MARTIN LANDAU – OSCAR WINNER
“DRACULA” National Tour
Paramount Theatre – 1984/1985
The 3rd Paramount produced play was the never say die, Dracula – a fitting metaphor for something that sucks the life out of its prey keeping that prey alive, just enough, to be drained another day, day after day, week after week and month after month. The original 1971 Broadway play won 2 Tony Award for Best Revival and Best Costume Design.
The concept for the project was extremely sound. First, we would be producing the first tour of the celebrated Edward Gorey version of Dracula which starred Frank Langella on Broadway. The production was stunning. The sets and costumes were mostly in white and black and monochromatic scales with one very small item on stage that was ruby red – a flower, a glass of wine, Lucy’s lipstick and so on. The set was in the Gothic style for which Edward Gorey was known. The Broadway shows producers – my new friends Nelle Nugent and Liz McCann, had been extremely helpful with my desire to produce a road version of their show with the Paramount at the tiller. We had the original Broadway set designer on the team to re-create and re-design the set but for touring purposes. Some of the original props and the set were available for rent. It is important to note that a Broadway set doesn’t move once in place. A set for a tour has to go up and down, city after city, in 12-14 hours. We had the original director at the helm. The supporting cast was extremely strong particularly in the form of the actors portraying Dr. Van Helsing and Lucy. But who was to play Dracula himself?
We had a hell of a time trying to cast the role with a star that would tour. I worked with our casting director in Los Angeles, closely. We were aiming for a young Dracula to titillate the sensual nature of the piece which is, in reality, a love story. I went to LA and met with actor Timothy Bottoms who was extremely pleasant, sane and possessing recent successes in his career such as films like the Paper Chase, The Last Picture Show, Texasville, Tin Man, Man in the Iron Mask and three dozen more. By the time I arrived, he had already picked up another project. While we were having lunch he said, “You know, there’s a new, young actor out here that is about to set this town on fire named Sean Penn”. I had barely heard the name. I’m not sure Sean had done anything big at that point in 1984. The weeks were racing by and we still came up empty. Finally, the casting director said she got an interest from Marin Landau who would later win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Martin’s credentials spanned 50 years including major roles in Cleopatra opposite Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller North by Northwest opposite James Mason and Cary Grant, Ed Wood, The X Files, Sleepy Hollow and dozens more. He was Rollin Hand in the original television smash hit Mission Impossible portraying the “man of a million faces” and made for television movies. Landau was what I call “a hammer”. However, he was 56 at this moment in history. He did have the face for the role and the training via the legendary Actor’s Studio with theatrical giant Lee Strasberg. We couldn’t wait any longer. Martin was our Dracula. It took a ton of guts for him to do this role!
I had already developed a very close relationship with Columbia Artists Management (CAMI) in New York – one of the top 3 largest theatrical booking agencies at that time. I retained them to book our tour. The marketing materials we created were as strong as any Broadway show had ever seen. And, as I suspected, there were dozens of theatres in the country that couldn’t find enough Broadway product for their season offerings. National touring units at that time only played the large markets where they could sit down for a couple or even a several weeks. Thus, the secondary markets were left out in the cold. The appetite for our Dracula was strong. CAMI ended up booking 56 cities – all one nighters – over a four month span touring the U.S. It was a Herculean effort particularly insofar as the Paramount was a fledgling production company. Now I had plenty of experience bringing in Broadway tours aplenty over my years at the Paramount. And I was friendly with several Broadway producers. So, I knew how the business worked on both sides of the equation – theatre and producer. There was a problem with their tour – one of many to come. CAMI could only book 5 cities a week and not the 6 cities we needed to make the numbers work. Unfortunately, we didn’t find that out until long after we had to commit to Martin Landau, the set designer and a dozen other vendors and unions’ months before, all of which required a financial commitment on the front end. There is no way to tell this entire story at this sitting as it could fill a book on its own. I’m going to give you a little taste of what went right and what went wrong.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The Paramount became the first regional theatre, historic or otherwise, to produce and launch a nationwide tour that eventually played in 56 cities plus a one month run at the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. That feat will never be matched again. Martin Landau missed only 1 performance due to illness. He was a stalwart presence and a leader who brought a new meaning to the word “professional”. We proved that there was a market for programming generated outside of New York. The show was gorgeous – sets, props, lighting, costumes and sound effects. Reviews were favorable across the country and the show drew better than average attendance.
WHAT WENT WRONG
The better question was what didn’t go wrong. I hardly know where to start.
The Broadway set designer had basically used his original Broadway scheme for a show that had to fit in one truck. The show had to load in and set, up every day in 8-10 hours with a 3 hours strike – day after day. In the end, it actually took 2 trucks to hold the set, props and costumes which added $35,000 to the cost of the tour for the extra truck rental and driver and gas. Our production manager had never evidenced any control over the designer until it was too late to bail out without a hailstorm of lawsuits. The set designer was working without any supervision and seemed not to care that we had expanded the production from 1 to 2 trucks. Consequently, some of our fabulous set had to stay in the truck during the tour because the IATSE stage hands crew could not get it up in 8 hours.
CAMI booked a robust tour, but at 5 cities a week instead of 6 as I mentioned before. That missing 6th date cost us a loss in income of $12,500 per week. Over a 12 week tour that means we were $150,000 short on income to cover the cost of the tour. We didn’t know that until 30 days before we opened.
Our board of directors had hired an executive search firm to bring in a “managing director” to “help me” with an operation that had doubled in size. The board interviewed applicants in private without me, purposefully. They made their choice in a vacuum. I was introduced to what was to become -in theory – my partner. This managing director never put together a budget or a cash flow projection for the tour. There were no checks and balances on monies being spent by a variety of people associated with the Paramount. In short, no one had any idea where we were financially until two weeks before the show opened in Austin. I took a 15 column accounting page booklet to San Antonio to see my mother. I started running the numbers based on what I remembered hearing, trying to figure out where we were. When I got to the end of the analysis, I vomited. We were strapped to a train track and the locomotive was going to run our ass over leaving only road kill behind. It was that bad. It was horrific. And it was too late to stop it. Money already spent, contracts signed with 56 theatres and Martin. CAMI generated $700,000 in contracts with those 56 cities at $12,500/each. It wasn’t even close to enough even adding the successful Austin run to the mix.
Our development director and our board raised a pittance of money to support the Austin run and the national tour. Therefore, we were operating 100% on “earned income” – an impossible formula for any non-profit performing arts organization in the country. The standard formula is about 50:50 i.e. 50% earned income (ticket sales, show fees, concessions, advertising, merchandising) and 50% contributed income (individual gifts, grants, government subsidies and corporate sponsorships). Dracula never had a prayer from the start even without the other problematic events that haunted the project from early on.
Our tour travelled through the northern part of the U.S. during one of the most brutal winters on record. At one stop in North Dakota the temperature was -57 degrees. Our truck drivers had to use welding torches to melt the diesel gas in the line because the cold had turned the gas to a jelly like substance. Our overwhelmed stage crew had to load the show in and take the show out in Arctic conditions.
Consequently, many of the actors became sick. Our Dr. Van Helsing kept stopping the bus to check in to a hospital as he thought he was having a heart attack. We had to replace him on the fly.
Actors Equity would not let us lay the cast off over the Christmas holidays when we had no bookings. Everyone had to stay on the payroll with no income. That little problem didn’t surface until about two weeks out from the break in the tour. I can’t remember the actor payroll but it had to amount to $30,000 to $40,000.
We went through 3 company managers during the tour. A company manager is responsible for the entire show on the road including paying salaries and per diems, booking hotels, working with the drivers, maintaining the Actors Equity and IATSE union rules, ego management, financial settlements with the theatres and more. ATPAM is the union that governs company managers. There was, in fact, virtually no management in the way you think of management that I could divine. And, they didn’t give a shit either. All 3 were highly recommended. We were blindsided – again.
My new managing director partner and our board president entered in to a conversation with the Kennedy Center about the show playing there for a 32 performance over a one month run. No one told me about it until the deal was done. They had made an arrangement with the Kennedy Center which did not have to guarantee one dollar of fees to the production. The deal was this: first money went to pay local expenses (theatre rent, advertising, union stage hands i.e. local expenses). Then, we were to do a split of income over those expenses. There was virtually no income over those expenses. That decision to make a deal with no guarantee lost the Paramount $100,000 for that one month fiasco.
It seemed like everywhere we turned we got sucker punched. I’ve never seen so many things go south in my life. Some of it was human error and rotten or absent management. Some was flat bad luck. Some of it was a lack of experience with such a large undertaking. It was so devastating that I had a massive panic attack that sent me to the hospital with a blood pressure reading of 220, spawning other severe problems that took years to overcome. Some of those problems are still very active. You see, I took the entire problem on my own back, 100%, mentally and emotionally. I once told a counselor that I left nothing on the table. He said, “You should have”. He was more right than I can express.
In the end, the Paramount lost close to $450,000. That was the end of Paramount produced shows and tours. And, it was the end of my association with the Paramount. Let’s just say we all had enough of each other and called it a day. 10 years of taking arrows out of my back. I was done.
Obviously, the astounding feat we had achieved was rendered meaningless by the losses. To this day you will not find one item about what we accomplished anywhere in Paramount literature or on its website. Yes, there were dozens of people who had responsibility for what happened. You can bet, though, the board looked right squarely at me. Their board picked managing director was ushered out a couple of months before I retired on May 31, 1985. No one said a word about what the hell his job description was. I never saw it in written form. That whole process of him being hired in secret as it were is still mind boggling in its stupidity. How can volunteers with absolutely no experience in the theatre business have any idea how to evaluate the capabilities of a managing director? Would you let a real estate broker hire a heart surgeon for a hospital? There is an old joke in our industry: “Everybody knows their own business and show business”. Bullshit but true!
Ideas don’t lose or make money. It is the planning and execution of an idea, or the lack thereof, which makes or loses money. The idea was sound. Much of the execution was AWOL. Game over.
The man who saved the Paramount almost killed the Paramount. He died a thousand deaths which worked out to about $450 dollars apiece. He would gladly have paid twice that had he had the money. The new management, with a masterful director in Paul Beutel and staff brought, the Paramount back from the dead, literally. I can’t even begin to fathom how they dug themselves out of such an onerous loss of money. It is to their credit the Paramount still lives on to this day.
A vampire got me in 21st century Austin! Welcome to the world of the undead. The End!