Art Goes Dark at Theater in Sante Fe Springs That Inspired Young Hoofers

Times Staff Writer

Tom Bauer, director of the Santa Fe Springs Community Theater, had a message for the teen-age actors who, dressed like hoodlums, gathered around him before the start of a recent performance of "West Side Story."

"We need to be as intense as possible," he said, as a hush fell over the group. "This is a show that has anger, vitality. Pump it up right now and come on ready to blaze the stage."

For 2 1/2 hours, the youngsters, many of them Santa Fe Springs residents, did just that, storming the outdoor stage at Lake Center Junior High School with songs, mambos, gang rumbles, love scenes and tears. The energy is just as high for "Damn Yankees," which was performed in repertory with "West Side Story" this summer.

Lack of Support

But intensity was not enough to save the 5-year-old company, brainchild of Lake Center English and history teacher Bauer, 47, and music teacher Tom Hut, 35. The theater group will fold after its last performance Saturday night, $3,000 in debt--a victim of poor community support.

With a city subsidy of $18,000 in 1983 and $22,000 in 1984, the company broke even, Hut said. The company's troubles began this year, he said, when the city cut its subsidy to $10,000, half of it in cash and half in services.

To break even this season, the community theater had to draw 375 persons to each of nine performances of the two musicals, Hut said. But average attendance, primarily in ticket sales at the gate, was only 200. The group performed "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" this spring to audiences averaging 125 persons.

Will Pay Personally

Hut, who has produced 12 shows with the community theater, said he will pay the debt out of his own pocket. In the meantime, the theater's performances of "Bye Bye Birdie," scheduled for May, 1986, have been canceled, he said.

"It's a shame (the company) has to go," Hut said. "Dreams die hard. But sometimes you have to play your dreams, even if it costs money. If you don't, you don't feel good about it."

City Council members who were interviewed had mixed reactions to the company's plight. Mayor Pro Tem Betty Wilson said the council had cut its subsidy because the money was benefiting too few people. This year, she said, the theater management "just bit off an awful lot more than they could chew."

Reconsideration Suggested

Councilman Luis Escontrias said he regretted the theater's end. The council should reconsider its allocation to the group, he said, because "it provides a cultural base for residents to be exposed to the arts and an opportunity for youngsters to advance in the field."

(The city last year spent more than $130,000 to subsidize four performances of well-known singers and orchestras in the annual Santa Fe Springs Music Festival, with an average 2,400 persons in attendance. The Music Festival and community theater are the only two programs in the arts to receive a subsidy from the city.)

The youngsters in the community theater see their situation as nothing short of tragic. Many said they got their start on stage in 1980, when the community theater--then operated by the school--opened with "Li'l Abner" to an audience of 48 persons. Most have spent long summer days under the hot sun rehearsing for "West Side Story" and "Damn Yankees," reluctant even to go home. All of them dream of becoming professional actors.

Source of Friends

"I'm terribly depressed," said Becky Kennedy, 16, of Norwalk. "This is the only place I feel happy. Before I started coming to the plays, I never had friends."

By definition, a community theater does not pay its actors, and the majority of its technicians, musicians, stage crew and support staff are volunteers. The Santa Fe Springs Community Theater used half its budget to pay the director, producer, choreographer, lighting director, stage manager and some members of the orchestra.

Each musical has a cast of 40, an 18-member orchestra and a crew of about 50 persons who work on costumes, security, stage construction, lighting and sound. About 70% of this year's actors and most of the support crew are from Santa Fe Springs, Hut said.

Two Ways to Survive

In other Southeast-area cities, the theaters survive in one of two ways.

Like the Huntington Park Civic Theater, the Norwalk Community Playhouse or the 64-year-old Whittier Community Theater, they avoid expensive-to-produce musicals and scrape by with audiences of under 100 and yearly budgets of $2,000 to $10,000. City assistance is limited to providing an auditorium for rehearsals and performances--but it is an assistance without which the groups could not survive.

Or, like the Downey Civic Light Opera Assn. and the Whittier-La Mirada Light Opera, the community theaters produce only musicals, spending about $250,000 yearly and drawing from 800 to 1,200 persons to each performance. With Downey and Whittier-La Mirada, the theaters, each of them about 30 years old, depend heavily on sales of season tickets well before the season starts. Even then, they barely break even.

$10,000 Borrowed

This year, the Downey theater group borrowed $10,000 from the city to tide it over until next year.

"The competition is real rough for theaters," said Margene Glenn, president of the Downey association. "You have to compete with video cassettes. You need a loyal following, and that's hard to do except over a period of time."

The Santa Fe Springs Community Theater needed about two more years to develop its own loyal following, Hut said. With each show, the theater group increased its audience by about one-third, he said. And if they had a hall to perform in, instead of an outside amphitheater, the group could have survived by putting on plays in the spring, he said. Summer vacations cut into box office sales, he said.

Musicals More Popular

Hut chose to produce musicals despite the high cost of royalties, sound equipment and lighting because, he said, they "service a lot more people in the audience and on stage. It's disheartening to work four months on a (non-musical) production and play to 60 people."

Before the start of "West Side Story" on a recent evening, Hut, who lives in a trailer at the school during weeks of rehearsal, took on the role of orchestra director, sound technician, vocal director and custodian as well as producer.

He tackled a series of last-minute hitches: a substitute pianist was worried that he did not know the complicated score, a singer was unsure of a cue, the rented scores for the string bass had been misplaced, and there were boys in the girls' dressing room.

Cast 'Fantastic'

Seated at the rear of the audience, professional choreographer Bob Heath reflected on the four hectic weeks he had spent training a cast that had no previous experience in dance.

"They have done just fantastic," he said. "From here it could really have gone great guns--if only there was some way for them to continue."

As they put on their makeup, the actors spoke in dramatic terms of their dedication to the company they call "Hut and Bauer."

"I don't know how to do anything else," said Chantel Sausedo, 16, of Montebello. In "West Side Story," Sausedo sports a seductive red dress as the fiery Anita, whose boyfriend, leader of the Sharks street gang, is killed in a gang fight.

A Learning Experience

"There's nothing like getting on the stage and have someone applaud for you," Sausedo said. "It's been a great learning experience for me. The other community theaters are so hard to get into."

Looking into a mirror as she styled her hair with a curling iron, Sausedo sighed.

"Everything comes to an end sometime," she said. "It's time to move on."

Robert Guerrero, 19, of Whittier, who plays Anita's boyfriend, Bernardo, in the musical, said he "learned how to work with people" through the company.

"It sounds corny, but it's true," he said. "It becomes a family."

Without the group, many of the actors--too young or too inexperienced to find work in other community theaters--will "spend summers sitting at home, thinking of ways to get into trouble," Guerrero said.

In the final scene of the company's last production, the cast kneels at the front of the stage, singing "There's a Place for Us," the poignant love song of "West Side Story."

"Is there a place for them?" producer Hut asked. "It strikes me as sad. A lot of these people have grown up with us in the last five years. You'll see tears all over the place. It will hit very, very hard."

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