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Sterling Theater must take it from the top

Situation after owner’s departure ‘like starting over’

Changes are in store for Sterling Theater, with the departure of its owner, Skip Huston, owner of Theater Management Group. City Manager Scott Shumard says, for those taking over, "this is like starting over again."
Changes are in store for Sterling Theater, with the departure of its owner, Skip Huston, owner of Theater Management Group. City Manager Scott Shumard says, for those taking over, "this is like starting over again."

STERLING – When the city and Skip Huston parted ways in June, Sterling Theater was, in many respects, back at square one.

Huston, owner of Theater Management Group, was not making payments in a timely fashion, and he was distancing himself from the vision that city officials had for the downtown "brew and view."

While Huston's exit has opened the door to get everyone back on the same page, it also has forced the theater to weather a difficult transition.

Because the ownership group is gone, the theater is basically starting over. The business must fill out new incorporation paperwork, reapply for a liquor license, go through the insurance process again, and apply for licenses from all of the movie studios.

"The most pressing thing in the transition has been just keeping movies on the screen," said Tim O'Brien, whose duties as general manager have expanded in the interim. "There are about 30 studios, and we had to reapply for licenses from every studio before we can show their movies."

That process involves a lot of paperwork, O'Brien said, and can take anywhere from a week to 3 months.

City Manager Scott Shumard said the theater hadn't applied for a new liquor license, because incorporation papers must be completed first.

"The main thing is to keep it operational," Shumard said. "This is like starting over again, and it's been quite an effort to keep it open and revenues coming in."

Determining the future of the theater has also taken a back seat to what must be done immediately. For now, O'Brien has taken over most facets of the operations, and the city has not ruled out letting him buy the building from Greater Sterling Development Corp.

"For now, Tim's the person handling things," Shumard said. "This is a temporary situation, and we haven't thought about the long term yet. Keeping the lights on is our main concern now."

Shumard said he understands that the steps taken in redeveloping the theater building might not have been the ideal situation in the public's eyes, but he believes the city went with the best options available at the time.

A temporary situation

"Honestly, the city doesn't want to be in the theater business," Shumard said. "The building was in such disrepair, we wanted to keep it from falling down. We want to give people in the community a unique entertainment option."

City officials say they need time to evaluate ownership options for the building. Shumard says they have not been approached by an interested management firm. While the theater business tends to be more profitable in certain months, last year's revenue from the theater alone should have been sufficient to make loan payments, Shumard said.

Remodeling in all parts of the building is slated to be complete at the end of the month, and all units will be rented out. All four of the apartments have tenants, and two new businesses are leasing space in the building, bringing in revenue to help retire the $550,000 loan the council approved for GSDC in 2012.

While changes are planned for the theater, O'Brien asks for the community's patience through the "treading water" period. He says that if the city gives him a chance to permanently take the reins or buy the business, he is up for the challenge.

"If I'm being groomed for that, I would definitely be willing to do it," O'Brien said. "I've been part of the movie business for 30 years. I always did the writing side, but now I'm learning the business side of shows. Now that I have to pay the bills, I can see it in a different light."

O'Brien, a former entertainment writer, said he got along well with the previous regime, but he really wasn't privy to the financial side of the business.

"Skip and I got along great," O'Brien said. "We loved movies – many of the same ones – and that was our common ground. He was pretty secretive about the business side, and I deferred to him."

O'Brien said he looked at it as a learning time and was content to let Huston handle financial matters.

"I didn't know how we were doing financially," O'Brien said. "I knew the box office numbers, and that was about it."

Profitability feasible

O'Brien believes the theater can be profitable if the community philosophy is embraced.

"The brew-and-view concept was what drew me in, but we need to really open the theater to the community," he said. "We need more special events like the pajama party, and eventually we will be open 7 days a week."

As for movie showings, O'Brien understands that first-run films help to pay the bills. With two screens, he also thinks he can work plenty of independent films into the mix.

O'Brien is confident in his knowledge of movies, and says he is learning more about the business side every day. The trick is to ride out a challenging transition and to temper his enthusiasm for change.

"I'm not going to do anything prematurely or spur of the moment," he said. "I try not to get into the politics of anything, but I will say I would like to take it off the city's hands. How's that?"

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"

7 p.m. Aug. 7 at Sterling Theater, 402 Locust St.

Kids can wear themed clothing for the movie and a pizza party. Cost is $5 each, for all ages. For more theater information, call 815-632-3708.

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