls, said Craig Harris, executive director of the Dolls from 1996 to 2006. He ran the Ritz from 2003 to 2006. “And it’s hard to build momentum if you don’t have the right people in place on staff in terms of technical expertise, fundraising, marketing, box office.”
The theater also has had to endure the 2008-09 recession and the opening of the $42 million Cowles Center for Dance in downtown Minneapolis in 2011. The board of the Ritz trimmed expenses. By April 1 of this year, when things came to a head, Dolls founder Johnson and box-office staff were the only regular employees at the Ritz, said Johnson. He snapped under the pressure.
“I’m not ashamed to say I suffered a mental breakdown,” he said. “I’d been running, running for 28 years. I always said yes to things that seemed impossible, but I did whatever was necessary to get things done. Being the leader of a company was like being a father to all kinds of people. You have to make sure the bills are paid, that people get along, that everything turns out right. But that’s not always how it works.”
Johnson, 61, said he is undergoing therapy so that he can get back to health and, possibly, revive the Dolls.
“I’m not sure what will happen with the Dolls,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I’m working on me. And I’m getting back to a place again where I’m listening to music and seeing dance again. I’m going to be able to dream.”
He expects to see a new Dolls show in the next year or so, he said. Meanwhile, he and many others hope that the Ritz will thrive.
“We’ve put a lot of energy, a lot of love, into that building,” said Grant Whittaker, who danced with the Dolls and has been Johnson’s partner for 14 years. “We worked hard to get it open and we want the lights to stay on.”