Successful 5Th Avenue Theatre Shares The Wealth

Most nonprofit theater companies are only in the position to be hunting down grants, not doling them out.

But Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre has the luxury of trying it the other way around. One of the largest subscriber-based theater organizations in the country, the 5th Avenue has taken the unusual step of sharing its financial largesse with its sister Seattle-area theater companies.

In 1993 the nonprofit 5th Avenue Theatre Association announced it was establishing a $1 million charitable endowment with the Seattle Foundation. The goal: "To enhance the cultural knowledge and educational opportunities for students to experience the performing arts," by making contributions to local cultural groups for training and educational purposes.

Now the first round of the new grants, totaling $50,000, is being handed out. They will go to seven area theaters to support paid internship positions for administrative, technical and artistic trainees.

Receiving the money are several of Seattle's larger professional companies: A Contemporary Theatre ($10,000), Intiman Theatre ($13,000), and the Tacoma Actors' Guild ($8,400).

But smaller organizations also are in the loop. The Northwest Asian American Theatre ($7,500), Seattle Shakespeare Festival ($2,700), the UMO Ensemble of Vashon Island ($2,500) and the Lincoln Theatre Center Foundation in Mount Vernon ($6,000) wound up on the 1995 grantee list.

Don Covey, president of the 5th Avenue Theatre's board of directors, says the awards from one nonprofit arts group to another may be unprecedented nationally. A total of 27 nonprofit Western Washington cultural groups applied for them.

Though for tax purposes the monies will be disbursed by the philanthropic Seattle Foundation, 5th Avenue trustees Covey, John Mangels, Marilynn Sheldon and Faye Sarkowsky selected the grantees, based on an open proposal process.

"We decided not to give out the whole $1 million at once, because we want these internship grants to continue," notes Covey. "So we are just giving out the revenue on the endowment, and hope the program will go on into perpetuity."

"I think it's an incredibly visionary thing for a big city theater like the 5th Avenue to help a small theater in an outlying area like ours," says Peter Heffelfinger, executive director of Mount Vernon's Lincoln Theatre.

According to Heffelfinger, the internship monies will help the Lincoln, a vintage 500-seat movie house recently restored to present musical events, extend its cultural outreach to the sizeable Latino community in Skagit County.


Though the 5th Avenue may seem like a fat cat arts institution now, Covey remembers all too well the lean years, when the building's survival as a theater was still uncertain.

In 1979, when the now-retired Covey was the president of UNICO Properties, he joined forces with 42 other Seattle companies and business leaders to save the ornate downtown former movie theater from the wrecking ball by underwriting a $2.6 million loan for its physical restoration. The building's transformation was achieved over the next several years, and supported entirely by private funds.

"We had three goals at the time," Covey recalls. "One was restoring the 5th Avenue. The second was to bring musicals to Seattle, because the only place that could handle them then was the Opera House, and that was only for a few nights rather than a two-week run.

"The third was to generate funds we could put back into our community, to encourage young people who wanted to have careers in the arts."

Keeping the 5th Avenue stocked with film, stage and musical attractions, and drawing enough patrons to pay the bills, proved difficult in the recessionary mid-1980s. In 1984, board members and other supporters poured over $1 million more into the operation to keep it afloat.


The tide turned five years later, when the 5th Avenue Musical Theater Company was formed, and producer Frank M. Young instituted a popular subscription season of its own productions of well-known, commercially viable musicals, and runs of Broadway touring shows.

Today the offering of musicals attracts over 34,000 annual subscribers. That's far more than subscribe to a rival series of big musicals at the restored Paramount Theatre. And it makes the 5th Avenue one of very few nonprofit U.S. venues to survive without the help of government or foundation grants.

Yet Covey is quick to point out that the $1 million educational endowment fund would not exist without the early financial support and civic leadership of those 43 founders, including former 5th Avenue Theatre trustees Ned Skinner, Jim Ryan, and Eddie Carlson, all now deceased.

"Some of my predecessors as board chairman really set the stage for this," Covey says. "Arts education was very, very important to them. With these grants we're trying to carry out the will of those individuals, and to honor their memory."