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Pasadena Playhouse: Mike Stoller and wife gave crucial $1 million

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If the Pasadena Playhouse had decided to adopt a theme song when a dire economy and long-standing debts forced it to cease operations for most of 2010 while it tried to claw its way back to solvency, “Stand by Me,” the 1961 pop-soul classic sung by Ben E. King, would have fit the situation precisely.

It turns out that Mike Stoller, who co-wrote and co-produced “Stand By Me,” among dozens of other indelible hits of the 1950s and 1960s on which he teamed with his partner, the late Jerry Leiber, was paying attention, along with his wife, musician Corky Hale Stoller.

The Playhouse announced Wednesday that the Stollers were the previously anonymous donors who made an unsolicited phone call to artistic director Sheldon Epps, pledging $1 million the day after reading a Los Angeles Times interview in which Epps said it would take $2 million to give the Playhouse, which at that point had been dark for about a month, a good shot at overcoming its woes.

The Los Angeles couple, married since 1970, will be honored Feb. 3 at a special donors’ reception pegged to the opening night of Noel Coward’s comedy, “Fallen Angels,” and with an acknowledgment in the production’s program.

“My wife suggested [the donation] when we found out they were ostensibly going to close after all those years,” Stoller said Wednesday. “It’s a beautiful theater and we felt Sheldon was a great producer and director, and it was something we wanted to do.”

Stoller said that he and his wife had gotten to know Epps several years ago. He and Leiber, who died in 2011, had met with the director to discuss an idea they had for an original musical with new songs. The show didn’t get off the ground, but the Stollers became friendly with Epps and his wife.

The Leiber-Stoller song catalog (with Ben E. King as their co-writer on “Stand By Me”) led to their 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it became a hot theatrical property when director Jerry Zaks staged "Smokey Joe’s Cafe," an oft-revived revue of their songs that moved from L.A.’s Doolittle Theatre to Broadway for a run of nearly five years starting in 1995.

Corky Hale Stoller, who established herself as a night club and session musician playing harp, flute and piano before she met her husband when he was producing the music for a shoe commercial, said that they originally had asked that the Playhouse donation be kept anonymous because “we’re very low-key people,” who didn’t trumpet their charitable contributions.

But she said that two of their causes, Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center, had recently insisted that they allow their name to be used on the Stoller-Filer Health Center, a new clinic in Compton whose name also honors the late civil right leader and City Councilman Maxcy Dean Filer, and on a theater at the Law Center’s headquarters in Montgomery, Ala. The couple, who had joined the Playhouse’s board after making their 2010 gift, decided it made sense to do the same retroactively for the theater company.

The Playhouse was able to parlay the Stollers’ gift into the $2 million Epps had said it would need to reopen because it was a challenge grant, calling for a dollar-for-dollar match by other donors.

The money made it possible to resume shows in the fall of 2010. Other key elements in the nonprofit company’s recovery were an emergency donation of $232,000 by board members that allowed it to stay intact as an organization through a brief Chapter 11 bankruptcy, discharging $2.3 million in debts, and the willingness of many of its 2,600 subscribers to wait for shows to resume rather than demand cash refunds for the five canceled plays they’d paid for in advance.

In a written announcement identifying the Stollers as the Playhouse’s “angels,” Epps said that “their support is very much at the heart of the theater’s revitalized life and our current state of good health, both artistically and fiscally.”

Mike Stoller said that he didn’t intend, by going public, to prod others in L.A.’s music and entertainment community to support nonprofit arts groups, but that would be “a great idea.”

In another positive recent development, Playhouse spokesman Joel Hile said that it had exceeded its box office goal for last month’s run of “A Snow White Christmas” by 30%, drawing about 13,000 ticket-buyers and about 2,000 students from L.A. and Pasadena public schools who saw the show for free.

It began what Playhouse leaders hope will be a potentially lucrative annual holiday season partnership with L.A.-based Lythgoe Family Productions, presenting an American take on panto, the British Christmas season stage tradition that combines classic children’s stories with familiar pop songs and audience participation.  “Aladdin” has been announced as the panto for the 2013 holiday season.

ALSO:

Pasadena Playhouse gets direction from Sheldon Epps

Pasadena Playhouse stages a sleek, 'sexy' comeback

Jerry Leiber dies at 78; lyricist in songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller

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