After ten years as executive director of the Count Basie Theatre, it’s time for Numa Saisselin to take a bow.
Over the past decade, Saisselin has been the ringmaster for the Basie, presiding over the near-miraculous reinvention of the historic theater that included a $12 million renovation and a financial renaissance that has kept the Basie solidly in the black for the past nine years.
But this was no one-man show, Saisselin stresses.
“There are literally hundreds of people involved in this effort – hundreds of employees and board members and volunteers. I’m just the knucklehead who has the microphone.”
Once so dilapidated that theatergoers had to keep their coats on in the winter and performers found themselves literally singing in the rain under the Basie’s leaking ceiling, today the theater is strong and beautiful once again.
As the ever-changing roster of famous names on the new marquee overlooking Monmouth Street indicates, this joint named in honor of jazz legend William the Count Basie (aka the Kid from Red Bank) is definitely jumping once again.
When Saisselin arrived at the Basie in January 2002, the former vaudeville palace at 90 Monmouth St. was in need of some serious magic.
Built in 1926, the theater weathered the end of the vaudeville era, evolving into a popcorn and matinee palace of dreams before struggling into the 1970s and going dark for a time, a white elephant everyone was fond of but no-one quite knew how to save.
Despite its sad state, there were always those who believed in the theater, and it was through their intercessions that it survived into the 21st Century.
It had had some spectacular moments. New Year’s Eves with Southside Johnny. Rafter-shaking rock and roll with Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. Dramas and comedies, dances and symphonies, stars of stage and screen — all had had their moments on the stage of the venerable old theater.
But its plaster was crumbling; its infrastructure was shot and its coffers were hemorrhaging cash.
Six executive directors had come and gone in a handful of years.
It was clear that a miracle needed to happen.
Fortunately, Saisselin enjoys a challenge.
The first items on the agenda in 2002 were to steer the theater away from the brink of bankruptcy and to stabilize the building.
And to accomplish those things would, indeed, take an entire village.
“People in this community had a deep and long association with this building,” Saisselin says today. “Whether it was seeing Bruce (Springsteen) or Jon (BonJovi) in the ‘70s, going to matinees or watching cartoons in the ‘50s and ‘60s – whatever it was, they had been coming to this building a long time, and despite the fact that it was falling down, they still kept coming.
That indicated to Saisselin that there were plenty of people willing to give the theater their support. All they needed was the assurance that their efforts wouldn’t be in vain.
“We were very careful about not promising what we couldn’t deliver,” Saisselin says. “Every time we said we were going to do something, we actually did, and people reacted very generously every time.”
Rather than rely only on the generosity of a handful of donors to support the organization, Saisselin and the theater’s board sought to make the donor base both deep and broad.
The fact that well-respected members of the community like David and Judi Marrus, Phil and Tammy Murphy, Nancy Mulheren and Bill Maraccini were willing to invest in the Basie helped to restore the community’s faith in the theater’s future.
“Ten years ago, there were literally 30 contributors and 30,000 people coming to the theater per year. We’re now at about 200,000 people a year and a donor base of 1500 people and 275 corporations and foundations. That’s a pretty broad base of support. I like that from a management perspective because our eggs are not all in one basket.”
It also indicates to potential donors just how much the community cares about the Basie.
“Last year, we had the most donors of any year,” Saisselin said. “It’s as if in the recession, people decided what was important to them and then doubled down on those organizations.”
In the beginning, Saisselin says, “There was a lack of understanding about the possibilities. Not only could we own the building but we could use it ourselves and make that financially viable.”
Saisselin drew on his skills in booking and promotion to increase the number of shows the Basie produces from a couple a year to more than 100, bringing the Basie’s annual offerings to 300 per year.
Today, 50 percent of the theater’s income comes from its own productions, 25 percent comes from fundraising and donations and 35 percent from theater rentals and concessions, providing the organization with some security should one revenue stream shrink during an economic downturn. “People do not stop going out in a down economy,” Saisselin says. “In a way, they need (entertainment) more. But they will make choices about going out. Where once they might see five shows a year, now they will walk in and buy tickets to two. We have to work harder to get those two. We have to spend more money on ads and we have to be cautious about how many times a year we book someone new or unknown.”
With $12 million of the projected $20 million renovation already accomplished, the Basie is light years away from the condition it was in ten years ago, but there is still more work to be done, Saisselin notes.
From the start, he said, “We have been careful not to make decisions we’re not qualified to make. We have an architect, engineers, acousticians.” Even the Chairman’s lounge, a street level cocktail bar where donors who give $300 or more annually can socialize before a show – was decorated by a professional designer recommended by board member Nancy Mulheren.
The stage, the theater’s bathrooms and other not so visible areas of the building are awaiting their facelifts. “We haven’t done any of the behind the scenes offices or rehearsal rooms,” Saisselin adds.
But in direct contrast to ten years ago, there’s no longer any doubt that the work will get done.
“It’s been tremendously rewarding and I expect it will continue to be…when the economy does improve we’re going to take off like a rocket.”