$35 million donation to American Conservatory Theater means historic Geary Theater gets a new name

ACT’s flagship venue, Geary Street, has been renamed Toni Rembe Theatre. Photo: Kevin Berne/American Conservatory Theater

This week, audiences of the American Conservatory Theater’s “Passengers” enter a theater with a new name, thanks to an anonymous donation of $35 million, the largest donation the theater has ever received from any source – individual, foundation, company or government.

“It’s transformative,” chief executive Jennifer Bielstein told The Chronicle.

On Monday, September 19, the historic Geary Theater was renamed the Toni Rembe Theatre, commemorating a donation from an anonymous donor made in honor of longtime ACT board member Toni Rembe, one of the first women to be named a partner in a major law firm. in the state. The main theater at ACT’s Strand Theater on Market Street is also referred to as the Rembe Theatre.

“We love Toni!” Bielstein said, adding that ACT is “exuberant, relieved and honored that someone is investing in our work at this level.”

Honoree Toni Rembe Rock with her husband Arthur Rock at the Magic Theater Masquerade Gala at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco. Photo: Jana Ašenbrennerová / Special for The Chronicle 2018

For her part, Rembe said in a statement that she was “deeply honored and touched to receive this recognition. the San Francisco Bay Area community for decades.

Before the pandemic, ACT’s annual budget was $27.5 million, which dropped to $13 million after the COVID hit. Now that the theater is producing in-person shows again, the budget has rebounded to $22 million.

The company plans to invest a super majority of the $35 million donation to generate revenue each year; separately, ACT already has a $20 million endowment, which brings in about $1.2 million each year.

Much of the remainder of the donation will help improve the space itself, including decades-old lighting, sound and rigging equipment. Some guest amenities, including a slow elevator, will also benefit.

Bielstein said she and artistic director Pam MacKinnon had been looking for a major donor interested in naming rights since shortly after joining four years ago. Traffic issues and poor late-night transit options had deterred moviegoers even before the pandemic, she explained, and the theater needed a long-term source of funding to help offset that. decline in ticket sales.

Graduates Gracie Fojtik (left) and Morgan Gunter watch a video tribute at the American Conservatory Theater Graduate Acting Program graduation ceremony. Photo: Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

In May, the theater graduated its final class of MFA students, completing one of the top five graduate acting programs in the country. Tuition only covered a third of the cost of the program, and declining numbers of ticket buyers made the program financially unsustainable, Bielstein said at the time. This gift is not intended to revive the program, but Bielstein said there is always the possibility of reinstating it one day.

“We remain in conversation with several potential university partners,” she said.

The 1,025-seat Beaux-Arts building has had many names in its more than 100 years on Geary Street. When it opened in 1910 it was called the Columbia Theatre, renamed the Wilkes Theater in 1924 and the Lurie Theater in 1927 before finally becoming the Geary in 1928.

ACT began presenting in the Geary when it moved from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1967, and in 2006 the company renamed the space American Conservatory Theater for streamlined branding.

The company went back to calling the venue the Geary after acquiring the Strand Theatre, which reopened in 2015.

  • Lily Janiak

    Lily Janiak is the theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @LilyJaniak

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