Theater in old church offers new life
By Matthew Hathaway
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Thursday, Sep. 27 2007

ST. LOUIS When the curtain goes up tonight at the city's newest playhouse, it
may herald a second act for a neighborhood long overlooked in the rehab rush
that is remaking much of south St. Louis.

The performance of "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll" at the Ivory Theatre might seem
an odd fit for what, up until two years ago, was St. Boniface Catholic Church
the spiritual heart of Carondelet since it was built in 1860.

In choosing the material to christen its new home, the New Line Theatre company
seemed to echo the notion that things are changing radically, perhaps in a
place that could be considered a staid and working-class sibling to hipper city
neighborhoods such as Soulard or the Central West End.

It was, in fact, in those neighborhoods where one of the Ivory's owners,
developer Pete Rothschild, 59, made a name for himself more than three decades
ago. Although his investment is for now limited to the church and several
buildings around it, including the old rectory and parish school, Rothschild
says Carondelet easily could be the city's next boom neighborhood for
rehabbers, developers and the young and professional residents who often follow
them.

"After doing this sort of thing for 30 years, you get an intuitive sense of
what's next," Rothschild said. "I think this is what's next."

Others seem to agree. Several projects, both recently completed and still under
construction, are contributing to the neighborhood's recent success, including:

Loughborough Commons, a $40 million big-box strip mall at Interstate 55 and
Loughborough Avenue anchored by a Schnucks and a Lowe's. The shopping center
opened late last year; smaller stores are still being built.

Mississippi Bluffs, a $15 million plan for 34 townhouses in four buildings
overlooking the river. Units are listed from $450,000 to $600,000. The first
building is under construction now, said developer Mike Curran.

The Steins Broadway Corridor, a three-block mix of more than two dozen
residential and commercial buildings at the city's southern tip that are being
rehabbed by developer Benjamin Simms.

Simms, who has rehabbed about 50 apartment units throughout Carondelet in
recent years, also said he hoped to break ground next year on two big
residential projects in Carondelet: construction of as many as 150 townhouse
condos along Water Street at the city's southern tip, and the $7.5 million
conversion of the Carondelet School, at 8221 Minnesota Avenue, into luxury
apartments.

Even bigger projects are on the horizon. The Pinnacle Entertainment Corp. is
building a $350 million casino in nearby Lemay, and a warehouse-office complex
is planned for the 40-acre site of the old Carondelet Coke plant. Matt Villa,
the 11th Ward alderman, said those projects would generate more than 2,000
full-time jobs.

PULLING PEOPLE IN

Although the Ivory Theatre may not be the biggest development news in the
neighborhood, Villa said it was the sort of destination that could draw people
to Carondelet who never would have ventured there otherwise.

That's certainly the hope of Rothschild and his partner, Mike Allen.

Rothschild, of Ladue, and Allen, of Chesterfield, bought the church complex for
about $1.1 million, and they say they've put more than $800,000 into converting
the church into a performance space.

St. Boniface was one of seven churches the archdiocese closed as part of a
parish consolidation in 2005. When the developers bought the building, one of
the rules was that they couldn't use the St. Boniface name. The theater's name
comes from nearby Ivory Street.

Although the archdiocese removed the church's stained glass, there's no
mistaking the building's history. Religious murals still adorn the walls, there
are pews in the lobby and the wood cabinets where priests once kept their
vestments will be used to store theatrical costumes. There's stadium seating
now, along with a bar and cabaret seating in the old organ loft.

Although the developers say the Ivory will fill a niche as an upscale small
theater, no one expects it to be a big money maker. The theater business often
is a notoriously unprofitable one.

"Ready, shoot, aim. That was our plan," joked Rothschild.

The developers have signed up two restaurants that will open soon, and they're
trying to find a third, perhaps a steak house, that would be in the old rectory
and cater to the theater crowd. A charter school is leasing the grade school,
and some small offices are rented.

Scott Gilmartin, a Washington Avenue pioneer who owned the nightclubs Velvet
and Rue 13, is a partner in one of the new restaurants a barbecue restaurant
and bar called The Patch, a neighborhood name for the southern part of
Carondelet.

Gilmartin said his interest in project was the direct result of the Ivory, and
the boost it was giving to Carondelet.

Villa said other developers also were looking at the neighborhood now, and he
credits Rothschild and Allen. "Normally, they're ahead of the curve," he said.
"Once they started acquiring property, there were other developers who started
taking notice."

SOME GOOD NEWS

In the short term, tonight's opening is giving the neighborhood something else
a jolt of good news one week after the murder of a popular manager at a
convenience store across the street from the Ivory.

Police have made no arrests in the killing of Bshara "Bob" Kswani, who was shot
Sept. 17 in a robbery of Suzy's Market & Deli. Nearby residents described
Kswani as friendly, often eager to give credit to older shoppers and those who
had fallen on rough times.

The killing was the sort of crime that could have happened anywhere, said Linda
Smith, who owns the nearby 132-year-old Carondelet Bakery with her husband,
Bob, and lives above it.

Although she is still disappointed that St. Boniface's had to close her four
grown daughters all were baptized in the church and attended grade school there
Smith thinks the theater will be a boost to the neighborhood and to her
business.

She said that at least one new restaurant would get their bread from the
bakery, and that a few younger customers had started to replace those who had
moved away or died.

"There's still a lot to be done in the neighborhood, but it's promising now,"
she said. "We've been told for years to just wait another five years and things
will turn around. Now, it looks like it's finally happening."

 

The show at Ivory Theatre will go on
By Heather Ratcliffe
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Friday, Sep. 28 2007

ST. LOUIS The controversial show -- "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll" at the Ivory
Theatre will go on tonight after the Archbishop reviewed the material in the
show.

In a joint statement Friday, Monsignor Vernon Gardin and Pete Rothschild, a
theater owner, said today they had agreed that the show would go on tonight as
scheduled with no change in its content. The archidiocese had gotten a
restraining order yesterday to stop the show.

The decision happened after church officials reviewed the material and
determined that it was not objectionable. After that agreement, the temporary
restraining order was dropped.

On Thursday, the The St. Louis Archdiocese blocked the first public performance
of "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll" at the Ivory Theatre, saying the edgy musical
revue doesn't belong in the former church.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Philip D. Heagney issued a temporary restraining order
Thursday and scheduled a hearing today to consider making the order permanent.
The Carondelet theater was previously the St. Boniface Catholic Church before
the church was closed in 2005 and sold to developers.

One of the conditions of that sale prohibits shows aimed at "an adult audience
rather than the general public." The archdiocese took action, in part, after
seeing advertisements for the show.

The musical was set for a preview performance Thursday night, with an official
opening set for tonight.

Developer Pete Rothschild, one of the theater's owners, said he and his lawyer
didn't learn of the hearing until late Thursday but couldn't get to the
courthouse in time to attend.

Despite its title, Rothschild described the revue as "innocuous" and said he
hopes to present the judge with a videotape of the revue at today's hearing.

Producers of the show say it includes songs from a diverse group of musicals
that deal with sex, drugs and rock music, including "The Rocky Horror Show,"
"Jesus Christ Superstar," "Naked Boys Singing" and even "Oklahoma!" Although
some of the songs contain strong language, Rothschild said there is no nudity.
He doesn't believe the edgy revue violates the deed restriction.

"Before we bought the church, we discussed it with the church's real estate
guy," he said. "We thought they didn't want strippers or that kind of business.
I can understand their wish to prevent something truly objectionable from
happening in formerly consecrated space, but this isn't offensive."

Scott Miller of New Line Theatre, the show's artistic director, said Thursday
that he was surprised it caused such a stir with the church. He even defended
the title as a phrase that's been common in America since the 1960s.

"Honestly, I think that if they would see it they would be less upset about
it," Miller said. "If it was a movie, it would barely be rated PG-13."

Theatergoers said they were stunned to be turned away as they arrived for the
performance Thursday night.

"Let them open it up," said Cathy Keil, 46, who lives in the Carondelet
neighborhood. "It's good for the community."

Keil said she's a Catholic who was married in the former St. Boniface church
and that she saw nothing objectionable about the show.

But Monsignor Vernon Gardin, vicar general of the archdiocese, said that after
reading advertisements for the show, "obviously we saw that it was inconsistent
with the original sale of the church."

Gardin said the advertisements noted that adult language is used in the show
and also advised parents to leave their children at home.

Tony Michalak, 79, of Oakville, said he is a Catholic and saw no problems with
the show, except possibly its title.

"The title throws you off," said Michalak, who showed up for the performance.
"I hope the archdiocese understands there's nothing objectionable about this
show."

Rothschild and a partner, Mike Allen, bought the church complex for roughly
$1.1 million and spent more than $800,000 fashioning it into a theater. St.
Boniface was one of seven churches the archdiocese closed as part of a parish
consolidation.

In addition to barring "live performances directed to an adult audience rather
than the general public," the special warranty deed signed by Allen, Rothschild
and a representative of the St. Louis City Catholic Church Real Estate
Corporation restricted the new owners from using the St. Boniface name and
spells out other conditions.
 

Show goes on, with blessing
By Heather Ratcliffe
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Saturday, Sep. 29 2007

St. Louis Promoters of the musical revue "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll" were
cleared to raise the curtain at the Ivory Theater on Friday night after the
Archdiocese of St. Louis dropped objections to staging it in a former church.

The archdiocese won a temporary restraining order Thursday to block a preview
performance that night at the former St. Boniface Catholic Church, in the
city's Carondelet neighborhood.

The suit contended that the content might violate a condition of the building's
sale that it not be used for shows aimed at "an adult audience rather than the
general public."

But church officials agreed to dismiss the petition Friday after reviewing a
video of the show and talking with promoters. Both sides said a lack of
communication led to the conflict.

"We knew nothing about the play," said Monsignor Vernon Gardin, vicar general
of the archdiocese. "It could have been anything nudity, simulated sex acts."

Gardin said the promotional materials suggested that theater-goers leave
children at home.

The theater owners said the publicity campaign might not have accurately
reflected the content. One of them, Pete Rothschild, described the revue as
"innocuous" despite its title.

Promotional material describes "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll" as "a fearless
roller coaster ride that explores these three ubiquitous forces on Americans
and our culture."

Producers say it includes songs from a diverse group of musicals that deal with
sex, drugs and rock music, including "The Rocky Horror Show," "Jesus Christ
Superstar," "Naked Boys Singing" and even "Oklahoma!"

Although some of the songs contain strong language, Rothschild said he didn't
believe the performance violates the deed restriction.

"The ad campaign from (the producer) New Line Theatre was a little bit
titillating, as well as the title of the play," said Rothschild. "We worked it
out. There's no compromise. The show will go on as conceived."

Rothschild and a partner, Mike Allen, bought the St. Boniface complex for
roughly $1.1 million after it became available because of church consolidations
in 2005. They spent more than $800,000 fashioning it into a theater.

Representatives from the theater had been unable to attend the last-minute
hearing Thursday when St. Louis Circuit Judge Philip D. Heagney granted a
temporary restraining order to the church.

A settlement was reached before a hearing the judge scheduled in the matter
Friday.
 

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

Tuesday, Oct. 02 2007

 

Different voices represent an opportunity to grow

In "Archdiocese steps in to halt revue at former church" (Sept. 28), we read
that the Archdiocese attempted to halt a show in a space it no longer owns. We
regret these actions and offer our support and prayers for New Line Theatre and
others who have felt stifled by the church.

Puritan pastor John Robinson noted that there is yet more light and truth to be
revealed from God's word. We know from scripture that God's revelation
frequently is rejected by God's people, and sometimes hearing God's voice
requires prophets from "outside the fold" to call us back. To hear God,
sometimes we must accept the challenge of those voices. In stifling artistic
expression, we lose an opportunity to grow, both by silencing the voices that
might bear the words of the still-speaking God and by indulging in
hard-heartedness. Though the Archdiocese removed its objections, it did so
after judging the material "appropriate," not because it was willing to accept
the challenge of voices other than its own.

We at Garden Light United Church of Christ are blessed by the presence of Stray
Dog Theatre in our sanctuary. We gladly would offer a temporary space to New
Line should the Archdiocese walk this path again. We hope that, as our
relationship with Stray Dog Theatre grows, we will be challenged by their work.
We believe that through those challenges, we will be better able to hear God
speaking from whatever direction that voice may come. We wish the same for
Archbishop Raymond Burke.

The Rev. Jonathon Edwards | St. Louis
Pastor, Garden Light United Church of Christ

Protecting church's history

At the new Ivory Theatre, formerly St. Boniface Catholic Church, it may seem
the theatre's initial production, "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll," is being
prudishly abused by the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which sought to halt the
musical review for violating the property's deed. The deed is under the
Archdiocese's control, and it states the theater must avoid "adult-only"
material. This review is aimed at an adult audience. The theater's owner argues
the review would welcome a "12-year-old child."

This is disingenuous at best. The Ivory is the new home of New Line Theatre,
whose website proclaims it "the bad boy of musical theatre." View New Line's
website. The content defines the group's target: "sophisticated adult theatre
goers." Great. This company has its place in local theater. But its productions
are not "family fare." I suspect New Line and its founder see this production
at the converted church as a way to "tweak the sensibilities" of the
Archdiocese, a religious institution with which it has disagreed on subjects
including the play "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll."

As a theater artist for more than 40 years, I bristle at closing down a show.
Theater's nature includes challenging traditional values and sensibilities. But
the Archdiocese has every right, using its deed, to protect the sacramental
history of this unique structure. New Line and the Ivory's owner are naive to
think this group should pursue its mission in a sacred building turned profane
venue. Removing exterior crosses and statuary and interior religious murals
would aid the conversion. And the owner should be forthright about the nature
of the new tenant and its well-known personality.

James G. Leibrecht | St. Louis County