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City Theater Thrives Thanks to Banana Mogul

Published: July 9, 2010 (Issue # 1590)



  • Vladimir Kekhman took over the running of the Mikhailovsky Theater in 2007.
    Photo: Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times

Want to support Russian ballet and opera? Have a banana.

The Joint Fruit Company, or JFC, imports every third banana that comes into Russia, and its principal owner, Vladimir Kekhman, doubles as director and major benefactor of St. Petersburgs Mikhailovsky Theater, which once had to survive on meager City Hall funding.

While its not unusual for major businesses to support the arts, company executives who take the reins of a cultural establishment are few and far between.

Kekhman left his job as chief at JFC, which is responsible for 36 percent of banana imports to the Russian market, in favor of running the theater in 2007.

There is such a notion as being 40 years old, Kekhman, 42, said in a recent interview at the theater. Many people, including myself, begin to think about whats next. When I learned about the theater and saw it, I realized that I belong here.

I liked the address No. 1, Arts Square, he said in a stage voice, which blended well with his suit and bow tie, adding that he hadnt been inside until he received the appointment.

Mikhailovsky receives enough money from City Hall to stage one premiere a season. Even so, it is on track to stage six such performances including Peter Tchaikovskys ballet Swan Lake, Antonin Dvoraks opera Mermaid and Giuseppe Verdis A Masked Ball by the time the season is over later this month, thanks largely to Kekhmans personal contributions and money from other donors, channeled through a support fund.

The theater had been in the doldrums before Kekhman took over and has improved since then, especially in ballet production, said theater critic Raymond Stults. It remains in an inferior class though, if compared with Mariinsky or Bolshoi theaters, he said.

The ballet is OK. Their Swan Lake has been considerable success, Stults said, adding that he based his assessment on opinions in the community of critics.

Kekhman valued JFCs sales last year at $680 million, saying the company controls 5 percent of the global banana-growing market. While it is the biggest Russian banana trader, it ranks below global leaders Dole, Chiquita and Fresh Del Monte in terms of sales.

JFC also sells bananas under the brand named Bonanza in European countries such as Italy and Austria, as well as in the Middle East, including Iran and Iraq, and former Soviet republics.

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