The behind-the-scenes melodrama regarding the future of Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre took center stage June 9 at a press conference at the theater, where the board members of Le Petit announced a pending deal to sell 60 percent of the building to French Quarter restaurateur Dickie Brennan, who will build an on-site restaurant.
Cassie Steck Worley, chair of Le Petit's board of governors, made the announcement flanked by a dozen board members, including City Council President Jackie Clarkson and actor Bryan Batt.
The Dickie Brennan Restaurant Group operates several French Quarter restaurants, including the Palace Cafe, Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House and Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse. Financial terms of the deal (which Clarkson says isn't completely signed, but is in "due diligence" review) were not disclosed, and Brennan wasn't present at the announcement. The proposed restaurant has no name or concept as of now, according to the board.
Worley said Le Petit, the oldest surviving community theater in the U.S., needs more than $1 million in repairs and carries a $700,000 mortgage. The sale of the property will help retire that debt, Worley said, while leaving the 365-seat mainstage theater for future productions. A restaurant would be built on the Chartres Street side of the building (eliminating the smaller second stage), and the two operations would share lobby space and the famous courtyard in the center of the theater. Worley mentioned that shared restaurant-theater space was not uncommon elsewhere in the country, and Batt brought up the example of New York's Lincoln Center. (Asked to clarify if the new operation would be a "dinner theater," the board answered in near-unison: "No!")
Le Petit canceled its most recent season due to its financial difficulties. Asked when it would resume producing plays, Worley said, "2012." She later clarified the board was aiming to remount its regular offerings for the 2012-2013 season, beginning in fall 2012.
Earlier in the week, Le Petit board member Judith Fos Burrus resigned from the board, saying she had been neither consulted about the sale nor allowed to vote on it. "I love Le Petit Theatre but I felt I must submit my resignation in protest," Burrus wrote in a statement. "I am against losing one of the theatre's stages to a restaurant and am saddened by the dysfunction of this board."
Le Petit's support guild has been in open revolt against the current board for months, accusing its members of operating without "an open and transparent process regarding the historic establishment's future." The guild has begun a website, Save Le Petit (www.savelepetit.com), where it's been collecting signatures demanding Le Petit's board "review all options." On the day of the press conference, the guild released a letter from Le Petit's former artistic director, Gary Solomon Jr., which reads in part:
"In response to the critical financial situation facing Le Petit, I began assembling a group of philanthropic investors to rescue the theatre long before news of negotiations with Dickie Brennan became public. I unveiled the opportunity at an emergency meeting of the Guild, called in response to news of a purported deal with Brennan. Our proposal is just one of many options I urge you to take into consideration before rushing into a course of action that could forever change this important New Orleans institution."
Jim Walpole, a former board member who is now president of the anti-board Le Petit Guild, sat silently in the back of the theater while the announcement was made, refusing to speak to reporters: "We don't want to interrupt their press conference." After it was over, he left the building before commenting.
"We do not feel the board of governors has exercised all available remedies," Walpole said, adding guild members"fail to see why the board of governors didn't put out RFPs [requests for proposals]" before entering into the Brennan deal. He concluded by saying the guild will "pursue all remedies." Asked if those remedies would be legal in nature, he repeated, "We will pursue all remedies."
Perhaps only Blake Pontchartrain will remember this, but the current Le Petit imbroglio has some parallels in the history of the French Opera House, which stood at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse at the end of the 19th century, holding not only operas but also Carnival balls and other glittery affairs. Like Le Petit, it fell on hard financial times and was forced into receivership in 1913, whereupon a donor bought the building and donated it to Tulane University. The opera house burned down in 1919 — the casualty of a grease fire in an adjacent restaurant.