Times Theater Writer

Will the Tiffany Theatre be Equity Waiver? A major tiff has developed over this question that could snag the opening of the refurbished house.

"It's a tempest in a tea bag," said Edward Weston, western regional director of Actors' Equity, which first granted, and then denied, the Sunset Boulevard facility Equity Waiver status for the two new 99-seat theaters under its roof.

Caught in the cross fire is "Fatty," a new play by Harry Essex, poised to open at the Tiffany on Aug. 14. It features Art Metrano in the title role, music by Steve Allen and a cast of 18 that includes Joey Bishop and Udana Power.

In denying the status, Equity went by the book, which states that only theaters "not capable of or never having had" more than 99 seats are eligible for such a designation. The Tiffany's former incarnation was as a movie house of more than 99 seats. San Francisco's celebrated improv comedy group, the Committee, had performed there in the early '70s under an Equity contract.

In Equity's view, this constitutes grounds for disqualification. Not so, said Tiffany owner Paula Holt, who finds no precedent in the situation and feels betrayed by the flipflop in Equity's position.

Meanwhile, Hal Grossman, producer/director of "Fatty," doesn't see why he should be penalized.

"Equity didn't tell me I was doing anything wrong," Grossman said. "I registered the play with them June 19. It said on the registration that we were going into rehearsal July 1."

Acknowledging that Equity never directly contacted Grossman, Weston said, "I wrote Paula Holt May 23 telling her the theater did not qualify as a Waiver space. If they want to maintain they didn't discuss this among themselves, I consider it a facetious argument."

Holt, meanwhile, said she had had unofficial approval from Equity's George Ives as long ago as October (Ives denied this). Holt said she proceeded on the strength of that support. Early in May, Equity's 99-seat Waiver committee granted her the Waiver status she'd requested. It was rescinded a short time later by a vote of Equity's Western Advisory Board.

"The committee did recommend the approval," said Michael Van Duzer, head of Equity's 99-seat committee. "I called the theater to tell them it had to go to the board for a vote but that I saw no problem. I was wrong."

Holt appealed the decision and the board rejected that appeal last Thursday. A Monday meeting with Equity representatives apparently changed nothing. Grossman insisted he's caught in the middle.

"We must separate what applies to landlord and what to producer," he said Tuesday. "What Equity is trying to get from Paula Holt is one thing. But if they want to maintain that I'm going against Equity rules, I was never notified. If they were opposed, why didn't they tell me?

"The company is 100% behind going forward with the production. They're drawing up a petition that will be signed tonight and delivered (to Equity) tomorrow."

"Members always have a right to appeal any decision," Weston said, "but they also have other options. There are from 130 to 140 Waiver spaces where they could mount the show without violating Equity rules. Or they could stage it at the Tiffany by using the Small Professional Theaters contract which is now widely used across the country. It's about a year old and very flexible, with minimal salary requirement--$150 for a full workweek, $100 for a short workweek--a little less than what Joey Bishop usually commands.

"I think the actors are being put in the middle of this, which is unfortunate. Where a theater facility offers valet parking, lobbies with bars, (has) a prime location on Sunset Boulevard and where the producer indicates there's a London production in the works already--so they tell me--it seems a little odd that they're fighting so hard to find a way of not paying the actors. Waiver seems to be more of a real estate development now and the actors seem to get not nearly the benefit that they should out of it."

Grossman said he believes that Equity has poorly handled the affair, and that his cast is being discriminated against.

"How can they allow 18 of their own members to rehearse for two weeks without anyone approaching them to say that they were out of line? We've abided by the rules," he said. "If Equity doesn't like the way the Waiver is set up, then that's what it must change."

Retorted Weston: "It's the wrong people fighting at the wrong time for the wrong reasons."

By press time, nothing had been resolved. Against all odds, Holt tried to remain optimistic.

"My plan is to resolve this somehow--hopefully not in litigation."

THE RUMOR MILL: Those whispers that Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were going to try out a new play on the Coast after the run of "Foxfire" at the Ahmanson are proving only partly true.

"We close in L.A. Jan. 11," Cronyn said Tuesday from Connecticut, "and on Jan. 27 we go into rehearsal with a new two-character play--again and finally. It's called 'The Petition' by Brian Clark, who wrote 'Whose Life Is It Anyway?' Sir Peter Hall will direct, but I'm afraid we'll be rehearsing in New York. We expect to open on Broadway with it in April. I think it will be our swan song."

Perish the thought.

Last week's Watch was in error when it asserted that Claudette Colbert would make her "first and long overdue" Los Angeles stage appearance in "Aren't We All?" at the Wilshire Theatre next fall.

Credit Jack Furlong of Santa Monica and actor Albert Lord with besting our computer (and our memory) in remembering that Colbert had been at the Century City Shubert in March 1974.

Only the play she was in ("A Community of Two" by Jerome Chodorov) was forgettable. The computer refused to remember it until severely threatened.

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