Members and supporters of the historic Arena Players theater rose to the challenge last month and succeeded in pulling together the more than $22,000 needed to help the long-standing Baltimore playhouse keep its doors open.
Donations began pouring in after the community heard former Sen. Larry Young’s call for help on his program on WOLB Talk 1010.
Within two weeks, the goal of $22,500 was met.
“We are ecstatic that the community came to our aid,” said Anthony Flood, who has served the theater as house manager for 15 years. “From their support we are able to continue being what we have said we are: the longest continuously running Afro American theater in the country.”
Flood, 48, came to the organization when he was 14 years old and said the donations have made him feel more connected than ever to the “cultural center that is Baltimore.”
Nestled near the corner of McCulloh St. and North Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard since 1962, the theatre has long been a staple in the Baltimore community. It originated from the “The Negro Little Theater,” a traveling troupe that roamed from stage to stage throughout the 1950s before securing a permanent home.
At its height, Black theatregoers packed the auditorium seats. It was one of the few venues where African Americans could enjoy the work of classic and contemporary playwrights amid a country ripped in half by segregation and prejudice.
Sixty seasons after the first production, a William Saroyan one-act called “Hello Out There,” the theatre’s rich legacy faced an uncertain future. The trouble sprang from more than $11,000 in water bills that the theatre administrators both contest, and say they had no knowledge of until 2013 due to a breakdown in communication.
“The bills that are in controversy may not be consistent with the usage of the Arena Players,” said attorney Edward Smith, Jr., who doubles as chairman of the board for the theatre. “We have never used that much water.”
To further complicate the matter, the bills were issued to Arena Players, Inc. and were sent to the address of the resident agent on file, Samuel H. Wilson, who helped found the theatre in 1953.
There was just one problem: Wilson couldn’t deliver the bills or raise questions about the amount of them because he has been dead for 18 years.
“No one had ever bothered to have it changed to someone who was living,” said Smith.
“That was a problem that we had, we should have caught that and had it updated to someone who was living.”
Smith said that, along with dwindling appreciation for theater culture, Arena Players has also had to fight off major corporations.
A year ago, Smith told CVS Caremark that the building was “absolutely not for sale,” when the pharmacy company allegedly offered to purchase the property for $1 million.
Managing Director Rodney Orange told the AFRO he believes their refusal of the corporation is an “undertone” to the surfacing of the theatre’s current legal troubles.
Mike DeAngelis, CVS Caremark public relations director for all real estate transactions, said the company would not comment on properties not currently owned or leased by the business.
When asked to address Smith and Orange’s claims that the company tried to buy the theater, DeAngelis said the company would not comment on “rumors.”
According to public information released by the Circuit Court of Maryland, a company called Rev PS, LLC paid off the water bill on the theatre’s behalf, assuming the debt.
“My client was the successful bidder—they buy tax sale certificates and invest in properties,” said William Chase, who has represented the company in court since they picked up the tab at the 2012 tax sale, paying a total of $15,000 for the property.
After months of fees and penalties, the total amount needed to pay off Rev PS, LLC came up to $22,500, said Orange.
Court documents show that Smith filed a motion to redeem the property on Aug. 27, but that action and other motions dating back to June have yet to receive a decision.
“The court is going to state the amount needed to redeem the property and they will give them 30 days to redeem the property,” said Chase, adding that Arena Players, Inc. is still technically the owner of the property.
Orange, 52, has been managing director since he was 26, and said the money was raised in increments from community members “coming past the theatre dropping off $50, $20, and $10.”
Aside from facing a daunting fate not unlike many other Black Baltimore landmarks, Orange said that the youth programs offered at Arena Players would suffer if the theatre closed.
“We are trying to make sure that we secure not only the legacy that Sam Wilson and the founding members laid down, but we want to be here for those kids who don’t have theatre opportunities in other places,” Orange said. “It’s unique and it definitely needs to be in the community.”
Arena Players is currently hosting a production of Eugene Lee’s “East Texas Hot Links,” which closes Nov. 3 after the 4 p.m. showing.