Santa delivered audiences for Christmas shows

Christmas — or more particularly, Christmas-themed shows — proved kind to local theaters, stuffing their stockings with cash at year’s end.

The Guthrie Theater’s last production of “A Christmas Carol” at Vineland Place sold 96 percent of its seats. More than 53,000 patrons saw one of the 43 final performances of the familiar holiday classic, surpassing the theater’s projections.

The Guthrie will move itself — and, presumably, its venerable and lucrative holiday play — to a new home on the Minneapolis riverfront later this year. Though “Hamlet” will mark the final performances at the soon-to-be “old Guthrie,” marketing director Tricia Kirk said the last-year tug was an effective pull for “Christmas Carol.”

“We had more (season ticket) subscribers attend the show than in previous years,” she said. “I think a lot of people wanted to take advantage of seeing the show as a way to say goodbye to the building.”

The Children’s Theatre Company’s production of “Disney’s Aladdin Jr.” finished its run last Sunday as the biggest-grossing show in the theater’s history. With rock-solid name recognition and an amiable, tap-happy staging, the show sold nearly $1.2 million worth of tickets, according to public relations director Linda Jacobs.

Playing to about 91 percent of capacity, “Aladdin” broke the box-office record set by the 2002 production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Penumbra Theatre Company’s “Black Nativity” just met expectations, selling about 75 percent of its seats.

The theater brought back its traditional holiday production after a one-year hiatus in 2004. Last year’s production, riding a wave of good will and nostalgia, played to 87 percent of capacity. Emboldened by that success, the theater expanded the number of performances for 2005 and opened on the highly competitive Thanksgiving weekend.

That gave the production a slow start, said managing director Chris Oshikata, but with an increased ticket price, the 2005 production had a better per-show box office average than the 2004 staging.

Theatre de la Jeune Lune — never one to pander to the holidays — opted for a small-scale staged version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic book, “The Little Prince.”

The show sold about 70 percent of capacity, “almost exactly meeting our projection,” according to producing director Steve Richardson. The show sold out its opening-weekend performances over Thanksgiving, dipped some and then closed with a string of six sold-out shows between Christmas and New Year’s.

Not all theaters had success with their winter productions. The Jungle Theater sold only 56 percent of its seats for its “anti-holiday” staging of the comic chestnut, “Same Time, Next Year.”

Managing director Margo Gisselman said the theater projected the show to play to about 70 percent of capacity and called the audience shortfall “a minor disappointment.”

The Great American History Theatre hit about 90 percent of its projected revenue with its second annual holiday staging of “Christmas of Swing,” featuring the music of the Andrews Sisters.

Holiday musicals are always strong sellers at his theater, said artistic director Ron Peluso, but holiday shows seldom do as well in the second year as they did in the first.

And “Christmas of Swing” — the History Theatre’s biggest-selling Christmas show when it premiered in 2004 — repeated itself this year in a season with only four shows on the schedule. The repetition, Peluso said, put a drag on season ticket sales and on “Swing’s” stand-alone financial performance. The theater will announce a new holiday title for 2006 later this year.

Some small theaters, though, have had success building an annual holiday franchise. At tiny Theater Latte Da, “A Christmas Carole Petersen” finished its sixth year with a 25 percent increase in box-office income and a 20 percent bump in attendance from last year.

The off-kilter, autobiographical comedy, featuring Tod Petersen talking about small family dramas and growing up gay in Mankato, doesn’t exactly tie in with Latte Da’s mission of doing new or unknown work.

But it’s difficult to argue with success.

“Two or three years ago, I was saying I didn’t want to do this every year,” said artistic director Peter Rothstein. The show’s draw as an audience-builder convinced him otherwise.

“Last year,” he said, “we did a survey and found out that 65 percent of our audiences for the show had never been inside the Loring Playhouse (Latte Da’s home) and 85 percent of them identified as being straight — all those straight people coming to see a gay man’s story at Christmastime.

“The show started out having this very urban, very gay audience,” Rothstein continued. “And then all the gay boys started bringing their sisters and their mothers. Now, we’re getting book clubs and church groups.”

Latte Da has already inked “Carole” for the 2006 holidays and may send the show out on a minitour in 2007, giving the show a chance to grow and the theater itself an opportunity to try to create a new holiday tradition.

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