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Carolina Theatre rehearsing for next act

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Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — As a child, Greensboro native Keith Holliday spent Saturday mornings at the “Circle K,” a weekly western-movie program at the Carolina Theatre downtown that included cartoons, a movie-serial chapter, and a feature film.

Now, as president and CEO of the historic theater, the former Greensboro mayor and retired First Citizens banker plans to launch a youth program at the Carolina next summer like the one he enjoyed as a kid.

The youth program will be part of a broad strategy Holliday has developed in his four months on the job to modernize the 81-year-old structure, boost its programming, fundraising and staff, and market it to a more diverse audience.

“One of the best-kept secrets in the area,” Holliday says, the Carolina since it opened in 1927 has thrived, fallen into decline, dodged the wrecking ball and survived a fire.

With downtown Greensboro in the midst of an economic revival, the nonprofit theater is poised for a renaissance of its own, he says.

Recruited by board members who were looking for “somebody who wasn’t your stereotypical theater manager” and would provide new leadership, Holliday says he will build on the business and civic connections he developed in eight years as mayor, four more on the city council and 20 at First Citizens.

His first step will be to modernize a building last renovated roughly 20 years ago.

To do that, he says, he will need to find a consulting firm to develop a master plan, and a sponsor to pay for it, that will serve as a roadmap for making physical improvements such as new chairs, a floating orchestra pit and new dressing rooms.

He also plans to step up the theater’s fundraising.

That will include enlisting corporate supporters, selling naming rights for individual shows, and recruiting sponsors for the theater’s season, which runs from September through May.

It also will include broadening the base of individual donors to stabilize the $1.1 million annual budget for the theater, which counts on ticket sales for 80 percent to 85 percent of its revenue.

And it will include conducting a study to gauge the feasibility of launching a major campaign in two years to raise money to pay for improvements to the theater.

“A multi-million-dollar campaign will be needed in the future to realize the dreams for the physical-plant changes that need to take place,” Holliday says.

Marketing also is a top priority, he says, including efforts to use advertising and public-service announcements to promote the theater within a 40-minute drive.

Closely tied to marketing will be efforts to revamp programming to expand and diversify the theater’s audience, which last season totaled 71,000, Holliday says.

“We frankly have way too many older white people as our only patrons,” he says.

While African-Americans represent one-third of the local population, he says, the theater offers little programming targeted to them, and little if targeted to Latinos and Hispanics, Asians and people under age 30.

“We need to create programming that absolutely reaches out and touches many groups,” he says, “reaching out to make a concerted effort to change the look of our patrons, and increasing not only the number of our patrons but also their color and age, especially under 25.”

Finally, Holliday says, he plans to increase the organization’s staff, which has totaled five people working full-time and 10 working part-time during the performance season.

“We’re in transition,” he says. The Carolina can “drive people in here who have never been in here before.”

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