Sounds of Strife

IN 1995, WHEN Fred Krohn's nonprofit Historic Theatre Group
(HTG) convinced the Minneapolis Community Development Agency to cough up $356,200 for a high-tech sound system at the MCDA's State Theatre, he pitched the idea as a money generator. "The [State Theatre] restoration coupled with this new state-of-the-art sound system will set it apart from all other venues in the Upper Midwest," HTG predicted. The system would lure more groups to rent the State, resulting, according to HTG, in $33,400 in new revenue annually.

But in addition to generating new cash, Krohn apparently hopes to save money with the new system, too. "Union stagehand bills can get high when you are loading and unloading touring sound systems," Krohn was recently quoted in materials promoting the system. "For us to be competitive, we had to install a sound system in-house that was more than the equal to any system brought into the building." In other words, if it didn't have to pay union sound engineers and stagehands to set up Broadway musicals and other high-buck shows, the State Theatre could be more profitable--not the kind of business goals the MCDA is supposed to subsidize.

To achieve this goal, Krohn brought in nonunion sound designer Steven Dargi, whose vitae includes sound design at a number of Las Vegas nightclubs and sound engineering at the Oscars and Emmys. Instead of standard public bidding procedures like this job would normally entail, the MCDA and the Minneapolis City Council signed off on an at-cost purchase of Turbosound components through Dargi's connections. The Turbosound is the Cadillac of sound systems, Dargi says, and is used by the likes of Pink Floyd and President Clinton. He says it boasts computerized control and the best speakers on the market--connected with the same fiber-optic cables "used on the stealth bomber."

The decision to install the system was made while the theater was recovering from a particularly bad year. In 1994, despite revenues of over $1.2 million, the theater was $219,937 in debt. Meanwhile, Krohn's management fee approached half a million. In 1995, thanks in part to high turnout for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Beauty and the Beast, the theater showed a profit of $243,552--even after paying Krohn a management fee of $581,767 and union wages for setting up 500 shows.

Meanwhile, the MCDA borrowed cash to cover the cost of the sound system on the strength of Krohn's pitch. "We wanted a system that would be competitive among other theaters in the area," says MCDA Project Coordinator Jane Lerdall, who worked on the proposal. "To read into that that we're trying to reduce labor costs would be going too far.... Of course the city is concerned about union labor being used and [Krohn] has done that in the past so we've never been concerned." Krohn defends his cost cutting: "I'm about the most pro-union manager around," he insists, "but to load a full sound system in and out was costing a lot in union labor, no question about it."

But as Dargi tells it, the anti-union aspect of his work for Krohn was explicit from the start. "The system I've designed is the first system ever built like it," he says. "It will convert from concert to cinema in an extreme way. It takes only two or three people, rather than hire a big union crew. Fred's union bills are astronomic and you get a lot of guys sitting around all the time." In fact, Dargi says his nonunion status meant he had to go into the deal without a written contract with Krohn. Dargi contends that installing the system was hell: Cables were mysteriously clipped, lights were shut off while his crew worked. He also claims, in a civil suit filed in Hennepin County, that he was assaulted by a State Theatre employee. Mark Kroening, the State's unionized supervisor of operations, declined comment, except to point out that the parts of the system were installed with union labor and public bids.

Imported at least in part to save the theater on its labor bills, Dargi is now feeling a little pinched himself. In a lawsuit filed in Hennepin County, he claims HTG owes him upwards of $80,000. "I'm used to working without a contract," he says. "It's normal. We get on a plane and we go. And this is the first time I've had a problem like this." CP