Times Staff Writer

No one can accuse Thomas Kendrick, newly hired chief administrator of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, of downplaying the tasks of starting a brand-new arts complex.

On Sept. 9, Kendrick, 51, will be officially switching jobs: from director of operations at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington to executive director of the Orange County Center, the $65.5-million complex now under construction in Costa Mesa and set to open in October, 1986.

“It’s an immense challenge and an exciting one, but for now, it’s a whole new (geographical) area for me and another learning experience,” Kendrick told reporters Thursday in Costa Mesa.

The choice of Kendrick, a one-time Washington Post assistant managing editor and the Kennedy Center’s operations chieftain since 1976, climaxed a nationwide search of more than 10 months for a successor to Len Bedsow, who retired Feb. 1 after four years as the Orange County Center’s first executive director. Kendrick introduced at the press conference Judith O’Dea Morr, currently the Kennedy Center’s theater general manager, who will be his top deputy in Orange County.


“Getting them was an absolute coup for us. We consider them the best one-two team in the field,” said Timothy Strader, Center board president. Strader said two top Orange County Center administrators--both close associates of Bedsow--will be leaving to “make way for the new team.” They are general manager Arline Chambers, whose departure is effective in August, and operations manager Bill Holland, whose post is being abolished in June.

Roger Stevens, the longtime Kennedy Center chairman, in a phone interview Thursday said of Kendrick’s appointment, “We’re going to miss Tom, but he got a very fine offer and he’s going to be his own boss. I told him he’d be crazy not to take it.”

Kendrick, however, made it clear his job isn’t going to be easy, despite what he described as “fantastic backing” from the Orange County community for the project.

“These are not the best of times in the (arts center) field. Costs across the board are soaring, and the numbers of available (artistic) product are declining. On top of this, you have far greater competition with the increased number of centers, many of them dark much of the season,” he said.


Nevertheless, Kendrick added, his prognosis for the Orange County project--which is to open its 3,000-seat, multipurpose theater in less than 18 months--is as good as any in the field.

“This (Center) board has shown a (fiscal) realism, a willingness to provide a great deal of subsidies for quality programming. This ability to raise money is something they have already demonstrated in the building phase.” (More than $62 million has been raised toward an overall $85.5-million goal for construction and an endowment fund.)

As for audiences, Kendrick said, “There is no question in my mind the audiences for this Center are out there, and that it is a separate market (from Los Angeles) and a growing one.”

Kendrick said that programming will be geared closely to “what the Orange County people want. They are going to decide that, not me or the board. And we expect these tastes to change and vary.”

Musicals, he said, would probably be a key attraction, in addition to symphony, dance and opera. “Our task, initially, is to bring in audiences with something they want to see. This is all part of audience-building for a center like this.”

(An audience-marketing survey conducted for the Center last fall by American Marketing Services, Newport Beach, reaffirmed the center’s principal premise: that strong and loyal audiences do exist for the Orange County Center, despite a regional concert and theatrical field that has become increasingly competitive and volatile. The report also went on to note that musicals easily out-polled symphony concerts, ballet and opera as the preferred attractions.)

Although board officials said local arts organizations are to be invited to perform in the opening season in the main theater, Kendrick said, “Our goal is to encourage and foster the local groups, of course. But a lot will depend on whether they are (fiscally) capable of performing in the large facility. It may be that the second theater (with 1,000 seats, to be built after 1986) is the more appropriate facility.”

Although no attractions have been signed for the opening season, Kendrick said he and Morr expect to be “fully involved very soon” in negotiations with big-name touring organizations. He said booking deadlines are “more fluid” now, and no longer require lead times of up to two years.


“Judy and I like to think we move fast out the gate. We like to win. We have the (booking) contacts,” he said.