March 19th, 2008

Mick's Marquee? Roundabout to Sell Naming Rights for Studio 54

By Philip Boroff
Bloomberg

In his early 20s, Todd Haimes says he wasn’t cool enough even to attempt getting past the velvet rope into Studio 54, the disco-era playpen for the likes of Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli and Halston.

Now, five years after Haimes’s nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company paid $22.5 million for the Midtown Manhattan theater, he’s selling naming rights to the house and pretty much anything inside you could stick a plaque on, including roughly 1,000 seats. Even the uncool can secure a permanent association with the late 1970s hotbed of hedonism: $1,200 buys a nameplate affixed to a rear-mezzanine seat; a prime orchestra seat goes for $15,000.

Naming rights for Studio 54 itself (the theater’s current resident is the Roundabout’s acclaimed revival of “Sunday in the Park with George’’) can be had for about $10 million, executive director Julia Levy said.

“Everything in life is negotiable,” she added.

Planting contributors’ monikers on seats, doors and even buildings is business-as-usual for New York nonprofits, from opera houses to hospitals. On March 11, Stephen Schwarzman pledged $100 million to the New York Public Library, which will rename its Fifth Avenue main branch after him.

What’s unusual about the Roundabout campaign is its Web component. Potential donors, as if shopping for a house or apartment, can take a 360-degree panoramic tour of the theater at http://www.studio54seats.org/ and buy naming rights for a particular seat online.

$4 Million Goal

The campaign could raise about $4 million, which will be used to create a permanent endowment for the Roundabout to help it weather annual deficits. There was a roughly $2 million deficit in the 12 months ending August 2007 and an estimated $1.5 million deficit in the year ending August 2008.

“As a theater that tends to do large shows, I don’t see costs coming down,” Haimes, 51, said. “The only way to solve the deficit problem, absent a huge hit, is an endowment.”

Haimes said job cutting on Wall Street and recession fears haven’t hurt Roundabout’s fund-raising. Yet.

“It will,” he said.

Studio 54 opened in 1927 as the Gallo Opera House. The Roundabout began leasing it in 1998, to present “Cabaret.” It was a huge hit and ran nearly six years. The Roundabout leases two other major venues named for contributors: the American Airlines Theatre and the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.

Studio 54 seat namers who plunk down $30,000 for, say, a pair in the fifth-row center won’t necessarily get those seats when buying tickets for a show.

“We would make every attempt to accommodate when a `namer’ books a seat,” Haimes said, “but it could not be guaranteed.”

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