Dark Playhouse Struggles to Raise Its Curtain Again

Times Staff Writer

After almost 20 years in darkness and debt, the refurbished Pasadena Playhouse is facing a dubious future as deadlines near for what would be its first season since 1966.

The once-famous theater, whose school produced some of America's great performers, may still be dark on Dec. 1, the date scheduled for opening a full season of performances.

David Houk, who heads Historical Restoration Associates, the firm that owns the playhouse, said Tuesday that he does not know if he can meet the deadline in his contract with the city.

"We have contractually agreed to open the theater Dec. 1, but whether we do or not depends on negotiations," Houk said. He said he is still seeking a play or musical that could be booked into the theater, although he has no commitment.

But a more likely course, city officials said, is extending the deadline in the contract that was signed in 1980. Terms in the contract have been changed a number of times, the officials said.

"Maybe more important than having a performance in December is getting the thing financed so that (Houk) can fulfill a long-term commitment," Pasadena City Manager Donald McIntyre said.

Eventually, City Atty. Victor Kaleta said, the playhouse property could revert to the city if Houk defaults.

Houk heads Auditorium Management Co., based in Los Angeles. City officials said that company was chosen to reopen the playhouse because of the work it had done restoring the Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Houk formed Historical Restoration Associates to buy the playhouse in a lease-back arrangement with the city. Pasadena then subleased the property to a nonprofit corporation, Pasadena Playhouse and State Theatre of California Inc. The corporation's 15-member board oversees theater operations and Houk is general manager.

Historical Restoration Associates took title to the playhouse in May when escrow closed after six years of negotiations.

Quest for $3 Million

Houk said he is attempting to sell interests in a new partnership, Pasadena Playhouse Associates, to raise $3 million to develop a portion of the playhouse for shops and offices that he said are needed to provide a continuing financial base for theater operations.

Houk said he plans to convert the north wing of the playhouse complex and part of a six-story building behind the auditorium into restaurants, shops and offices. He has raised about half of the $3 million he needs, Houk said.

Kaleta called the Dec. 1 starting date "a milestone," because it is Houk's first deadline since escrow on the playhouse property closed in May. "There were various delays before he had title, but the city still owned the property."

Houk's agreement calls for completion of a successful season before he can buy a parking lot behind the theater that is still owned by the city.

3 to 6 Shows Needed

Kaleta said that according to the contract, a successful season would have three to six productions. Each would run a minimum of three weeks and range from six to eight performances a week, Kaleta said. The contract also calls for sale of 2,000 season tickets.

"It is my hope that by Jan. 1 (Houk) will have a syndicate put together," McIntyre said. "The city is concerned about his ultimate success. The history of this whole project is a series of renegotiations."

Houk said the theater has been refurbished with a $1.3 million federal grant and "$3 million that came out of our own pockets." The auditorium and a management office area have been painted and carpeted, new seats are in the main auditorium, and a small upstairs theater has been remodeled, he said. New plumbing, heating and electrical systems have been installed.

Pasadena Playhouse began in the 1920s with Gilmor Brown as its entrepreneur. Private funds financed the Spanish-style landmark on El Molino Avenue and the actors school that was built in the 1930s. For more than two decades it was known as the largest and one of the best theatrical schools in the country.

Produced Many Stars

Among its many students were Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Robert Preston, Robert Young, Agnes De Mille, Barbara Rush, Elaine May, David Niven, William Holden and Tyrone Power.

In its first 25 years, the playhouse produced 1,348 plays, including the premiere of Eugene O'Neill's "Lazarus Laughed" in 1928.

Its fortunes declined after World War II, and Brown died in 1960. In 1966 the Internal Revenue Service padlocked the playhouse doors because it was $31,000 behind in tax payments.

In 1969 the playhouse went into receivership. The new owner, Bank of America, sold the property to the city of Pasadena for $325,000 in 1975. The city opened negotiations with Houk in 1979.

Restoration of the auditorium was completed in 1983, and that year a couple of shows were performed in the small upstairs theater.

TV Filming Next Week

The main auditorium will be used Wednesday for the first time in years. Playhouse supporters have been invited to view the filming of a television show, "Deja Vu," starring John Sebastian. The show is about music of the 1960s and will be aired nationally by independent stations, said Jessica Myerson, the theater's artistic director.

Myerson said she and Bob Siner, executive director of the theater complex, are helping to prepare for the television show.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for a shakedown, for us to see how all the systems work for the first time," she said.

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