THE BOOM IN L.A. THEATERS: WILL IT TURN OUT A BUST?

Never has Los Angeles seen such a boom in theater construction and renovation.

All over the city, theaters are being planned to improve neighborhoods, humanize shopping centers, massage egos--and even stage plays. From Venice to Northridge, Santa Monica to downtown, entrepreneurs talk optimistically of opening 30 theater spaces in the next five years.

All that's missing are the plays to fill the stages, the money to produce the plays and the audiences to see them.

"There are lots of facilities not being filled on a regular basis now, and we're talking about building new ones," says Edward Weston, western regional director of Actors' Equity. "I'm fearful that we've returned to the edifice complex of spending money on buildings rather than building acting companies."

The theatrical landscape is changing fast.

Some of the projects are huge, such as the $85.5-million Orange County Performing Arts Center under construction in Costa Mesa and a planned $72-million, two-location performing arts complex in the San Fernando Valley. At least five are tucked into multimillion-dollar real estate developments. The $15-million, four-theater Los Angeles Theatre Center opens on Spring Street in September, and the City of Beverly Hills has budgeted two theaters in its new civic-center complex.

It looks like a great idea: Los Angeles is the nation's second-largest theater market after New York, and Los Angeles box-office receipts last season of $56.26-million were more than double those of Washington, the nearest contender, according to the trade paper Variety. More than 100 professional theaters of all sizes are producing hundreds of plays here annually.

But a Calendar study of the marketplace reveals there are clouds waiting in the wings.

Los Angeles may have a big appetite for touring shows like "Cats," but audiences for less extravagant fare here have declined since last summer. There are fewer and fewer successful plays on Broadway, and all of the new or expanded theaters will be competing not just for audiences but for proven hits. At the same time, higher tickets prices are frightening away potential theatergoers, government support of the arts is down and private-sector dollars aren't enough to meet the needs of many nonprofit theaters.

Looking ahead, an independent consultant recently suggested that Los Angeles County postpone two of the three proposed Music Center theaters because the market appeared saturated. As of last week, meanwhile, the long-dark 1,900-seat Wilshire Theatre found new company. It has been joined by the just-opened 863-seat Henry Fonda Theatre (now dark after a brief run of "Twelve Angry Men") and the 377-seat L.A. Stage Co. (after today's closing of "Penn and Teller," it has no immediate bookings.)

And when the newly renovated, 2,300-seat Wiltern Theatre opens in May, it will probably stick to music, opera and dance rather than theater because of what one executive there calls "the reality of the marketplace."

Yet producer after producer expresses incredible optimism in the face of what appear to be overwhelming economic odds. Each believes that he or she will be successful when it comes to selling tickets, raising money to supplement ticket sales and maintaining a high profile in a crowded marketplace. And many are hedging their bets by establishing ties with restaurants or other commercial ventures.

When impresario James A. Doolittle produced his first musical, "Song Without Words," here in 1945, he recalls, Los Angeles stages billed not only dramas and musicals but vaudeville and live prologues to movies. Some of the grand old theaters became movie houses, while others passed into memory. Still others like the Pantages and the Henry Fonda (formerly the Music Box, then the Pix) have gone from stage to screen and, now, back to stage again.

Los Angeles today has essentially three types of theaters: the handful of big, Broadway-style houses that play shows like "La Cage aux Folles," the growing number of Off Broadway-style mid-size houses playing such shows as "Isn't It Romantic" or "Little Shop of Horrors," and about 100 theaters of 99 seats or less presenting everything from Shakespeare to performance art.

Usually producing in Equity Waiver theaters (those of 99 seats or less where Actors' Equity has waived its salary and contract rules), the city's nonprofit producers have been frustrated artistically and economically. For one thing, they've claimed that the only people making money at that level are the landlords. And when they produce a hit, it's often too expensive or too complicated to move it into a bigger theater where they might make more money and give the show (and its players) a longer life.

". . . What was missing and (what) would thrust this city into the world class were mid-sized developmental houses that can afford to be experimental and take risks," says Bill Bushnell, artistic/producing director of the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Similarly, such small theaters as the Odyssey, Megaw, L.A. Theatre Works, American Theatre Arts and Back Alley all envision themselves inhabiting considerably larger homes before the end of the decade (see accompanying descriptions).

"If we don't make the move, we'll die," says Back Alley Theatre producing director Laura Zucker, whose Van Nuys-based theater is currently seeking an old San Fernando Valley movie theater (such as Sherman Oaks' historic La Reina theater) or warehouse to convert to a 500-seat house. The more seats, the more potential income for the theater, she said. "Good people will only work for peanuts for so long. And that includes me."

Commercial theater operators like the James Nederlander Companies also have big plans. Never mind that its Wilshire Theatre is almost always dark, that the Pantages has had a spotty history, and that the Nederlander-operated Civic Light Opera recently had its Music Center playing time cut back after a terrible year.

The Nederlanders and Pantages Theatre Corp., a subsidiary of Pacific Theatres Corp., just spent $1.2 million turning Hollywood's Pix movie theater into the Henry Fonda Theatre. They have announced plans to turn seven acres in Hollywood into what Nederlander executive Stan Seiden calls "an entertainment complex," featuring three new theaters, a park, international restaurants, a hotel and, possibly, a major department store--$100- to $200-million worth of real estate development.

Although Seiden says they hope to break ground on the Hollywood project before the end of the year, other observers see the Nederlanders as waiting to see how the already-dark Fonda theater fares.

Package developments seem to be a trend. Many of the new theaters are participating in some form of mixed-use development, where theaters, shopping centers, office buildings and/or hotels contribute to and profit from one another's visitors. Other proposed theaters have received financial or other help from government agencies eager to revitalize decaying or idle neighborhoods.

"Theaters are one of the few uses you can put real estate to where location is not the prime element in the equation," says David Houk, managing general partner of Historical Restoration Associates, now renovating the Pasadena Playhouse. "What intrigues me is using theater as an urban planning tool to attract pedestrian and other types of traffic to a commercial development."

It also intrigues the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. Instrumental in launching downtown's new Japan-America Theatre, the under-construction Museum of Contemporary Art and the contemplated Dance Gallery on Bunker Hill, the CRA also assisted the Embassy Theatre and Variety Arts Center with low-interest loans or tax-exempt financing. The Variety Arts Center, for instance, began renovation last fall and is expected to be what producer Milt Larsen calls the "historic cornerstone" for a block of offices, residential units and a hotel in the CRA's South Park area.

CRA expertise and money both went into the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and the agency is now lending a hand to the proposed four-theater North Hollywood Cultural Center. (The Nederlander project lies within boundaries of a proposed CRA Hollywood redevelopment area, but CRA administrator Edward Helfeld says that the CRA "has not had any involvement" with the Hollywood and Vine effort.)

"There's a move on to establish theater centers in this town, and I'm glad to be part of it," says actress Martha Scott, apparently undaunted by the fact that her recent Plumstead Theatre Society production of "Twelve Angry Men" at the Fonda averaged only 50% capacity each night.

Adds Susan Loewenberg, whose L.A. Theatre Works is now planning expanded facilities on the Westside, "Innovative, architecturally distinctive and comfortable spaces for contemporary work will enhance the experience of going to theater for people, and I think it is going to work in our favor."

That's probably what producer Susan Dietz thought back in 1981 when she turned Hollywood's old Las Palmas movie house into the L.A. Stage Company. "It was all road houses and waiver theaters then," Dietz recalls. "There was nothing in the middle. But my work at the Los Angeles Theatre Alliance taught me that mid-sized theaters were the next step for Los Angeles, and when we opened the L.A. Stage Company I think it was a beacon. It took us four months to get going, but once we did, I think it gave a lot of people courage."

Apparently so. Peg Yorkin's L.A. Public Theatre took over the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega Boulevard a short time later, and Dietz herself opened L.A. Stage Co. West in 1983. The newly renovated New Mayfair in Santa Monica and New Variety Arts downtown opened last year, while in February both the Hollywood Playhouse & Cafe and the Fonda raised their curtains.

There have been problems, however. Dietz admits to tough times finding durable plays and she says that even hits like "Isn't It Romantic" don't sell out as consistently as she'd like. Asked about all the new competition, Dietz says: "In one way, I'm thrilled, but in another, I'm scared. I'm thrilled that we now have a mid-sized theater community and more people that I can talk to who do what I do and face what I face. But some of my problems will be compounded because we bid for the same product and the same audience."

At the smaller, Equity Waiver level, too, some producers are worried about the increased competition for audiences and plays.

"We have a heck of a lot more trouble getting rights to West Coast premieres since (Susan) Dietz and (Peg) Yorkin have been in business," says Ron Sossi, artistic director of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. "It isn't necessarily that they are doing all those plays. They can't possibly. But the agents are hoping they will and are sitting on plays. I'm foreseeing a time when it will be almost impossible to get certain plays if you've a waiver theater."

One example of the little theater losing out to the bigger theater was when Sossi's (99-seat) Odyssey tried for three years to get the rights to Sam Shepard's "True West," "but Shepard's agent wanted a mid-sized production in Los Angeles, and because there were now these houses, they decided to wait. ("True West" eventually played the 377-seat L.A Stage Co. last fall.)

It isn't just competition for productions of new plays, says Elaine Moe, artistic director at the Megaw Theatre in Northridge. She says the competition also extends to modern classics by such writers as Lillian Hellman. "You really have to build a longer list of alternatives."

But Loewenberg feels that "there are plenty of plays. There's a vast world literature out there, most of which Los Angeles hasn't seen."

Even if there were no problem with what to put on the stage, questions remain about who'll be out in the audience.

"We can't fill the theaters we have now," says Joseph Stern, producing director for Actors for Themselves at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose Ave. "I don't think we need more theaters or more productions. In order to build an audience, what we need are more good productions."

Adds Ivan Spiegel, artistic director of the Burbage Theatre Ensemble: "What amazes me is how if somebody is not filling 99 seats, he can expect to fill 500 seats. Where are all those theatergoers going to come from?"

It's a good question. A 1983 study by the League of Producers and Theatres of Greater Los Angeles found audiences numbering only 189,000 weekly despite a potential of about 297,000. "My feeling is that we now have more theaters, which increases the potential, but I don't believe that the attendance has changed," says league Executive Director Sharon Baumgarten. "I think there is a finite number of people attending theater in Los Angeles, and we at the league are trying to change that."

As producers work to increase audiences, they emphasize both the millions of tickets sold to blockbusters like "A Chorus Line" and "Cats" and the huge audiences that turned out for last summer's Olympic Arts Festival. Yet audiences reportedly dropped after the festival, helping to create a situation that Ted Schmitt, producing director of the Cast Theater, calls "devastating." Since last summer, he says, "audiences have been scarcer than at any other time in my eight-year experience."

Schmitt and other Equity Waiver producers also report a soft rental market for their available spaces, thus depressing a much needed source of revenue for theater operations. (Two newly renovated 99-seat rental spaces are expected to open at the Tiffany Theater on Sunset Boulevard in June, adding competition for rentals and, in turn, audiences.)

The bottom line of the theater boom in Schmitt's view? "With more theaters, everybody gets 20 people instead of 50."

Neither are audiences setting records in the bigger houses, observes Dietz, who considers her competition not only other theaters but movies and home video. "There's a cultural phenomenon going on. It used to be that when you were 38, you had kids in college, not at home. Now people in their 30s who are our target audience and have the most money are home changing diapers. I see it in myself. It's very easy to rent a video and go home and watch it."

What concerns Bushnell about the increasing number of theaters is that he believes producers are not doing "the one essential thing, and that's to build an audience base and a committed audience base. (That's) what made the Taper and South Coast Rep and what will make us work. . . . If those other institutions aren't building that commited season ticket base, they run the risk of becoming great buildings with nobody to fill them, like the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach or the Wilshire."

Another way to get people out of the house is to simplify theatergoing. Nearly all of the new theater centers plan restaurants and bars, and most are designed to be within walking distance of shops, offices, perhaps even hotels and apartment complexes.

Edward Martenson, director of the National Endowment for the Arts' theater program, reports similar mixed-use activities in other cities as well. "Theaters add some spice and excitement to an otherwise ordinary real estate development and vice versa," says Pasadena Playhouse developer Houk, also renovating commercial space in the Playhouse building as well as planning to develop an adjacent two-acre site nearby. "And by figuring out other uses of the property, some of the cash flow can be used to support the theater."

So can dance and music events, not to mention food and drink. An integral part of the Los Angeles Theater Center, for instance, is a million dollars worth of restaurants and bars. "I don't think I would have considered operating a 240-seat theater in Hollywood by itself," says Norman Maibaum, co-producer of the Hollywood Playhouse & Cafe.

Theaters and communities also are interdependent. A 1979 study found that the Music Center pumped more than $60 million in economic activity into the local economy, and New York cultural leaders frequently cite the economic importance of that city's arts institutions. Since Cleveland's new Playhouse Square began its fund drive in 1980, there have been 1,240 new jobs created and $89 million in capital investments made in the surrounding area, according to president Lawrence Wilker.

Part of the problem is timing, says Nicholas Winslow, executive vice president of Harrison Price Co., which has authored nearly every feasibility study done on theater locally in recent years. "There has been a continued growth of successful theater over the last decade," Winslow observes.

"I think that has encouraged a number of people to enter the marketplace. Perhaps as much coincidence as anything else, a great deal of this activity is coming to fruition at one time, which could lead to an overbuilt market. An analogy would be the cyclical nature of office building development downtown. In the late '60s and early '70s, we had supply far outstrip demand and it took years for demand to catch up."

Not that this hasn't happened before. The Music Center's Center Theatre Group acquired the Aquarius Theater in 1979 for about $2.1 million, produced a few plays there, then sold the theater to Martin Tahse Productions for about $3.3 million, a $1.2-million profit.

Tahse declined to discuss the Aquarius for this article. However, at the time Tahse owned the theater, one of his executives explained that the goal was "to bring back some of the magic" of the former Earl Carroll Theater. CTG Managing Director William Wingate says Tahse couldn't make a go of the theater, and the Aquarius was resold at auction to Saul Pick and Nick Vanoff. It is currently being used for television production.

Although Center Theatre Group officials continue to plan for two new stages that may be built with the proposed Music Center expansion, they are now revamping the 1,038-seat Huntington Hartford. That theater, which CTG acquired earlier this year with UCLA, is expected to house CTG's repertory company as well as to book traveling productions. Listing all of the Hartford's attributes--history, parking, familiarity--Wingate indicates that CTG clearly intends to make a pitch for the same touring shows as those being wooed by commercial houses.

They will also be competing for benefactors. Skeptics wonder if public and private coffers are deep enough to sustain the heavy subsidies traditionally required by nonprofit theaters. With public monies down and private sector funds still insufficient to bridge the earnings gap, Theater Communications Group, the national alliance of regional theaters, recently reported its members are enmeshed in ". . . deficits. Big and getting bigger."

Yet the building boom continues and is no isolated phenomenon. "There's a definite trend toward the smaller house for straight plays all across the country, " says Broadway producer Elliot Martin. Many of New York's nonprofit theater companies hope to build 500-seat houses, says Henry Guettel, head of the New York-based Theatre Development Fund, which itself is trying to come up with what he calls "an enormous theater complex" of as many as five 500-seat houses and ten 99-seat houses.

"Everybody keeps talking about new theaters, but I haven't seen a lot of conversation about what we're putting in these theaters," says producer Franklin Levy of Catalina Productions. "We're running out of revivals. I keep looking at the catalogue myself, and it's getting sparser."

Levy's among those hoping that all the new houses might inspire the big theater owners like the Nederlanders and Shuberts to help develop new plays.

But new productions are expensive. Producer Dietz says she simply can't afford the dollars or risks involved in producing untried works. As she and others have learned, what is feasible in a 99-seat theater is not necessarily so in a larger house. "Expansion can bring dilution," adds Stern. "It's a problem sustaining quality even when you have two theaters, let alone four."

Upcoming: A look at marketing techniques and new ways to sell tickets as local producers attempt to generate bigger audiences.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
70°