Marilynn Wick, founder and chief executive officer of Costume World, a premier supplier of theatrical wardrobe to clients ranging from the White House to high school drama clubs, recalls driving by the shuttered Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton earlier this year.
And she thought to herself, “Well, somebody will open it. It’s such a beautiful building.” Then it hit her who that somebody should be.
Wick had been looking to move her Broadway costume museum out of her corporate headquarters in a Pompano Beach warehouse park for months. The museum had grown into a tidy profit center for her, but city officials were hassling her over zoning and assembly issues.
The Caldwell — which she will be leasing with an option, and intention, to purchase — would be ideal for displaying her world-class costume collection, Wick feels. The company owns some 1.2 million wardrobe pieces, including costumes designed by Cecil Beaton and outfits worn on Broadway by everybody from Judy Garland and Yul Brynner to Sarah Jessica Parker.
But as she quickly concluded, she might as well start a theater company, too.
Wick, 69, is a canny businesswoman, who built her multimillion dollar company from a home project. In 1976, she taught her two daughters to sew by assembling five Santa suits on their dining table, then renting the costumes out at holiday time. From those humble roots, she kept acquiring costumes, and now has retail stores in Dallas, Austin and Pittsburgh.
So why would she want to risk a stable, profitable concern with a precarious, failure-prone venture like a theater?
Wick responds by dismissing the question. “First of all, we do not intend to screw things up with a theater. Don’t you be thinking that for one minute,” she scolds.
Nor is she troubled by the fact that she has never run a theater before.
“I know this business like the back of my hand. I’ve been servicing it, I’ve been backstage for years and years, for almost 10 years I was on the road (clothing) all these national tours,” says Wick firmly. “I know how a theater works, I know every good producer out there.”
And she knows to surround herself with theater pros, like her newly hired artistic director, Jonathan Van Dyke, a veteran of over 50 stage productions across the country.
That will be a key to her success, suggests Rena Blades, CEO of the Palm Beach County Cultural Council. “Hire smart people and get to know the arts community well. The nonprofit arts community really wants to help support her. All that networking will make a huge difference.”
Actress Missy McArdle, a friend of Wick’s and an off-and-on employee of hers for the past 35 years, feels confident she will succeed with the theater/museum, citing her “determination and excitement.
“I’ve never really seen her so excited about something,” McArdle said. “This is different. It’s fulfilling a dream she’s always had. A museum and a theater working together will make it a very unique thing that we’ve never seen here before. It’s like an entertainment center almost.”
Minimizing her inexperience at producing theater, Wick emphasizes that it and renting costumes have plenty in common. “You have to know your market and you have to know what people want,” she says. “It’s just like being in the costume business. You’d better know what’s hot this year, and that’s what you put in the stores to sell. The same goes for theater.”
“Running a theater is not for the faint of heart,” notes Blades. “It is a lot of work and there’s risk involved. But to be able to connect the general public to the process of theater is very exciting to me. The connection to the costume process is really fun and a new twist. I don’t know many communities that can boast such a large public presence for a business like that.”
Wick has already announced five musicals and one comic drama for her first season, scheduled to open in the final days of summer at a $50 top ticket. She leads off with “The Sound of Music” (Sept. 18 - Oct. 20), followed by “White Christmas” (Nov. 6 - Dec. 22) and “42nd Street” (Jan. 8 - Feb. 2). Next will be “The Full Monty” (Feb. 19 - March 3), the season’s only non-musical, “Steel Magnolias” (April 2 - May 4) and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
While her choices are hardly “hot and current,” they are mainstream and commercial, exactly what Wick feels was missing from the Caldwell’s menu.
“The Caldwell Theatre went out of business, I think, because of their fare, their programming was wrong,” she says. “People have actually said that to us.”
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in substantial renovation work is happening at The Wick Theatre & Costume Museum, as it’s now being called. The backstage rehearsal space is being turned into the costume museum and major kitchen facilities are being installed. As in Pompano, groups can book guided tours of the museum, followed by a catered lunch. And then, perhaps, a stage show. To accommodate the museum crowd, the Wick is scheduling five matinees a week.
“The theater and the museum will go hand in hand,” says Wick. “This is kind of a perfect little dream for me.”
While Wick says she intends to have “some” Actors Equity performers in each production, she emphasizes an interest in showcasing young, local talent. “We have a talented community here, who don’t get much chance to perform. And if they’re not great in the beginning, there will be more chances that they’ll be great in the end.”
On the other hand, Wick also hopes to bring in some nationally known celebrities to headline on occasion. She name-drops Tony winner Donna McKechnie, Shirley Jones and Loretta Swit as possible performers at the Wick. “Lots of these people I’ve dressed and they know me personally,” she says. “So once in a while, I think we should have a celebrity.”
Wick had mentioned previously an annual operating budget of $1 million for the theater, but that seems low for the sort of large-cast, multiple-set shows she envisions — with or without star salaries. She is unfazed by the thought. “I am ready to spend what it takes to do it right, and it will be done right,” Wick insists.
“I’ve crunched the numbers, it should be fine. And of course Costume World will be there to support it when needed. So it will have a back-up. I’ll be the angel.”
Wick speaks of having the synergy of five separate income streams — the museum, the theater, a gift shop, a special event speaker series and a post-show cabaret in the lobby. “And that should sustain us, with no problem,” she says. “The ticket sales are going great now. We’re starting to have some revenue come in. We have put enough money aside to make this really work.”
Wick is a self-made success story, eager to take on a new challenge and give a little payback.
“This community has been wonderful to me for 37 years. I started my business career here and it has meant a lot to me,” she says. “I’ve had fabulous support from Fort Lauderdale all the way to West Palm Beach in my costume business. Without them, we couldn’t have gotten to this point. Now it is time to do something for this community.”
THE CALDWELL’S CHECKERED HISTORY
*Until it closed last year, it was the longest-running professional theater in Palm Beach County. It began in 1975 under the auspices of artistic director Michael Hall, who retired in 2009.
*Artistic director Clive Cholerton took over and pushed an even more ambitious lineup of productions than Hall, though audiences didn’t respond and debts began to mount.
*When it closed in April 2012, it was $5.8 million in debt, including its mortgage on its Federal Highway building.
*Costume World owner Marilyn Wick announced in late March that she would lease the building, move her Pompano Beach Broadway costume museum into the space and also run the theater. The first shows begin in September.