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THE CRASSER SIDE OF THE STAGE

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

When the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Theatre 1 opens tonight with Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” the actors will be performing on the Emmanuel Rice Stage.

Theatre 1’s stage has a name because Melba Rice of Rancho Mirage, who toured America as an opera singer in the ‘20s, pledged $50,000 to the Theatre Center in memory of her late husband. Donations from friends may raise another $50,000, theater officials said.

But Theatre 1 itself--like Theatres 2, 3 and 4--is identified only by a number because so far donors have not written the six- and seven-figure checks that would put their names above the theater doors.

In fact, except for its approach to one family foundation that declined to make such a large donation, the Theatre Center has not even gone out looking for such gifts, LATC officials said.

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The absence of so-called “naming gifts” reflects the history of the not-for-profit theatrical company and dramatizes the challenges that loom as the Theatre Center moves from Mayor Tom Bradley’s gentle nurturing with tax dollars to the fiercely competitive world of private fund-raising.

To survive its leap from a Hollywood side street to downtown prominence, the Theatre Center will have to develop enough clout among wealthy individuals and executives of civic-minded corporations to become one of the biggest arts fund-raising operations in Southern California.

In the current fiscal year, which began May 1, the center needs $1.2 million in operating subsidies. The city provided $750,000 through an interest-free loan, artistic producing director Bill Bushnell said. Since the loan contains a no-recourse provision, repayment is optional and the money may become a de facto start-up grant.

Beginning 18 months from now, when the last of the already approved city operating subsidies expires, the center will need donations for about one-third of its anticipated $7-million annual budget, Bushnell said.

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Raising more than $2 million annually means a five-fold increase from the $400,000 in donations that the center received in the year ending April 30, when its total budget was just $1.2 million.

The need for such huge operating subsidies will require major changes in the makeup of its 27-member board, changes that are under way, Bushnell said.

“The push is for the present board, to a certain extent, to render itself obsolete, which requires it to be ego-less,” Bushnell said.

“Their board is not of the stature of some of the more established cultural organizations in the city . . . but it’s a pretty good board,” observed John I. (Jack) Rose, senior vice president/area manager of Citicorp, the nation’s largest bank holding company.

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Board President Doug Ring, a partner in the Westwood law firm of Howard, Mund, Chizever and Ring, said a directors’ committee is searching for someone to succeed him when his term expires at year’s end. Ring said his successor should be a man or woman interested in theater and with substantial financial resources and rich theater-going friends.

“The board members realize that boards serve different functions at different times in an organization’s development,” explained Bushnell, who like many chief executives of not-for-profit organizations plays a major role in selecting his board of directors. “This board is very strong politically, and there is a very real consciousness on the board that members have to phase themselves out to make way for people who can give big dollars and can ask their friends to do the same,” he said.

Bushnell believes that “the rich L.A. Establishment’s art money is pretty much spoken for by the County Museum of Art and the Music Center.” This means that the Theatre Center “must tap into the up-and-coming L.A. Establishment of the future,” he said.

Accomplishing that will require the third major change in the theater’s board since its formation.

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Ralph Waite, the Yale Divinity School graduate who saw his income soar when he played the father on the TV series “The Waltons,” started the old Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre in 1975. Waite was the major donor and his friends served as the board.

Back then performances were free, although after each show a hat was passed.

Bushnell, who started with the Actors’ Theatre as a director and went on to become a board member, quickly consolidated his power when Waite, as part of his personal development, let go of the Hollywood storefront venture. Bushnell began charging admission. He also started developing a new board of directors who, for the most part, were not wealthy. But the new directors compensated for their shallow pockets with so much access to City Hall coffers that the $16-million Theatre Center became the house that tax built.

The city Community Redevelopment Agency channeled taxpayer and tax-sheltered investor money to the project, including start-up operating loans totaling $1.3 million whose repayment cannot be enforced.

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The financing package came about in part because Bushnell, Ring and others got Deputy Mayor Tom Houston and U.S. Circuit Court Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt, two of Bradley’s closest intimates, to serve on the board. In addition, the board included such Bradley political allies as County Assessor Alexander Pope.

But now that the complex is built, private-sector money will be crucial to the Theatre Center’s success. That means that the center needs new directors with as much access to corporate and entrepreneurial money as the current board has to municipal money.

The board’s lack of corporate ties can be seen in the Theater Centre’s donation records. Since 1976, corporations have donated just $1.5 million to the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre, with all but $200,000 of that earmarked to support its new Los Angeles Theatre Center, development director Caroline Elliott said.

Elliott has sought corporate co-sponsors for plays to woo new corporate supporters, letting them develop a feel for the center’s style without making a major long-term commitment of money and without executives having to commit themselves to serving as directors.

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Citicorp donated $25,000 to co-sponsor “Three Sisters” and AT&T; put up the same amount to co-sponsor “Fool for Love” in Theatre 2, officials said.

“What we like to do is finance some specific project we can identify with,” said Citicorp’s Rose. “We give preference to working with cultural organizations trying to revitalize the downtown, where we are about to move into our new building.

“Our goal is to build relationships with the type of organizations that, if we are satisfied with our experience, we would be favorably inclined to work with again,” Rose added.

The board’s current lack of access to the rich is evidenced by the fact that Melba Rice’s $50,000 gift to have the Theatre 1 stage named for her late husband is the center’s biggest individual gift.

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Bushnell said he is not seeking a naming gift for Theatre 1, which he revealed will be named next month in honor of an individual who, while not a major donor, was instrumental in arranging the city government money that was crucial to building the Theatre Center.

For Theatres 2 and 3, a minimum naming gift of $2 million will be sought, Bushnell said. For Theater 4, Bushnell said the minimum is $500,000.

For $5 million, he said, an individual might be able to get his or her name on the entire complex.

Getting such large donations will require a major effort because, so far, even smaller gifts have not come in large numbers. Fewer than 100 of the 1,220 seats have brass plaques with names on them honoring $1,000 contributors, Elliott said.

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At present, the center has only $300,000 in cash reserves. The James Irvine Foundation donated $200,000 and the National Endowment for the Arts gave $100,000. Bushnell said he wants to build a minimum $1-million cash reserve to cover payrolls during hard times, then start on a $10-million endowment drive.

Pope, chairman of the board’s development committee, said he hopes subscription sales will increase enough so that only $1 million is needed in annual operating subsidies, not the $2 million-plus that Bushnell anticipates.

“There’s no question the Theatre Center will require a seven-figure annual subsidy,” Pope said.

“It is a somewhat circular process in that if you get the right people on the board, they will be the ones who can raise the money,” Pope added.

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Part of the challenge also will be to find wealthy individuals whose political and cultural values will not be offended by the experimental and often politically provocative kind of theater Bushnell favors.

“The kind of theater we have done over the years and the kind of organization we have been does not lend itself quite as easily to the major benefactor,” observed Stephen Richard, who joined LAAT in 1980 as managing director supervising the non-artistic side.


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