After 37 years, the Willows Theater Company is on the verge of shutting down completely. What began as a popular community theater in 1977 in the Willows Shopping Center in Concord grew into a Martinez cabaret and outdoor amphitheater as well, but that growth, and a downturned economy, may have ultimately spelled the end for the organization.
A show scheduled for the Campbell Theater on Saturday was cancelled. A Willows board member, Dennis Woodard, blamed it on lack of ticket sales. An Esses Productions spokesman, Steven Shore, said it was due to lack of support staff. And on Wednesday, Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder said the city council will meet to discuss the distribution of the Campbell Theater's assets.
"The Willows group has been struggling," Schroder said Monday. "The board thought that by opening the main stage in Concord, they would attract back the folks they lost. What they hoped would be their rebirth turned out to be their demise."
The Willows group opened the Campbell Theater in Martinez in 2007, and opened the Kenney production building, next to the outdoor amphitheater near the waterfront, shortly thereafter. The group installed nearly $800,000 of improvements into the Campbell, including lighting, sound and seating. In 2008, the group closed the Willows Theater in Concord and moved everything to Martinez. In late 2010, the city forgave a $40,000 loan to the group.
The loan was for rent owed to the city. The Bisio family owns the building, and the city leases it from them. In turn, the city was renting the building to the Willows company.
Shortly after the loan was forgiven, Willows directors announced a return to Concord and the main stage at the Willows Shopping Center, raising the ire of Martinez officials and residents, who felt the group should have remained in Martinez and focused its efforts there.
Now, the group is facing a bleak future.
"We've got some real bad financial difficulties," said Willows Board of Directors President Dennis Woodard. "The Willows may not continue, but we're doing everything we can to make sure the Campbell Theater continues."
Schroder said that both the Campbell and the amphitheater could now become facilities available for community groups to use. Because of insurance and other reasons, neither facility was available to non-Willows promoters or performers.
But now, Schroder said, it's likely that the Campbell and the amphitheater will be available to groups like Armando's, the Martinez Opera and even the school district, for locally-based productions.
"We have at least another year on the lease," Schroder said. "It's not the end of the Campbell by any means."