Stages Set for Spring Street ‘Miracle’ : L. A. Theatre Center Nearing Curtain Raiser

Times Staff Writer

The stages are set. Now it’s just a matter of weeks before the Los Angeles Theatre Center will open at 514 S. Spring St.

Spring Street? Where once-fine buildings stand feebly like old warriors, unable to fight the battle against time and the elements? Look again.

There has been talk for years of redeveloping this deteriorating downtown corridor, but at last the efforts are becoming visible.


It started with the visionary Qvale brothers’ Design Center, which had been the 11-story Title Insurance & Trust Building and its 13-story annex, before the 1928 Art-Deco structures at 433 S. Spring St. were renovated in 1983. Encouraged by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, restoration projects have sprinkled the street like so many seeds ready to take root, ready to remove blight, ready to replace the aimless with people with a purpose.

Few places will do this as well as the new theater center, a combination of new and rehabilitated construction that will draw people to Spring Street even at night.

At night? Among the derelicts and drunks? Not to worry, Bill Bushnell, artistic producing director of the center, says, adding:

“This is a question of perception versus reality. The area is not as dangerous as it is perceived. Most of the people living in Skid Row are sick or poor. And as restoration occurs, elements of concern move away.”

At any rate, the center will have its own security staff, and there will be secured parking on a lot in the rear (until a parking structure is built), which will be free.

This is indicative of the philosophy of the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre, which was founded 10 years ago by actor Ralph Waite (the father on the TV program “The Waltons”) and Bushnell.

The Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre will become the Los Angeles Theatre Center when construction is completed by the general contractor, Saffell & McAdam, and the actors move from a converted bowling alley on Oxford Avenue in East Hollywood. The target date is Aug. 31, with previews starting on Sept. 6 and a grand opening gala on Sept. 20.

Bushnell has stated that his goal is “to build a theater that is culturally, economically and physically accessible to all the people of the Los Angeles area.”

To be economically accessible, there will be free (for subscribers) baby-sitting from 6:30 p.m. to an hour after final curtain, allowing parents to enjoy any one of the three restaurants in the center. A nominal charge will be made to non-subscribers.

And Constance Harvey, press representative of the new center, said that top tickets in any of the four theaters--where there will be plays, music, dance, poetry and something called “intermedia performance"--will sell for $20 each.

The 75,000-square-foot theater center is costing $16 million to build. Obtaining the financing was no easy task, but the nonprofit actors’ organization managed to get it from government grants, an investment partnership and other private investors.

The Community Redevelopment Agency got the whole thing started by buying the historic Security Bank Building, designed in Greek-Revival style by John Parkinson and built in 1916, from the President Trading Co., an electronics wholesaler, for $735,000. “Then they paid about the same thing for the parking lot next door, which said that the commercial value of the existing building was about $1,” Bushnell said with a laugh.

The agency actually sold the building to the actors for $1 and leased the land to the group for 55 years at a rental of $1 a year. The building is about 25,000 square feet in size and features a palatial marble interior and 50-by-100-foot art-glass ceiling that Harvey calls “one of the largest stained-glass skylights in the West.” It is being restored by Thomas Medlicott, who operates an art-glass studio in Redlands, and his assistant, Rick West.

It will also feature a 99-seat theater and a 50-foot-long bar--"where you can get a sandwich, a piece of quiche or a quick cup of coffee” before going to the theater, Harvey explained.

The 50,000 square feet of new construction on what had been the parking lot, already holds three of the four theaters in various seating configurations and stage styles. Bushnell observed that his theater group has always done things differently and planning theaters on a parking lot is no exception. “Theaters in L. A. are usually razed in favor of parking lots,” he said, “but we took a parking lot and are raising a theater on it.”

John Sergio Fisher of Tarzana is the architect who not only designed the new space but coordinated it with the old, creating underground tunnels, chambers and auditoriums reminiscent of a Roman or Greek odeum.

“We worked together renovating the Geary Theatre in San Francisco in 1966,” Bushnell said of Fisher.

Bushnell stood on the stage of Theater 3, clapped his hands and observed, “It should be ideal in here, acoustically, when we get the carpeting and the seats in.”

Then the Los Angeles Theatre Center will be another example of what is being called “the ‘born-again’ architecture trend.”

It will be, as Mayor Tom Bradley described it at the ground breaking, “the Miracle on Spring Street.”

It will be the cultural cornerstone of revitalization efforts along a corridor that was once known as the “Wall Street of the West.”