WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) -- When he hired Itzhak Perlman as artistic director of the Westchester Philharmonic in 2007, Joshua Worby thought he'd hit a grand slam.
He figured that Perlman, a popular, world-famous violinist, would attract new subscribers, raise the reputation of a suburban orchestra just outside New York City and spur fundraising by 40 percent.
"That's the way we projected it," said Worby, the Philharmonic's executive director, "and most of it came true."
Sure enough, attendance doubled. Perlman said he was "extremely happy." Even one category of fundraising, donations from individuals, went up 25 percent.
Then the economy tanked, corporate giving dried up and the orchestra ended the 2008-09 season with a deficit instead of a surplus.
Orchestras, theaters, museums and other arts organizations in the nation's suburbs face the challenge to attract customers — and donors — from the same population going to the Chicago Symphony, the Smithsonian or Broadway plays.
With the recession cutting into corporate and government funding and making Americans cautious about their spending, the groups are working harder to promote their small-town advantages — especially an easier commute and cheaper ticket prices.
"You can see a show at our theater for what you would pay for parking downtown," says Terry James, executive director of the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire, Ill., 35 miles outside Chicago. "Our average price is $30, our top ticket is $45. Our parking is free." And attendance is booming.
Producers warn, however, that convenience and low prices in the suburbs won't be a draw unless quality at least approaches what's available in the city.
"The appeal of the Westchester Philharmonic — and this is probably true of suburban orchestras throughout the country — includes the ease with which you can get to us, afford the tickets, park, get in and out," Worby said. "But it's a slippery slope because you can't fool audiences if your product is substandard. Manhattan is just 20 miles down the road."
Perlman agrees. "Convenience is just icing on the cake," he said. "Nobody is going to say `I don't care what I listen to as long as it's close.'"
Outside San Francisco, the Berkeley Symphony also stresses convenience.
"We do play that up, that you don't have to drive across the Bay Bridge and pay your $4 toll or whatever or take a BART train," says spokesman Kevin Shuck. "But part of our message to the Berkeley audience is that you don't have to go to the San Francisco Symphony to get high quality."
The Berkeley has also built a reputation as a champion of 20th century music under Kent Nagano, who has just stepped down after 30 years as music director. Shuck said attendance was up 6 percent in Nagano's final season and the orchestra is hoping that excitement over new music director Joana Carneiro will keep attendance, corporate support and donations from dropping.
In Chicago's suburbs, musical theater is a major enterprise, with full-time professional theaters north, south and west of the city, all selling convenience unashamedly and all heavily subscribed and apparently recession-proof.
The 900-seat Marriott Theater, which is part of a resort and turns a profit, has almost 40,000 subscribers who see five musicals a year.
"We have not seen a dip in recent years, even after 9/11," James says. "But we know it's discretionary income and we know we can't just throw junk out there for people to see. I think our reputation stands up to downtown."
He says there's plenty of room for the suburban theaters, even when city theater is flourishing.
"If `Wicked' is playing downtown, that's going to be competition," he says. But a show like that would also draw thousands of new theater customers, "and a lot of these new customers live in the suburbs," he said.
Kyle DeSantis, who runs the for-profit Drury Lane theater in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., says convenience plays a role in the theater's success, where he says attendance is up.
"People like the idea of not hassling with the driving and paying for the parking," he says. "But I'd like to hope the quality of the productions also brings people in."
He said it's possible the lower-priced suburban theaters could even benefit from the recession, but added: "If there's a hit, a show people want to see, people tend to pay whatever it costs."
At the nonprofit Theater at the Center, 35 minutes from downtown Chicago in Munster, Ind., artistic director William Pullinsi says sales have been going up for three years.
The theater's only bow to the recession is to lower prices for next season, Pullinsi said.
"We haven't been as dependent as most nonprofits are on contributions," he said. "I've been hearing from other people in the nonprofit sector that that money has taken a hit."
That was certainly true for the White Plains Performing Arts Center, which established a nonprofit musical theater 22 miles from Manhattan in 2007 and nearly got through two seasons before it had to cancel "Hello, Dolly!" this spring.
The theater had 1,100 subscribers and seven productions "and then the economic sky seemed to fall in all around us," board Chairman John Ioris said. "We lost a lot of our corporate and municipal support."
He has retrenched, however, and expects to announce a new season shortly, confident that musicals can sell in the New York suburbs.
"Our tickets are less expensive than Broadway and we're attached to a building with a parking garage in it," he said. "I think parking is $3. A big part of our audience has said they'd rather come to us than go to New York if they have a valid reason to do that."
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