By JOHN T. WARD
Elbowing aside its CEO of the past decade, the board of the Count Basie Theatre has decided to merge the operation of the Red Bank stage with the theater’s fundraising counterpart, and has hired a Rumson woman to run the restructured entity on an interim basis, the theater announced Thursday.
Justine Robertson, a 27-year Rumson resident, replaces Numa Saisselin, who was widely credited for having steered the Monmouth Street theater from leaky-roofed money pit to a refurbished and financially stable cultural gem.
Saisselin, a onetime stagehand who colleagues say is more comfortable directing a load-in and negotiating band contracts than schmoozing potential donors, assumes the title of chief operating officer of the not-for-profit enterprise, answering to Robertson, who starts work on Monday.
With its choice, the theater signaled a shift in emphasis the nuts-and-bolts booking acts and theater upkeep to winning contributions from deep-pocketed individuals, Robertson said in an interview with redbankgreen.
The Count Basie Foundation, formed six years ago to bring in funds for drastically needed repairs to the theater, lost its CEO with the departure a year ago of Rusty Young. That job has been filled on an interim basis by Mark Hodges, who is now leaving to take a job with a nonprofit in Camden.
In the realignment endorsed by the boards of each entity, the theater itself and the foundation will now be under the management of a single CEO. The aim, theater officials said, is better coordination of efforts fundraising, marketing and programming efforts.
Robertson, who declined to reveal her age, grew up in Hartford, Connecticut and is steeped in finance: she’s both a CPA and and a Rutgers MBA. But she gave up her life in corporate tax consulting in 1994 to join her father in reviving Hartford’s long-dormant Webster Theatre, which her grandfather had built in 1937.
Throwing herself into the task, she “became so deeply involved in” working with the city on a public-private partnership, wrangling a liquor license and other tasks, down to cleaning rest rooms, she said brightly.
The Webster booked many of the same types of acts that the Basie showcases, but was “more diverse,” with a schedule that included bands skewing slightly younger than Basie’s audience, she said.
“We did punk, funk,” she said. “We did jazz and Buddy Guy, but we also did Collective Soul, Creed, Godsmack. I even had Kid Rock when he was first climbing the ladder.” Her own tastes, she said, are rooted in early-70s pop and rock.
Her husband, attorney Lewis Robertson, would come up from Monmouth County on weekends to check IDs at the door and help out.
Robertson sold the theater in 2009 to return full-time to Rumson, where she’s lived since 1985, and focus on family life: she has two adult children. So when she heard, about a year ago, that the Basie was looking for a new CEO, her husband encouraged her to go for it, but she declined.
“When he said it, I actually thought he was right,” she said. “But I was making a choice to be with my family and not be so involved in work. I used to put in at least an 80-hour week. I would cancel vacations all the time. I was there from load-in to load-out.”
Lewis Robertson died last November as a result of injuries from a car accident in the British Virgin Islands, and in her recovery, Robertson said she has found herself ready for “a bit of a starting-over.”
“I really feel that when something is taken away from you, something else is given,” she said. “I feel that this was given to me to help me to focus again.” She added that she hoped that statement wouldn’t sound “maudlin” in print.
The interim CEO job, Robertson said, arose after she was invited to join the Basie board, and she decided to see how things play out, accepting the offer only in the last few days, as Hodges was heading out the door. On Thursday, the two were huddled in a rushed transition meeting.
Robertston said she doesn’t think the bands that the Webster was offering would make for a good programming option for the Basie. But she is hoping to freshen up a schedule that is heavy on same-time-next year visits by familiar acts and make it “a little more cutting-edge.”
“What’s here has been successful, and so you can’t really say it’s not up to a particular par,” she said. “What could be done is just to expand it so it’s not as repetitive. You need to add new things, too. Because the programming is what’s going to attract the fundraising dollars.”
Saisselin’s main focus, on the physical plant and programming, won’t change, she said.
The theater’s announcement of Robertson’s hiring included this comment by Russ Lucas, chairman of the foundations board:
In Justine, we have found a leader with both corporate and theatre world experience, but more importantly, fundraising is the priority. Justine is a long-time and very well-known member of our community. She also has experience in the local charitable community, and were thrilled we will be spending some time working with her to make the Basie even better.