How I Did It: Woman Finds Second Act Reviving Old Theater
On a sunny fall afternoon in the idyllic Marin County enclave of Mill Valley, Lucy Mercer pecks at her computer keyboard in a second-floor office above the Throckmorton Theatre, calm as a bird flying briskly in the eye of a hurricane.
Music can be heard from the theater down the hall, where a musician is testing the venue for sound quality before inking a deal to appear there. Downstairs in the rehearsal space, a children's theater group -- the Marin Youth Performers -- is running through tunes of Thoroughly Modern Millie. This evening, there will be an art show in the lobby by a local photographer. But the 56-year-old Mercer seems unfazed by the manic pace.
"This afternoon I'm trying to get the rights to a Christmas play, working on the budget and setting up our annual raffle," says Mercer, looking up with a smile. "The grand prize is two 'golden tickets' to anything for a year."
The winners will have an overwhelming number of choices.
In 1999, Mercer bought the nearly 100-year-old theater -- originally a silent movie house -- and has been working to transform it into a nonprofit community arts hub. Where there were only a few events each week in the early years, nowadays almost every night is filled with every imaginable art form: comedy, live theater, dance, movies, music, on-stage conversations with creatives and more. And during the daytime, "The Throck," as it is lovingly called, also gives space to meetings and classes.
"We're still in building mode," says Mercer, "with the goal of becoming a true community resource. I think we're getting there."
Taking on the Throckmorton transformation was an abrupt career shift for Mercer, whose previous experience was owning a low-income apartment building.
"I know there were moments when she probably wondered what she had done with her life and her retirement savings," says Cheryl Craig, administrator at the Throckmorton, who has been involved since the beginning. "When Lucy bought the theater, it was full of green shag carpeting that was full of fleas. She had zero experience running a theater, but she has always been very business-savvy. She would talk to lawyers, and afterward they'd want to hire her."
"We've been on such a steep learning curve," Mercer says. "Three steps forward, two back. We're still working on our programming, and being as inclusive as possible, but we also want to maintain high quality."
No one could argue with the quality aspect. The Throckmorton routinely features some AA-list talents -- especially among comedians. Robin Williams uses the unassuming Northern California venue to rehearse for his national tours, Dana Carvey does the same for his stints on late-night TV, the iconic Mort Sahl has become a regular there, and though she declines to name-drop, Mercer has been known to chat on the phone with Woody Allen.
"It's really magical for the audience to be in on the early stages of an artist's work," she says. Of her killer Rolodex and friends list, Mercer just shrugs. "Some celebrities may be wonderfully talented, but I don't hold them out as different -- I think that's isolating. They are just people, and most want to be treated normally."
Despite her lack of experience managing a theater and nonprofit, Mercer says that owning low-income housing with her husband, Danny Slomoff -- who holds a Ph.D. in clinical and sports psychology, and is also a cantor -- prepared her for the rigors of community work.
"During my years doing that, we were able to clean it up [and] get rid of drugs and such," she says. "Ever since then, I've been very interested in the concept and importance of community, and of giving people inspiration, and maybe even a way out, through the arts."
Indeed, the mission statement of the Throckmorton's nonprofit is that the arts are "essential components of a rich and rewarding life, and an indispensable part of human inspiration and education."
Mercer is proud of exposing worthy older artists to new audiences, with Sahl being an obvious example. She points to a more poignant one that represents both a high and low of her budding second-act career as impresario.
"Odetta, the great singer and civil rights activist, came into town to perform," says Mercer. "She was already quite ill and was wheelchair-bound. It was a packed house, and we waited, and waited...and she didn't show up. So I raced across the street to her hotel and found her gravely ill and needing hospitalization. I was in a total panic about having to clear this very full house, but everyone was great -- very respectful."
She sighs. "Then a year later she came back and did her last public show here before she died. It was...amazing."
Mercer only has a second of reverie before a call comes in, telling her the musician of some renown is ready to sign a contract. The Throckmorton has passed muster once again.
Read more: How Opera Got Its Groove Back