A new owner is poised to take over the Venetian Theatre & Bistro in downtown Hillsboro next month, and it could have a major impact on the city's professional theater company, Bag&Baggage Productions.
On Friday, Bag&Baggage — which has performed in the Venetian since it re-opened in 2007 — announced it was canceling its production of "Noises Off," a comedy scheduled to premiere in May on the downtown Hillsboro stage.
The comedy was the largest production Bag& Baggage had ever conceived, and was expected to cap the theater group's 2017 season.
Play rehearsals were expected to begin next week, but artistic director Scott Palmer said the pending sale of the Venetian has left too many questions about whether Bag&Baggage would be able to perform in the space.
"We have no indicationm — zero — of the plans from the new owner," Palmer said. "We have no idea ... will they stay open? Will it still be the Venetian? Will they shut it down and build a Red Robin?
"Without a 100 percent guarantee that we can perform in the Venetian, we can't take the risk on this final show. We can't ask our stakeholders … to take this risk."
The Venetian, 253 E. Main St., includes a 386-seat theater as well as a bistro-style eatery in an adjacent space. Both are expected to have a new owner as early as March 1. Current owner Denzil Scheller wouldn't say who is purchasing the theater and restaurant, or what the new owners expect to do with the building.
That uncertainty forced Bag&Baggage to move their current production, "Bronte," to the Hillsboro Brookwood Library amid concerns the theater might be sold during its performance run.
"We went from a 350-seat show down to 60 seats," Palmer said. "It's still going to be a brilliant show, but the impact on us financially is dramatic. 'Noises off' was supposed to be our biggest show ever. It was projected to bring in a ton of money, but there's no place for us to do that."
Moving "Bronte" and canceling "Noises Off" is expected to cost Bag&Baggage about $85,000 in lost revenue this year, Palmer said, and could result in layoffs, salary cuts and other belt tightening.
"For a company that has not operated at a deficit ever in our 12 year history, $85,000 is a scary, scary number, Palmer said. "… There is no doubt we will end the year with a moderate deficit, starting our new season … on somewhat shaky ground."
But Palmer said the alternative could be worse.
"Just imagine: we start building the massive set, paying the designers and actors, paying for advertising and selling tickets; then, maybe a few days after the sale is final, we find out the Venetian will be closed for refurbishment? Not only would we be out all the money we spent on the show, but we would be out all of the ticket income. That would bankrupt us."
Bag&Baggage to move to new space next season
Scheller came out of retirement when he re-opened the Venetian in 2007. The former movie theater had sat empty for 13 years and Scheller said he wanted to bring some life back to the old building.
After a decade of running the property, Scheller said he's ready to give retirement another try.
"I'm an old, bald man with bad knees. I'm tired," Scheller said. "It's too much work."
Scheller has been attempting to sell the building since 2013. Many buyers have come forward interested in the theater or the restaurant, Scheller said, but few have been interested in both.
"It intimidates them, one way or the other," Scheller told The Tribune on Monday.
Palmer said Bag&Baggage officials have long worried about the fate of the theater group if the Venetian were ever sold. Bag&Baggage purchased the former Wells Fargo building on East Main Street 18 months ago with plans to convert the space into its new home. The group raised $1.4 million in a capital campaign to renovate the space, which is expected to open this fall.
"The whole point of the campaign was to eliminate the risk of the Venetian closing or selling," said Gayle Nachtigal, chairwoman of the Bag&Baggage board of directors. "And we almost made it. Almost."
Palmer said the space will be ready for Bag&Baggage's 2017-18 season. "I am 100 percent confident that, with the support and patience of our fans, we will see everyone in our new home in just a few months."
Despite the financial challenges, Palmer said Bag&Baggage and The Venetian have been partners for years, and there are no ill feelings about the sale.
"We would not have survived without the Venetian, and we wouldn't be one of the most significant theater companies in Washington County without their support," Palmer said. "They bent over backward to help us, but at the end of the day they want to sell their building. Their business isn't to ensure our success."
By Geoff Pursinger
Associate Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
Pamplin Media Group
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