Durham County

A local musician is taking over the Carolina Theatre

After a $1.7 million deficit, the Carolina Theatre of Durham Inc. now reports a surplus of more than $200,000.
After a $1.7 million deficit, the Carolina Theatre of Durham Inc. now reports a surplus of more than $200,000. courtesy of Carolina Theatre of Durham Inc.

The new CEO of the Carolina Theatre is a musician and longtime donor who remembers downtown Durham in its pre-revitalization days.

The city-owned historic theater managed as a nonprofit climbed out of a $1.7 million deficit this summer with help from the city and a fundraising campaign. It has been overseen for the past year and a half by Dan Berman, who has been the volunteer CEO during the deficit crisis. He steps down mid-October when Rebecca Newton starts.

Newton, 61, lived in Durham for 45 years before moving to seven acres in Orange County a few years ago. She remembers committees in the 1980s and ’90s trying to revitalize downtown Durham, and didn’t think she’d ever see it happen. But it has, she said, crediting retired Downtown Durham Inc. leader Bill Kalkhof. Newton has also supported downtown, as an investor of the Blue Note Grill that moved to downtown. And she’s donated to the Carolina Theatre all along.

Newton said she’s fascinated to see how vibrant downtown Durham has become so many years after “it just died.”

“I think the Carolina is an integral part of the downtown area, and brings so much culture,” she said. “Maybe we need a little more diverse culture.” As CEO, she’ll keep the cultural arts shows for kids, and wants to add local musicians to the national and international acts.

The Carolina Theatre of Durham reported $6 million in revenue in fiscal 2016, according to its most recent federal tax filing.

My remit is to get a local cauldron flavor in there, and that’s a hard thing to do because of numbers, because someone’s got to pay for it. But there’s so much local talent in Durham, let alone the Triangle area.

Rebecca Newton, new CEO of the Carolina Theatre

“My remit is to get a local cauldron flavor in there, and that’s a hard thing to do because of numbers, because someone’s got to pay for it,” she said. “But there’s so much local talent in Durham let alone the Triangle area.” She said there’s a bit of market flood with talent and choosing what to do on Friday night.

The Carolina Theatre was built in 1926 and includes the 1,000-seat Fletcher Hall performance hall and two movie theaters. Newton has been a “substantial” donor and has helped the theater out in the rough times, she said, declining to say how much she has given. Her new job came out of a lunch meeting about joining the board that turned into considering the CEO job.

Newton has been involved in the performing arts for 45 years. She spent the past 25 years, however, in the internet industry, recently building apps for kids. She worked at digital media companies SuperAwesome, Mind Candy, Sulake.com and America Online. She spent the past couple of years as chief innovation officer at Carolina Partners in Mental HealthCare.

“There’s a lot of money in the digital space,” she said.

She’s been on the music scene for decades, first in Rebecca & the Hi-Tones and now in the Americana band The Bennys. She sings and plays the guitar, mandolin, piano, “a little bit of banjo and enough fiddle to get in trouble.” She wrote a song about Durham called “One Square Mile” for the 2012 “27 Views of Durham” book of essays.

For the past few years, Newton was vice chairwoman of the ArtsCenter board of directors as the Carrboro organization faced its own financial challenges. She has also chaired Girls Rock NC. Newton said she realizes that the ArtsCenter’s $121,000 financial hole was not as deep as the Carolina Theatre’s $1.7 million deficit.

She’ll be coming in to her new job with a $200,000 surplus. One of her first tasks will be to hire a new development director, among several positions that turned over under Berman’s tenure.

The Carolina Theatre of Durham Inc. Board of Trustees picked Newton. It has about seven years left on a 10-year contract with the city that provides $650,000 annual funding. The city also gave an extra $600,000 matching grant to help bail the theater out.

Berman wasn’t involved in her hiring, but thinks Newton’s a great choice from a business and arts perspective.

“She is personable and articulate and very much a part of Durham and the Triangle, and already knows many of the players in the art scene here,” Berman said.

“One of the ways that we dug ourselves out of the hole was focusing on mission-driven activities like education and community outreach, the complimentary tickets for Durham Public Schools kids to see our school-time shows, to make sure we were giving back to the community and serving the community in an important way,” he said.

Rebecca Newton courtesy of the Carolina Theatre

Trustee Valerie Whitted said the vote was unanimous and that Newton “seemed to have a good, unique spin on working with different types of people.”

Whitted said she wasn’t on the search commitee for the CEO, but as a Durhamite who has seen different types of Carolina Theatre management, she thinks it will be more transparent with Newton.

“I like her being from the community,” Whitted said. “I do think there will be more interaction and engagement with the community and the city, and more transparency.”

Michael Schoenfeld, chairman of the Carolina Theatre trustees, said Newton will be an effective and energetic leader and that her “ability to understand audiences is strong.”

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan