Cirque Du Soleil is momentum for Irvine’s Great Park

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

The circus coming to town hasn’t been big news for decades, but there was an interesting wrinkle Wednesday, given where Cirque Du Soleil chose to pitch its tent in Orange County for a January run. Following a two-month stint in Santa Monica, the company’s new production ‘Kooza’ arrived in Irvine, setting up shop at what is likely Southern California’s least known, yet arguably fastest-growing public entertainment space: the Orange County Great Park.

During the last two years, Great Park operators have quietly transformed a 22-acre sliver of their landscape adjacent to the 5 Freeway into a relatively unremarked upon beehive of grass-roots entertainment.

At a time when public entertainment venues are, at best, holding their own, and, at worst, on the wane, the Great Park’s calendar is burgeoning. The budget supporting events has ballooned to $2 million annually and the site now features a mix of permanent and temporary doings, most of them -- ‘Kooza’ excluded -- free to everyone who comes by. Among the offerings:

-- The park’s most prominent attraction is the giant Orange Balloon, which spends four days and nights a week -- winds permitting -- aloft, taking 25-30 riders at a time 500 feet up for a 10-minute or so view of the surrounding area.

-- During summer months, Friday night sees outdoor dances in front of one of the refurbished airfield hangars. Saturday features concerts on an adjacent stage, with an eclectic array of name entertainers, from Arlo Guthrie to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Newly added in 2009 was a “comedy corner,” with stand-up comedians having at it before each concert. Meals before each performance can be had at the Hangar Café, which specializes in veggie fare. With minimal publicity, 34 performances over two years have drawn more than 45,000 people.

-- There’s activity in the winter too. Starting Jan. 30, the Great Park sets up a free ice-skating rink and kicks things off with a Snow Day, lugging in snow for kids to thrash around in.

The goal of these grass-roots efforts, says Great Park CEO Mike Ellzey, “is to familiarize people with the Great Park. We want people to know what the possibilities here are all about.

Mind you, none of this was quite planned for in the way it has come about. In fact, if you’re somewhat baffled at where all this is taking place, the Great Park is on the site of the long-shuttered El Toro Marine Base.

The base was carved out of Orange County lima bean fields in 1943 as training grounds for Marine and Navy pilots, crews and service technicians. In 1993, El Toro was one of the military bases around the nation that the federal government decided to decommission and close.

A decade-long political struggle ensued over turning the 4,700-acre site into a commercial airport. Four countywide ballot measures later, the Navy instead sold the property in 2005 to national real estate developer Lennar Corp. for $659.5 million. As part of the deal, Lennar also paid the city of Irvine $201 million in fees to kick-start creation of a planned “Great Park,” with 1,749 acres of the property ultimately set aside for a park to be created at a cost currently estimated at $1.4 billion.

But as plans revved up, the economy tanked. Housing starts nationally dropped to zero and the base sat dormant. Its most visible use for the past nine years has been as a rental storage lot for RVs with 2,300 spaces set up on the runways.

Entertainment options, a sidelight focus of the park’s plans, began to look good and, beginning in 2007, abruptly moved center stage. Landing Cirque du Soleil is the park’s most ambitious “get” yet.

Tramping around on the site through the drizzle Wednesday underscored the locale’s appeal for Cirque. The Great Park has what the Canadian troupe covets most: plenty of asphalt-covered space and proximity to a freeway. Plus, the deal-sweetener: the Great Park offered Cirque free rent (the $10 charge for parking is the only money going to the park, which hopes to generate $300,000 in revenue). The result is a deal through 2018 that allows the troupe to set up shows every couple years at the site.

As for ‘Kooza’ itself, many familiar Cirque traits are on view: acrobatic performances, clowning, maniacally colored, unearthly costuming, and a New Age-y score with plenty of rock accents. Reviewing for The Times in October, David Ng said, “Cirque‘s ability to take the utopian premise inherent in the circus -- that there’s a place for everyone under the big top -- is on fine display.” Performances start Jan. 8 and run through Jan. 31.

Meanwhile, at the Great Park, deals and continued expansion appear to be in the offing. Long term, a concert amphitheater has been on the drawing board from the project’s start. On the horizon now are a couple of commercial expos focusing on families and pets in March. And late in 2010, two refurbished pavilions may play host to ongoing art exhibitions.

So while there are no new houses or, for that matter, a park itself in the near future, at the Great Park there is increasingly plenty to see and do.


-- Christopher Smith

Performances of ‘Kooza’ begin Jan. 8 and continue through Jan. 31. Orange County Great Park, Irvine (adjacent to the 5 Freeway, Sand Canyon exit). Performance days and times vary -- check Adults $60-135; children, 2-12, $42-94.50. (800) 450-1480, Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Top photo: Performers make their entrance in ‘Kooza’ during a performance in Santa Monica last October. Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times.