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STAGE WATCH : CHILDREN’S THEATER GETS A BIG BOOST

Times Theater Writer

Theater for children rarely gets the right kind of spotlight, yet it can play a formative role in the lives of youngsters. Three people in Santa Monica who know something about it have just taken a step to see that attention is paid.

In a major expansion of their Young People’s Program, Santa Monica Playhouse doyens Evelyn Rudie and Chris De Carlo have joined forces with actor Thom McFadden to establish the American Children’s Theatre.

They have taken a 15-year lease (10 with an option on another five) on Santa Monica’s Criterion Theater (located on Arizona Avenue between Second and Fourth streets) and are converting it into two 399-seat not-for-profit union theaters to be devoted to children’s fare.

Or almost. The plan is to bus in schoolchildren for weekday matinees in both theaters that will include a brief performance and a “hands on” backstage demonstration of how theater works. Evenings in Theatre A will be devoted to family-oriented material while Theatre B will repeat daytime programs for the general public.

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Built in 1924 as a legitimate theater, the Criterion, like so many others, was converted into a movie house. Now, at an expected cost of $1.2 million, it will be divided, refurbished and restored to its original live performance use.

“I’ve been involved with theater here for many years,” said McFadden, who will serve as the American Children’s Theatre’s executive director and is spearheading the project. “I was an observer at the Actors Studio, a founding member of the Actors and Directors Lab.

“Our dream was to help legitimize smaller theater and have a place for artists to get together. I was also a teacher for (director/coach) Milton Katselas. He made me aware that artists can have many different lives, like Picasso. (Novelist) Henry Miller was a friend. He used to tell me that when you have to do things you’ll know it and do them. Then a couple of years ago I got involved with the Santa Monica Playhouse and its family theater.”

What triggered his interest in children’s theater is the fact that “I have three small boys myself,” McFadden said. “The idea here is to educate. We’re working out a busing program with the Los Angeles and Santa Monica Boards of Education and trying to get it underwritten so it won’t cost them anything.”

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To clarify: The American Children’s Theatre will not be a division of the 22-year-old Santa Monica Playhouse. Each remains autonomous, with expectations of reciprocal good will. Rudie and De Carlo will serve as artistic co-directors for the new operation, but will also retain their same positions at the old address.

When is the projected start?

“June, 1986,” McFadden said, dismissing the suggestion that it may be an unrealistic timetable.

“The building’s there,” he countered. “We plan to launch it with an International Children’s Festival.” This is expected to include companies from the Georgia Sea Isles and the Arctic Circle along with the slightly less exotic Australia, Yugoslavia, India, Israel and a number of European countries. That is to be followed Christmas (1986) by a festival of sacred works, “reflecting the region’s rich ethnic diversity,” says a press release.

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Until then much needs to be done--beginning with financing.

“We’re raising the money,” McFadden said, adding only that the private and public sector are both being approached.

“Our first fund-raiser will be Nov. 20--a $125-a-plate dinner. We’ll have people at the theater at 6 for cocktails, then a trolley ride through Santa Monica and a dinner dance at the Sheraton Miramar.

“We want to offer kids a field trip to the theater,” he concluded. “We’ll show them how it works.”

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MUSICAL HAPPENINGS: That’s how Susan Dietz likes to describe the new Concerts on Canon that begin Nov. 18 at her L.A. Stage West, produced jointly with Peg Yorkin’s L.A. Public Theatre.

The six-event series will involve performers in pairs warbling show tunes Monday and Tuesday nights.

In the initial lineup are Pamela Myers and Michael Rupert (Nov. 18), Amanda McBroom and George Ball (Nov. 19), Susan Watson and Stan Freeman (Nov. 25), Teri Ralston and Kenny Sacha (Nov. 26), Donna Pescow and Dale Gonyea (Dec. 2) and Andrea Marcovicci and Ken Page (Dec. 3).

Eleanor Albano produces.

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A WONDERFUL PARTY: If you missed it in Orange county, here’s your chance to catch up with South Coast Repertory’s hit production of Craig Lucas’ bittersweet gathering of friends, “Blue Window.” It moves to the Mayfair Nov. 22 where it expects to run “at least through Christmas,” said a company representative. Designer Cliff Faulkner is redoing the set to fit the Mayfair’s proscenium stage. The show previews Nov. 19-21.

SPACE ACE GRACE: Reach for your telescopes. Ben Donenberg’s out-landish “Starship Shakespeare” leaves orbit at Al’s Bar Nov. 10 to return to its home planet (would you believe Titus Andronicus?) for the holiday season. Beginning Jan. 10, however, the ship and its crew beam back to the Odyssey late Fridays and Saturdays (also Sunday matinees) for a limited three-week mission.

THE RUMOR MILL: The box-office number for the Hollywood Playhouse and Cafe, run by the SHM Corp., has been dropped from Pacific Bell’s data bank. Are they closing down?

“No,” said Norman Maibaum, one of the partners in the Las Palmas venture, who said he was unaware the phone had been disconnected. “It’s just dormant. After we opened in February (with “A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking”), we realized it was essential to have the restaurant and bar to make it work. We were just notified that the liquor license has been approved. We hope to get it open before next year--if we can get the right play, restaurant and bar.”

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PARTING SHOT: That last bastion of radical politics, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, has finally capitulated to the establishment: It has joined Actors’ Equity after 25 years of outspoken criticism of all management and thriving on its own maverick, madcap collectivism.


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