Having just completed her fourth season producing live theater at the playhouse that bears her name, Marilynn Wick takes a brief pause in her typical 10-to-14-hour workday to survey what she has built in Boca Raton, on the site of the defunct Caldwell Theatre.
An entrepreneur her whole life, she knows the odds of The Wick Theatre and Costume Museum succeeding were high. “This was a risky thing to do. I’m sure many thought it wouldn’t make it,” she concedes. “I think what you thought was very valid. I would have probably said the same thing.”
While she has plenty of challenges ahead, the recent season has turned more and more of Wick’s naysayers into believers.
“It’s been a hard season in many ways, because these have been huge, huge productions,” says Wick, 73, of her five-show slate that included West Side Story, Guys & Dolls and Sister Act. “We’ve only had one show that wasn’t sold out to the walls. We’re so proud of that. We feel that we’ve stepped up the quality of the productions onstage, we’ve done a lot of changes here, a lot of changes to the staff. We’ve turned a corner.”
Completing four seasons is a significant milestone that should pay dividends. “We are now eligible for grants,” notes Wick. “You have to survive, you have to show on paper how productive you’ve been and that you’re in this for the serious haul. Now it comes time for a board of directors, an artistic director, a development plan.”
Having created and run her own industrial window-washing business, sold real estate, mobile homes and auto tires, as well as building and renting out the nation’s largest collection of theatrical costumes – all for-profit enterprises – asking for donations for her theater was alien to Wick.
“Being in business all my life, it’s very difficult even asking anybody for money. I’m not used to it,” she shrugs. “I feel if we had more structure about asking for donations, if we were more established and organized, I don’t think we’d have the problem. I think we’re all over the board with marketing here. I want to pull that together in a correct manner. The donations that we have received have not been great, but as I have more time I will be reaching out to more people.”
Four years in, Wick says she is right on schedule with an elaborate seven-year plan for the theater. She has almost paid back a $1.5 million loan for operating expenses, a loan that was extremely difficult to obtain. “Nobody would loan us any money. I went to three banks. They practically laughed me out the door,” she recalls. “In general, they don’t want to give money to a not-for-profit, and when you have taken over a theater that’s been defunct in the manner where they left all these debts, it’s almost impossible.”
Still, Wick is not one to take things slowly. This past year, she was able to purchase the building — for a reported $5.2 million — that houses both the auditorium and the costume museum that makes her operation unique. In the year ahead, she expects to close on a 45,000-square-foot warehouse in Deerfield Beach where she can comfortably consolidate all of her costume holdings.
And she is busy increasing those holdings. Wick recently bought the costume collection of Jean Ann Ryan of Fort Lauderdale, who produces cruise ship shows. More significantly, Wick says she is nearing an agreement to purchase the costumes of public television’s popular Downton Abbey, which would increase interest in her museum tours exponentially.
The Wick Theatre currently seats 341 patrons, which Wick feels is an insufficient number. Another element of her seven-year plan is increasing the capacity to 500. “Within the seven-year period, we will have to shut this theater down and build more seats,” she says. “Five hundred seats does throw you into another tier with (Actors) Equity and everything, but I have to tell you, this stops me from using the facility for other things. All these hedge fund companies that are in town now, they want to come in and have a little business meeting. They want a space and they have the money.”
Wick will be the first to acknowledge that she was interested in the former Caldwell space mainly for her costume museum. Running a resident not-for-profit theater that utilized her costumes was an afterthought. And in those early seasons, the productions sometimes looked that way. “I’m a pretty tough critic myself. I can very quickly tell you the shows I was extremely disappointed with. I knew that it had to be better,” she says.
“The sound has always aggravated me. The lighting system is fair, but they’re not really the lights that I dreamed of. We just do what we can afford. I set the budgets for the shows and I can tell you quite honestly that I always spend more. You must be open-thinking and you cannot be tight with your dollar.”
Perhaps the biggest drawback to the Wick’s productions so far has been the use of recorded music instead of a live orchestra, a cost-saving issue that Wick claims to regret.
“Musical theater should be live. But we’ve got to have enough seats to do it,” she argues. “Here’s the other thing. Unless you can do it well, why would you introduce live music to a Rodgers & Hammerstein (show), say, if you can’t have a 12-piece orchestra? That would be insane, but nobody likes live music more than myself.
“I played the French horn, I’ve been involved with music since I was a kid. Recorded music has been disappointing to me,” says Wick. In recent seasons, she has been able to afford and justify a live band for such revues as Ain’t Misbehavin’, Swing! and the recently closed Beehive. Although she keeps emphasizing that live music is “a big expense,” Wick says she is committed to getting rid of recorded tracks once she increases the seating totals.
Another big expense is hiring name star performers, which The Wick has done on occasion. Sometimes it works out well – Andrea McArdle in They’re Playing Our Song – and sometimes it doesn’t – Leslie Uggams in Mame.
“When Andrea came here, that was a hard show to sell, but the minute you had her name on it, it sold out to the walls,” recalls Wick fondly. “There were barely any empty seats, and it ran for 4 weeks.” On the other hand, there is Uggams, a powerful singer who lacked sufficient mobility to play the energetic, offbeat auntie.
“We learned that you better pick very wisely who you decide to share the audience with. They must be fit to actually perform,” says Wick, choosing her words carefully. “She is talented, but she did not do the role correctly and many of my patrons recognized that and were disappointed that I spent the money on her. They made that very clear to me.”
Still, the right star in the right role can wake up the box office like nothing else can. Wick insists that there will be stars in the coming season, though she is not yet ready to announce them. “They will be part of the formula,” she says bluntly. “The trick is to choose right and be able to afford them.”
For what it is worth, though, the show with the best attendance over these four years was a starless production of 42nd Street. “Who would have thought? We could have run that for 6 months,” says Wick. “It was a big surprise.”
Less surprising is the show with the least attendance, the only non-musical at the Wick so far – Steel Magnolias. “I think it was very early in our career, maybe too early. They really stayed away from that one.” Nevertheless, she says, “I’m thinking very seriously of putting on another drama. Many people have asked for that.”
This summer for four weeks, beginning Thursday and continuing to July 30, if sales warrant an extension, the Wick will produce Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. “It’s a huge undertaking,” Wick notes. “This will be the most technical challenge that we’ve ever had here.
“We want people to understand this is a Broadway show we are producing. Every young child should have one live experience. And then they’re hooked. It’s probably the best educational thing you can do for any child,” says Wick.
Producing theater year-round in seasonal Boca Raton is risky, but risk is what Wick thrives on. “I am an entrepreneur, without a question,” she says. “I have the drive and I love what I’m doing. There’s not one day I’m not happy to walk in here.
“I am absolutely a managing producer. I have to be hands-on on everything. I’m running it alone now, but I have two wonderful kids” – Kimberly and Kelly –“and I’m bringing them up in the theater.
“Kimberly is extremely involved in running this theater on a day-to-day basis. She’s definitely doing the museum herself practically.” Kelly deals with the company’s real estate needs such as housing for out-of-state actors, through her own Boca realty firm. “I’m running all the administration and we have an entire staff that’s crossing over doing a million other jobs. It’s a team effort.”
At a time when many women are settling into retirement, Wick keeps running hard, taking on more challenges. “I’m not in this for any big self-gain. I’m not making a lot of money. You would die if you knew what I make here.
“I do it because I love it. I do it because I own this building now and I’m very proud of that. I want to make things work. I want to be able to give my children something. I raised these two girls alone. I want to make sure that they are set with what they’re doing.
“Since I bought this theater, I have worked every living day,” Wick says with a satisfied smile. “At my age, how many cruises can you take?”