CF Interviews: Louis Salamone, Owner/Creative Director, Theatres at 45 Bleecker

Deanna Dunagan and Peter Friedman in their corners. Photo: Joan Marcus.

45BleeckerIn the nearly 20 years I’ve covered New York theater, I can’t recall receiving a press release advertising a theater as an investment opportunity. I’m not talking about a prospectus for investing in a show — those I’ve seen and they, too, are fascinating documents, especially if you’re jazzed by the minutiae of LLCs and such. This press release, however, announced that Louis S. Salamone, whose title is Owner/Creative Director at the theater complex at 45 Bleecker Street, “has created a new business model for Off-Broadway theater with his multiuse, hybrid theater complex which is open 18 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Salamone, the release goes on to state, “has created an investment package similar to a mutual fund, allowing investors to spread their investments among several shows as well as in the theatre complex itself.” Well, inquiring minds want to know more.

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The prospectus is a comprehensive document running 26 pages and includes a nice selection of images from across the venue, which totals about 15,000 square feet and includes two main performance spaces as well as a third, rather informal one; plus a sandwich cafe, nighttime bar, art gallery and, most important, “multiple revenue streams.” (The complex’s latest tenant, by the way, is the return of Puppetry of the Penis. Ironically, it’s a show not known for giving theater owners the shaft.)

Still, none of the information in the release struck me as eyebrow-raising, only perhaps that a theater owners is aiming to run his venue like a mutual fund. The truth is, there’s been plenty of chatter through the years among owners of theaters, be they commercial or nonprofit, and in particular those involved in capital campaigns and being a landlord, regarding the importance of maximizing revenue from a space. It’s a discussion that ought to generate free-market thinking, so in that sense, Salamone’s proposal is perhaps organic to our times, if not surprising.

The prospectus is also finely detailed. It covers the ways Salamone and his team have kept the complex infused with activity, theatrical or otherwise. There is a long-term lease and an option to buy the building. “This is the permanent home for this theater complex,” it says.

On to the fiscal details. The “investment” will total $600,000, sold in 48 units of $12,500 apiece, although Salamone is open to one person making that investment; ownership’s investment is $300,000, “plus sweat equity.” Investors “will not be allowed to participate in the day-to-day operation and decisions of the complex, but they will be informed and allowed to vote on all major decisions involving the complex.” They will also comprise 48 percent of the ownership; Salamone, et. al., represent 52 percent. There are the expected statements regarding net profits (the first $160,000 is “held in reserve“; the next $600,000 is “proportionately divided amongst the investors until all investors have recouped 100% of their investment”…). And there are itemized figures on the start-up costs incurred thus far to get the complex up to speed. It’s a well-done document. The analysis of projected revenues and projected expenses is also fascinating if you’re an aspiring producer. Or, even if you have no plans to go the route of David Merrick, examining the document is educational. So I do think the plan has merit — only time will tell if, how and when it pays dividends.

Salamone, however, had some surprises and some strong, provocative statements to make about Off-Broadway, the nonprofit business model and especially Actors’ Equity.

Tell me what’s behind your business plan.
The thing that destroyed the commercial theater was nonprofit: they don’t have to make a profit or they can go get a grant or subsidy. There’s no more grants or subsidies, and over the past decade lots of them have produced nothing. Most theaters run only four hours a day. So my business plan changes that.

How does this work? The part about theaters being underutilized seems on target, but on Broadway the whole issue is about unions.
That right. Well, when we took over this theater, we went with the casino model: how much income can we get per square foot per minute per day. The way we’ve done that is that we have children’s shows in the morning, seven days a week. We’re not producing most of the children’s shows, but we here we have the Shadow Box Theatre, which is a nonprofit. They do two shows a day and bus children in from schools before 2pm. How many theaters have that? We know it’s something communities definitely want. And we worked with Shadow Box to negotiatea very, very favorable rate.

That’s 10 hours…
Then there’s Pinkalicious, the Musical-the book has sold something like half a million copies. That’s on at 1pm Saturdays and Sundays and we’ll have 300 children here-300 girls dressed in pink. That’s not the beginning of our weekend day, though: We rent the theater at 9am Saturdays and Sundays for I believe the largest AA meeting in New York. I won’t say AA pays full rent, but it counts toward per square foot, per minute of the day.

So you take all these off-hour shows-9ams, Monday nights-and no, they aren’t paying as much rent as our main shows would pay, but our objective has been whether we could get these to equal 50% of our rent. And by this October, it’ll equal three-fourths. The last piece helping to push us over is Amato Opera.

So Amato is continuing, despite closing on the Bowery.
What happened was Tony Amato wanted to retire and did, which everybody knows. His niece and her husband, who’d really been running it for 20 years, started their own opera company and they’re going to present three shows a week-Wednesday at 2, Saturday at 1 and Sunday at 7-off-hour dates. They move in as of October. And we’re now on their board. If they’re healthy and survive, we’re healthy and survive.

Your prospectus, in the early section about the use of space, talks about the café and wine bar, which are central amenities and ancillary revenue streams for you.
That’s the second main point I was getting to before. We have a café in our lobby, much like European theaters. There was a sandwich shop, Crosby Sandwiches-this counter on the street for 10 years that lost their space. We had them move into our theater; they’ve been a hit since day one. Between that and the beer and wine license, we’re paying rent, basic bills without depending on a main show. It’s taken us two years to get here. As far as the main shows, we have two stages most people know: the Bleecker Street Theatre and the Green Room. When we don’t have shows, because of all the off-hour shows and the beer and wine and café, we’re still paying our rent and our bills. When we have main shows, they pay a very large rent, so we’re then able to pay off any improvements on infrastructure and make a profit. Our great luck was Sleepwalk With Me, which ran almost a year. Prior to that was Almost an Evening. We’ve had luck with the right shows. And the economy being bad has helped us. People aren’t taking big weekend trips. If they have kids, they want to get out, so they’re going to movies and Off-Broadway. Tickers are up 25 percent because people can afford to see shows like Pinkalicious. You know, a woman came up to me and said the four tickets she bought equaled one Lion King ticket and that she could take her family to see it. Like the first quarter of 2009, when McDonalds and Kmart did well, we do well because we’re affordable.

So walk me through more of the opportunity.
When I was starting this, I was underfinanced. We’re still trying to pay off start-up costs. Someone could invest one share for $12, 500 and with that we’ll offer a half-share of any shows we internally produce. I look at that as being the back-end. Here, if you’re investing in Off-Broadway, you’re investing in a number of shows. All you need is one hit, one hit like Blue Man Group. This spring, we did our first self-produced show. We’re dedicated to developing Off-Broadway shows. In other words, I don’t believe that shows should be developed by nonprofits. The greatest shows were developed by some lunatic mortgaging his house.

Aren’t you being a little rough on the nonprofit business model?
No. They can fail and still have a hit. They can walk in with all this money a commercial producer wouldn’t have. Let’s be honest: things like the Roundabout may have nonprofit banners but they’re commercial producers with a boost, basically. They hurt commercial producers because the unions have it set up where they can pay actors less money. People like the Shuberts and the Nederlanders have gotten smart-let’s set up a nonprofit and we will get all the benefits and we’ll still be commercial. It’s not hurting Broadway as much as Off-Broadway.

And look, I’ve general-managed shows; I’ve been in the theater business 12 years. Here, my logic was: How can I have a model that will succeed as commercial theater? I didn’t think about the nonprofit business model. And I think I’ve come up with something that works. Of the 10 longest-running and biggest moneymaking shows, not only are eight of them within walking distance of my theater, they were also nonunion.

The purist in me doesn’t necessarily consider Blue Man Group as theater. They’re a lot of entertainments.
I think Blue Man Group is as legitimate a theater piece as any other. A play or musical can’t be produced Off-Broadway today with an Actors’ Equity contract, and without a union contract it can’t be sold through TDF or through TKTS and it can’t be reviewed by the Times or Time Out. So we’ve had to find other ways to make money.

There are these kids who rent with us-the Barefoot Theatre Company, a small nonprofit who are the smartest kids off the block, I think, turning Dog Day Afternooninto a play. I feel the problem is smart stuff can’t advance because of the way Equity has things set up. The people who should get some of the benefits-the deal nonprofits like Roundabout get-don’t get them. They have to deal with the same stuff as commercial producers-either doing a Showcase, which is useless because no one will see it, or a mini-contract which they can’t afford. These small nonprofits are hampered by Equity and being put out of business by the same union that should be helping them.

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There’s a lot of frustration with Equity in the Off-Off-Broadway community. They make incremental moves toward Showcase reform I don’t know anyone impressed by their commitment to change.
See, the models for theater don’t work anymore. In order for a small theater to survive, I had to find a new model. We’re surviving. The first three years here were difficult; we’re finally reached what our model was set up to do. Anyone investing in us will profit with us. I’m hoping it’ll become a model others will copy.

But Equity isn’t going to go anyway.
No. The two main problems in the business are unions have not been our friends and they really have not helped commercial Off-Broadway at all. There’s been this movement that Off-Broadway should be 42nd Street and above, and not much love for Off-Broadway that is below 42nd Street or downtown, where Off-Broadway should still be. Guys like Scott Morfee at Barrow Street, myself, Larry Page at Actors’ Playhouse, Dana Matthow at the Soho Playhouse-we all know each other and agree there are things going on that are just wrong. Like the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, which shouldn’t say it represents Off-Broadway theater.

Why?
Because the League signed a back-door deal with Actors’ Equity that its members will be 100 percent with the union. If you have a kids party in the lobby, you have to be Equity. Children’s shows tend not to be Equity-I couldn’t do them in my theater if we were a part of the League. Pinkalicious, run by the Vital Theatre Company-I mean, the League signed this deal, then went to Pinkalicious and told Vital they had to be Equity and Vital said, “We can’t afford that.” New World Stages told them, “You have to be union or you have to leave the theater,” so they left. The League no longer represents commercial Off-Broadway, it represents nonprofit Off-Broadway. So the Off-Broadway Alliance is trying to pick up the slack.

You really rattling some sabers, Louis.
TKTS will not run a show that’s non-Equity anymore-Blue Man Group will never be on TKTS again. How much sense does this make? They say it’s because it’s not professional if it’s not Equity. Well, let’s call it what it is: TDF and TKTS are monopolies and they’re breaking all kinds of rules and laws. We have trouble getting critics because Equity tells the Times, “Don’t go.” When you can’t be sold on TKTS, you don’t have that cushion.

But TDF is under no obligation with TKTS to sell anyone’s tickets, though.
But they can take taxpayer dollars and say, “We can’t sell your tickets”? TDF’s initial mission statement was to help develop theater. Where did it say that it had to be Equity theater? I general-managed a number of shows that were Equity and non-Equity and we weren’t on TKTS and it was the difference between running two weeks and 10 months.

I feel like I have to stop you here. Scott Morfee, as you say, is in your same boat and he makes a profit. Who’d have thought that Our Town, with a cast that large, in a house with limited seating, would run for months and run into the black?
All I know is these monopolies are lawsuits waiting to happen-not from people like me, not from people like Scott Morfee, but sooner or later someone is going to go complain to the government, and the Justice Department or the state Attorney General is going to step up and say, “You are discriminating and stopping commerce.” They’re going to be in lots of trouble. They cannot use as a criteria that you have to belong to a union.

So what do you recommend as a solution to the whole union issue, since Equity isn’t going to go away? Plenty of members like their union.
I have no clue. If I was an Equity member, I’d be screaming mad. They have done such awful, evil things to their own people. I can’t respect a union that treats its rank and file so badly. There’s two union contracts-one for the administration that runs Equity and one for the actors. Why is that? Basically, actors have to work six months before you can get healthcare while the people who work in the office have healthcare from the day they start-and dental, too. Unions have become above the people running them; it’s supposed to be rank and file running unions. Most actors want to act and don’t want to be involved in politics. But the lies actors are told-if you do a nonunion, “We’ll blackball you!” This is a right-to-work state and a right-to-work country. Equity’s dirty secret is the thousands of dollars in fines the government hits them with every year.

Seriously?
Equity comes down on its members who don’t do what they tell them like they killed the President. This kid I know-when he sent letters from Equity to this government official, the union not only backed off but paid a huge fine. Equity is its own worst enemy. If they worked with their rank-and-file and producers, things would be better all the way around. It’s easier for them if theater isn’t produced. Let them get off their lazy asses.

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  • This surely is a more than fair interview!

    Mr. Salamone may have a business model to make money, but will it make art? Producing lowest-common-denominator-non-professional events OFF BROADWAY? I think not.

    Suggestion: consider Vegas.

  • BKR

    This man will do anything to make a buck and hates anyone that stands in his way. I worked in this theater years ago and the conditions were appalling! He wants to do anything he wants at any time. He does not care about art, actors or developing theater, just a cheap show that can make him money… the worst kind of commercial producer. I am a union member and thank god I was. Safe and sanitary had to have multiple inspections just to make it safe for the actors to breathe. (He was digging out the basement for another theater space.) He would produce a show on the roof if people were willing to do it!

  • Daniel G

    Are the performers making a living working in Mr Salamone’s theatre? If they are then they dont need a union interfering but if they are NOT then the union is all there is to protect them from being exploited.

  • Laura Gagnon

    Thanks to Clyde Fitch for a very coherent article and interview about the business of theatre. To debate whether Louis Salamone’s business model can “make art” is specious. The point is that the theatre industry is eating it’s young with some of it’s business practices, and this business model is meant to change the dynamics of the game in favor of upstart commercial endeavors.
    But do let’s talk about art. “lowest-common-denominator-non-professional events”? In the last year alone, 45 Bleecker has been home to “Almost An Evening” (written by Ethan Coen, directed by Neil Pepe) and “Sleepwalk With Me” (Michael Birbiglia’s one-man hit produced by Nathan Lane). Yes, “Puppetry of the Penis” is now running, but not everyone wants Chekhov when they go to the theatre. Why does this fact make some people so crazy?
    To BKR, the basement was excavated by the previous leaseholders years before Louis took over the space. It’s a fantastic 120 seat venue now, you should come check it out. And thanks for the show-on-a-roof idea. With the right show and the right roof, it’s a brilliant concept. It’s a novel idea, it lacks pretention, and people love a unique venue. It would sell. Maybe you got something out of the article after all.
    Laura Gagnon
    Operations Mgr
    45 Bleecker

  • It’s ironic that BKR excoriates Mr. Salamone for violating safe and sanitary standards while excavating the basement. I believe the theatre was owned by a non-profit at the time — certainly not by Salamone! BKR has other misconceptions about basic matters.
    I define a business as a financially self-perpetuating enterprise. The whole idea of business is to buy low and sell high. That means you have to cut your costs, maximize your use of limited resources, and try to charge enough to get by (hard in the age of deeply discounted tickets). Salamone is definitely my kind of producer in all these respects, and he does what he must to survive and thrive. By doing so he creates a platform on which others can survive and thrive, too. If you don’t like some of the shows in his theatre, well, he’s the landlord — he’s not an esthetic policeman.

  • Frank Dial

    After you shake hands with Louis Salamone, count your fingers.

  • Pingback: Perez, Riegert and Zien to Kick Off Bleecker Street Theatre Co. « Clyde Fitch Report()

  • Mina Lazzare

    Why does this man even exist? He is a wolf in sheeps clothing.

    Mr. Salamone is notorious in the field for making things fall apart. He is all talk and no action as he tells people what he has to offer and never follows through after you pay him his money. Just ask one of the most well known Off-Broadway Theatres in New York.

    So the next time you want to make a move to something a little more sleezy contact Louis, but Good luck! you’re going to need a lie detector.

  • Lillian Mac Donald

    I am very saddened by the anger towards Loui Salamoni. I have known Loui since Boston, The Channel and One People.

    Loui is one of the good guys, he is a form of art in and of itself and like Sly Stone, Donovan and Rich James, his artist developed before it’s time.

    Yes he is a business man with a make money attitude, he has a heart of gold and is willing to promote projects that aren’t profitable, to help artists get their message out there. Pick on him and you pick on me, not a wise thing to do!!

    We miss Loui in boston and hope he’ll come to visit soon. Miss Lilly White et al.