By Mary Ann Bourbeau
RED BANK – Justine Robertson spent many years commuting three hours to work. Her new commute is 10 minutes, and she couldn’t be happier. But it’s not just the commute making the Connecticut native happy – it’s the job itself. Robertson, who lives in Rumson, has been named interim CEO of the Count Basie Theatre and its fundraising arm, the Count Basie Foundation, Inc.
“The Count Basie Theatre is a beautiful, historic building and, coupled with the restaurants in Red Bank, is the mainstay of arts and entertainment in the Two River area,” she said.
Ray Moser, chairman of the Count Basie Theatre’s Board of Trustees, and Russ Lucas, chairman of the Count Basie Theatre Foundation’s Board of Directors, announced a realignment of the two organizations and named Robertson interim CEO of both. She began her new position on July 2. The Count Basie Theatre, Inc. is the nonprofit corporation that owns, manages and programs the Red Bank theater. The Count Basie Theatre Foundation is the nonprofit corporation dedicated to fundraising for the theater’s renovation, as well as its cultural and educational programming. Up until now, each organization had its own chief executive.
“We believe that this will improve our ability to seamlessly integrate our programming, operations and fundraising,” said Moser.
Robertson agrees. “I’m thrilled by this structure, bringing the two entities together as one,” she said. “Each has its function but they are also integrated. Hiring one CEO makes the integration much easier.”
Mark Hodges, a former board member who has served as the interim CEO of the foundation since July 2011, left to take a permanent position as executive director of the Joseph Fund, a nonprofit multi-ministry foundation in Camden. Numa Saisselin, who has served as CEO of the Count Basie Theatre since 2002, remains as chief operating officer with continued responsibility for the operation, programming and restoration of the theater.
While growing up in Hartford, Conn., Robertson’s family owned a chain of movie theaters and she fondly remembers visiting them to watch cartoons as a child. After earning a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from Rutgers University, Robertson married and moved to Monmouth County. Her family eventually sold all but one of the theaters. In the early 1990s, her father suggested renovating the last one, the 1937 art deco-style Webster Theatre that her grandfather had built, and using it to host live shows. “I was a tax director at the time and that was not fun,” she said. “This was the kind of business I could get excited about. It was a very special opportunity my father gave me.”
She commuted between her homes in Monmouth County and Connecticut to serve as executive director of the Webster Theatre from 1994 to 2010, where she was in charge of booking, promotions, production and all theater operations. She formed a public/private partnership with the city of Hartford, enabling her to turn the theater into a 1,350-seat performance venue.
“I completely immersed myself in the business,” she said. “I sold the theater a few years ago, and I’m very excited to be back in this business.”
In the fall of 2011, Robertson’s husband, Lewis, heard that the Basie was looking to hire a new CEO to oversee both arms of the theater. He urged Robertson to apply for the job but she never did. He died unexpectedly a few months ago, and in dealing with her grief, Robertson, who has two grown children, decided to go after the job. “I think my husband would be really happy if he knew I was given this opportunity,” she said. “Every time I went back and forth to Connecticut, I would drive by the Count Basie and say I wish my job was here. Now I have that, and I would certainly be open to having this position become a permanent one.”
Robertson envisions an expansion of programming, possibly skewing from a 30- and 40-year-old audience toward 25-year-olds.
“Although we are very successful with what we have here, I think we can expand on that,” she said.
“Younger people have a tendency to go to the theater more often and they will keep going to concerts when they are 35. I also want to concentrate on fundraising and expand our donor base.” Though the Count Basie Theatre has undergone a tremendous aesthetic facelift in recent years, Robertson will oversee the final stages of the $21.5 million renovation as the building’s infrastructure is updated, with renovations to include restrooms, sound equipment and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).
“In Justine, we have found a leader with both corporate and theater world experience,” said Lucas. “But more importantly, fundraising is the priority.” Half of the nonprofit theater’s annual $8 million budget is earned from ticket sales; 25 percent comes from theater rentals and other services, and another 25 percent is raised through charitable contributions from its more than 1,800 members, donors and sponsors.
“Justine is a longtime and very well-known member of our community and we’re thrilled we will be spending some time working with her to make the Basie even better,” Lucas said.