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‘Mamma Mia!’ and magic parking at Playhouse

On opening night of “Mamma Mia!” last month, I spotted Bill McKibbin striding toward the Lowndes house on the great flat rock.

There was a bounce in Bill’s long-legged stride and a broad smile across his face as he approached fellow theater patrons balancing plates of hors d’oeuvres and cups of wine.
Although the curtain had not yet gone up on the first performance of the exuberant Broadway musical, the news from the box office was out and the news was good.
It was a pleasure to see Bill McKibbin, looking lighter than air. More pleasing still was the stunning contrast from his appearances on the Flat Rock Playhouse grounds six years ago, when he led the effort to save the foundering ship, which was sinking under a load of debt and pummeled on all sides by the Great Recession, perfidious politicians and angry mobs jeering at efforts by Playhouse leaders to rally public (taxpayer) support.
In the fall of 2012, the Playhouse president sounded the emergency alarm to all who those willing to hear: If we don’t act with our dollars and support, he said, the Playhouse will die. If not for McKibbin and a cast of courageous and generous rescuers, we’d have no Flat Rock Playhouse today.
Thanks to leaders like Mayor Robert Staton and the Flat Rock Village Council, Jeff Miller and the Hendersonville City Council, and Henderson County Commissioner Michael Edney, who used a procedural maneuver to block his fellow commissioners’ motion to welch on a pledge of financial support, the Playhouse survived. Thanks to generous donors — several of whom gave more than $50,000 apiece — the show goes on.

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 The mood on the Lowndes house porch on opening night of “Mamma Mia!” could not have been further removed from the funereal atmosphere in the fall of 2012.
Since that time, the leadership of the Playhouse has changed and for the better, especially when it comes to fiscal responsibility and knowing the pulse of the public. Lisa K. Bryant has learned how to succeed in business by really trying — to appropriate a title from the 2015 season.
“Mamma Mia!” which closed on Sunday, was the biggest box office success the Playhouse has seen in a long time. Patrons bought $50,000 worth of tickets the day seats went on sale. “We’re closing the show at well over $100,000 over our projected sales goal,” marketing director Dane Whitlock told us.
It’s not as if the Playhouse leaders suddenly hatched this bright idea last fall when it planned the 2018 season.
“It’s a show we tried for three years to produce and we couldn’t get the rights to it,” Bryant, the producing artistic director, told me. “We got so lucky with the movie (“Mama Mia: Here We Go Again”) coming out the week we opened, which was really serendipity. It was a perfect storm of goodness. We’ll take it. We’ve had too much of the other.”
For their entire tenure, the current Playhouse leaders — the hard-working and engaged Board of Trustees included — have trudged on an uphill slog, a dark cloud of debt overhanging their hike like a thick gray shroud. On July 27, the sun broke through. The Vagabond nation grinned.
“Money, Money, Money” flowed into the box office as patrons filled the house and sang along with the “Dancing Queen.”
“It was just a really nice win for everybody after their hard work and sacrifice over the last couple of years,” Bryant said. “It was, ‘Wow, look at that box office report’ every day. I wish the show was running every day through Christmas.”

 

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On the great flat rock, administrators often cringe at the ad hoc parking scheme in the woods developed decades ago by founder Robroy Farquhar. But in the spirit of the Rock, Vagabonds grin and bear it, creating new ways, as Bryant puts it, to “wrap cars around trees and redirect them to going out in ways they’re not used to.”
Magic parking, they call it.
If the parking is magic, the key to box office success is not. It’s the oldest sales maxim in the book. The Playhouse asked the people what they wanted and the Playhouse gave it to them.

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Reach Lightning editor Bill Moss at billmoss@hendersonvillelightning.com.