Offered Free Classes, Performances : Fire Destroys Popular Arts Center

Times Staff Writer

For nearly a quarter of a century, the Los Feliz Performing Arts Center served as a training ground for amateur and professional actors. It also was a community fixture where hundreds of people, from children to senior citizens, took free classes and gave free public performances.

This week, a fire destroyed the center, leaving a planned production without a theater and suspending the classes that had become popular in Northeast Los Angeles and the surrounding area.

"Everything, just everything was destroyed in that fire," said center director Kathy Herbert. "We were only able to salvage some photos, our files and a few lighting instruments."

The blaze swept through the center, 3224 Riverside Drive in Griffith Park, at 3 a.m. Sunday. It took firefighters about 25 minutes to extinguish the fire, which is still under investigation.

The building was so badly damaged that city workers are fencing it off and it will eventually be demolished.

Los Angeles Councilman Michael Woo said the city plans to rebuild the center.

"I'm hoping we can turn this tragedy into an opportunity in terms of building a facility that will be an improvement over the old one," Woo said.

The center had been vandalized and burglarized several times in the last two months, center officials said.

"The building just wasn't secure enough; it wasn't protected from break-in or fire," said Rodney L. Punt, assistant general manager of the Cultural Affairs Department.

The mostly wood structure was built in 1963 by the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department and taken over by the Cultural Affairs Department in 1980.

On May 2, the center was to present the comedy "Crimes of the Heart." Herbert said she and her staff are searching for a place to present the production, but, even if they find a place soon, the opening will be delayed for several weeks.

Many people who have been involved with the theater have called, offering to help the center. Others have gone to view the ruins.

Actress Maxine M. Wolf of Hollywood drove to center Monday, shortly after hearing about the fire from radio reports.

"I felt kind of devastated. All I could think of was all the shows that we've done and all the people who have enjoyed them," said Wolf, who did her first show at the theater in 1974.

The center was known for reaching out to the community. In 1983, it lent hundreds of costumes to about 140 recreational centers, many in low-income neighborhoods, to be used in Christmas plays.

Matinees for senior citizens were held on Sunday afternoons. And once, recalled actress Louisa D. Abernathy, a group performed by the light of lanterns during a power failure.

"We didn't want to disappoint the people who had come out to see us. For a lot of them, the center was an important source of entertainment," said Abernathy, a Hollywood resident.

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