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Panel Concerned Over Taxpayers’ Burden : Arts Manager Hired to Trim L.A. Theatre Center Deficits

Times Staff Writer

Concerned about the city’s growing subsidy of downtown’s Los Angeles Theatre Center, the Community Redevelopment Agency Commission on Monday hired a veteran performing arts administrator to help the 8-month-old complex reduce its red ink.

William Severns, a consultant who managed the Music Center for 22 years, will be paid $40,000 over the next year to “take a critical look at the theater’s operation” and find ways to take the burden off the taxpayer, said CRA Commission Chairman Jim Wood.

In addition to hiring Severns, the commission approved the balance of a $2-million operating assistance loan requested by the center to carry it through the 1986-87 season. Last month, the commission approved an emergency $250,000 advance against the loan so the operators of the $16-million Spring Street complex could meet their payroll and pay debts.

Severns’ review of the operation was a condition commissioners placed on approval of the full loan.

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“We were looking for someone who has a working understanding of the theater business,” said Wood.

Commissioners have complained that the CRA’s subsidy of the performing arts complex has substantially exceeded initial expectations. The agency has invested about $10 million in the project so far, including a $1.3-million operating subsidy last year.

Located in a former bank building a few blocks south of City Hall, the center is a cornerstone of the CRA’s efforts to revitalize an old office district that was abandoned by financial institutions for the shiny new high rises on downtown’s west side.

Although the center is near Skid Row, theater officials say attendance--which is running about 5,000 a week--has not been a major problem. However, donations to the nonprofit theater operating company from corporations and arts supporters has lagged behind projections.

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Severns, who has at various times managed the Hollywood Bowl, the Greek Theatre and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said in an interview that he is not yet familiar with the Los Angeles Theatre Center or the nature of its financial problems. He said he will begin with “sort of an audit of what’s going on from an operational standpoint.”

Severns stressed, as did some CRA commission members, that the artistic side of the center’s operation under the control of producing director Bill Bushnell will not be part of the review. Bushnell has presented a mix of classics and experimental productions.

Bushnell described Severns as “extremely knowledgeable” about theater administration and said he welcomes his assistance.


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