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John Lamb, Published December 16 2010

Fargo Theater marquee could go black if funds fall short

Downtown Fargo is all lit up for the holidays, but come New Year’s Eve, one of Broadway’s brightest lights could go black.

The Fargo Theatre is threatening to turn off its colorful marquee if it can’t raise $31,000 by noon on Dec. 31.

“I want to let the community know this is a scary time for us. This is as close to bleak as I want to get,” said theater Executive Director Margie Bailly. “If they want Broadway lit brightly on New Year’s Eve, they need to help us.”

Bailly said the organization is more than $20,000 short of its $50,000 membership drive goal.“We really need to solidify our cash-flow situation. I really don’t like not paying our vendors,” Bailly said, adding that the organization has been late on paying some bills.

“It would be a shame to turn that off. It provides brilliance and vibrancy in the evenings, particularly in winter,” said Mike Hahn, president/CEO of the Downtown Community Partnership, calling the marquee “iconic.”

Cole Carley, president/CEO of Fargo-Moorhead Convention & Visitors Bureau, called the marquee “unique, defining” of the area.

“It’s certainly one of the first iconic things people associate with the community, not to mention sentimental,” Carley said.

Asked if the blackout tactic could be seen as civic blackmail, Bailly laughed.

“We’re not holding anyone hostage here,” she said, adding if the lights do get shut off, they will eventually be turned back on, even if the goal isn’t reached.

“It’s a good way to theatrically convey the message because that’s what we’re about here,” said Bailly, who’s been the organization’s executive director since 1997.

She said the public can see how the campaign is doing on the Fargo Theatre’s website and in updates posted in the building’s windows. Bailly said if they haven’t met the goal by the 30th, the lights will be shut off as a warning so people will see what it would look like without the marquee’s glow.

The fundraising total will be announced during a New Year’s Eve family celebration at noon on the 31st.

The “31 x 31” campaign was announced in pamphlets sent out this week as “a suspenseful new participatory film starring you … . The film’s ending is in your hands.”

Bailly said the Fargo Theatre relies on nearly 20 percent of its annual $600,000 budget to come from grants as well as corporate and individual contributions. The biggest reason for the shortfall, she said, is that in light of the economic downturn, many organizations and individuals are giving less to arts and cultural organizations and instead focusing on charities like those that help the homeless or hungry.

“We know we’re not feeding the homeless, but we are feeding our souls,” she says of the theater’s programming. “Arts organizations still need a percentage of that charitable dollar.”

Bailly said another problem was that she expected to get the film “Paranormal Activity 2” this fall after the original did so well for the theater last year. Instead, the sequel opened at West Acres 14 even after Bailly held the main theater for a five-week period, meaning no rented events. Bailly aims to book two live events a month, but blocked out a chunk of October and November for the film.

Concert promoter Jade Nielsen of Jade Presents said he had a few events he’d considered for the Fargo Theatre during that time, but was told it wouldn’t be available.

Bailly also explained that the success of live events at the Fargo Theatre isn’t always an indication of the organization’s financial stability.

For example, last week’s run by the vocal group The Blenders did well – three sell-outs and the other two nearly sold out. But Bailly said the theater really only makes money on rental fees and concessions, not ticket sales for rental events.

“The money’s in the popcorn,” she said.

Bailly said she had considered adding a bar to the concessions, but doesn’t want to compete with downtown bars.

The Fargo Theatre has already received more than $2,200 toward the “31 x 31” campaign, Bailly said. Some of that from the theater director, herself. Bailly and her husband, Dick, are putting their money where the marquee is, having donated $1,000 in honor of their four grandchildren.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533