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After cancelling the remainder of Lyric Opera San Diego’s season last week due to it ongoing bankruptcy, the musical theater company’s board plans to announce Tuesday it has appointed a new executive director to oversee renting out and managing the theater venue.

The new chief, Joe Altbaum, has been working as a consultant for the theater for a few months. A former performer and administrative worker at both Lyric and across town at Starlight Musical Theatre, Altbaum said he wants to “change the face of what the Birch North Park Theatre was.”

When Lyric was running the theater, it prioritized the space for its own uses, and renters had to work around the company’s schedule. But now, the theater is freed up to find as many rent-paying guest companies and events as possible.

Altbaum said he’s been around the theater for years, and feels fondly toward its former leaders, Leon Natker and Jack Montgomery. But now, while the courts decide what happens next for the musical theater company, the theater venue itself “needs to stop the bleeding,” Altbaum said. “Our priority is simply to rent the venue.”

Faced with inadequate donations, ticket sales and rentals, Lyric Opera filed for bankruptcy last month. The company had been trying to sell its theater all year to get out from under its $4 million mortgage.

Altbaum said he’s working on securing a national touring production, and has talked with another tenant about booking dates in 2013. “Our goal is to make sure the Birch North Park Theatre goes nowhere, never closes its doors,” he said.

The Birch North Park Theatre has historically paid union wages for its workers like stagehands and lighting and sound operators. That factor is frequently raised in the arts community as one possible reason the theater was difficult to rent out. Altbaum said he’s had some conversations with the local chapter of the stagehands union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 122, about how he might be able to cut some costs for productions for groups that would rent the theater.

And Altbaum will have help. He said he’ll be hiring Brian Wells to help coordinate the production logistics for groups coming in. You might recognize Wells from our story about the bankruptcy filing from another musical theater company, Starlight. Wells was Starlight’s artistic director for about a dozen years.

Before he stepped in to help Starlight a few years ago, and Lyric a few months ago, Altbaum was a network security contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, he said. He sees a “tremendous difference” between the plights of the two companies, Starlight and Lyric.

“The board here knows they have a significant asset, a full-scale theater with a roof on it,” he said. “It has to be operated as a business.”

But, he said, he hopes the Birch could be a part of a revitalized Starlight, after that company wraps up its bankruptcy restructuring.

“I still love Starlight,” he said. “We’re all in this together, in terms of nonprofits.”

Watch my recent story about the theater’s impact in the neighborhood’s continuing revival:

I’m Kelly Bennett, the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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