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American Heartland Theatre to close

Updated: 2013-04-05T03:25:22Z

By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

The American Heartland Theatre, a professional for-profit theater company that opened at Crown Center in 1987, will close at the end of the current season.

The Heartland announced the decision Thursday. After the final performance of “The Bikinis” on Aug. 25, the 420-seat playhouse on the third level of Crown Center will go dark. Center officials said there currently are no plans for the space.

Lilli A. Zarda, who has been the company’s executive director more than 20 years, said the theater’s original function had been eclipsed by changes in the Crown Center complex.

“When we first started in 1987 we were basically the main entertainment source for the center,” Zarda said. “But over the years that’s changed considerably.”

When the Heartland opened, there was little live entertainment aside from the Coterie, a young-audience theater on the first floor of the complex. The center now has the Screenland Crown Center movie theater, adjacent to the Off Center Theatre, a live venue rented by various smaller theater companies, including Musical Theater Heritage. The center also now has the Sea Life Aquarium and the Legoland Discovery Center.

Even so, the Heartland has provided year-round live entertainment that attracted an annual attendance of 80,000, according to Crown Center officials. The programming generally has been a mix of comedies, musical revues, mysteries and an occasional classic. Although set up as a for-profit company, the Heartland never actually made money.

“When we opened the theater 26 years ago, Crown Center was an entirely different place,” said Rick Brown, Crown Center’s marketing manager. “It needed events that would generate traffic. But then over the course of the years, we’ve added other venues and other attractions, and they draw that same kind of traffic. A for-profit theater is very difficult to sustain.”

The decision to close the Heartland will have an impact on employment within the theater community. Zarda said the Heartland has 15 full-time and 35 part-time employees, not including actors. She said the Heartland has hired almost 1,000 actors since 1987. In addition, the company has employed many stage managers, designers and musicians through the years.

“There are currently no plans for that space,” Brown said. “We will mothball it. Who knows what the future will hold?”

Brown said the possibility of restructuring the theater company as a nonprofit — which most theater companies are — was considered but rejected.

“We looked at lots of options and we just didn’t see one that looked like it would sustain itself,” he said. “I feel like it’s been very well run, and the percentage of the theater’s expenses that were covered by admissions I think was the highest in the industry (locally). It’s just that Crown Center’s needs have changed.”

Zarda said her tenure as executive director had been uniquely rewarding.

“I’ll be here 21 years in June,” she said. “It’s been a great job.”

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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