South Charlotte

Matthews Playhouse overcomes adversity

When June Bayless stepped out of the courtroom, she had bittersweet resolution.

A dark chapter in the history of her organization had ended.

Curtain closed.

That May 19 morning this year, the former treasurer of Matthews Playhouse, John Hurst, 51, entered a guilty plea for multiple charges of embezzlement.

According to public records, Hurst was charged with embezzling about $300,000 from Matthews Playhouse over a seven-year period ending in summer 2009. Hurst had been treasurer for nearly a decade.

Now, Bayless says, the community institution is rebuilding.

Bayless founded Matthews Playhouse in 1995. Those first years, she collected little to no salary. As it does now, the organization relied on volunteers.

The money it gets from the town of Matthews' tourism fund covers the rent for the Matthews Community Center on McDowell Street, but not much else.

As the organization continued to grow, the Matthews Playhouse board began to consider applying for "operating support" from the Arts & Science Council, which would provide general funding annually. But to do that required an audit costing $8,000-$10,000, Bayless said.

"We'd just been a little mom-and-pop shop," said Bayless. "To get all our finances in order, we needed another year or so."

Bayless said the organization started doing online banking in June 2009 and then hired a bookkeeper to look through its finances. It didn't take long for the bookkeeper to find inconsistencies, she said.

Bayless asked Hurst to come to a meeting with the executive board, but Hurst didn't show up, she said.

Bayless said he avoided the board members and refused to offer explanations for questions about the finances. Finally, he came to a meeting.

"I've never seen someone so nervous in my life," said Bayless.

The board members were dumbfounded by what they saw as they examined the financial records, Bayless said. Board members quickly cut Hurst off financially and confronted him.

Hurst had been involved with Matthews Playhouse since its inception. His daughter was in its first production, "Alice in Wonderland."

"He was a part of our family," said Bayless. "We socialized together, we took trips together, we went to each other's (kids') high school graduations. Because the organization was so based on trust, we weren't checking behind him like we should have been."

Playhouse officials and Matthews police announced in October 2009 that a large amount of money was missing from the organization's account. Matthews police and the State Bureau of Investigation then conducted a nine-month investigation, which ended with Hurst's arrest last June.

On May 19, Hurst was sentenced to 12-16 months in jail and 60 months of supervised probation afterward. Hurst has been ordered to repay the Matthews Playhouse more than $232,000. He also was ordered to pay more than $30,000 in court costs and fines.

Hurst's family could not be reached for comment.

The board of directors now has a new system for handling the playhouse's finances. At least three board members must see every check and bill.

Despite the period of financial turmoil, no one has quit or walked away from the community institution, and the number of productions it has put on never declined.

Board president and attorney Howard Labiner said once they found the leaky pipe in the financial system, the playhouse has been able to increase its offerings.

It can spend more money per production, build larger sets, hire orchestras, invite guest speakers to classes and do a couple of productions that in the past might have been too expensive to get the rights to.

"If there's a silver lining," that's it, said Labiner.

Matthews Playhouse raises almost its entire budget (about $400,000 this year) through ticket sales, classes, camps and donations, Bayless said. Bayless has been able to hire some college students to help build the sets, but dozens of volunteers still help.

"We're eternally grateful for our patrons and the public sticking by us," said Bayless.

Matthews Playhouse's next production is "The Sound of Music," which opens June 10 and will run through June 26.

Bayless said they had 170 auditions for the show.

"We don't want people to think we've died," she said. "We've gotten wiser and smarter and older and (are) acting more grown up.

"It's like any tragedy. You just have to turn around and keep going. Move one step at a time. ... This certainly will not ever, ever happen to us again."