Around the Foothills : 'We just used the key and moved in and nobody said "Boo" about it.'

It was after dark, and that beautiful sycamore-shaded stretch of Riverside Drive just east of Griffith Park had assumed a kind of Gothic oppressiveness.

The hills to the south were dark and forbidding. The I-5 freeway hissed to the north. Occasionally a car sped by on its way to Los Feliz Boulevard or the freeway on-ramp.

The sidewalks were deserted, but there were people nearby--car dwellers drawn by the isolation that claimed the street at that hour.

A final touch was the gutted outline of the Los Feliz Performing Arts Center, which stands just as it did the day after an arsonist set it afire nearly two years ago. A temporary fence marked remnants of the 189-seat theater as off-limits.

Next door to it, though, a glow from around the corner of a smaller building extended a welcome. That was the theater annex, a circular modern building that contained the shop, the kitchen, the offices and rows and rows of costumes hung on galvanized pipe racks between wooden catwalks.

The annex survived the fire. Now it is the hangout of a small group of arts devotees who believe the City of Los Angeles will someday rebuild the theater so they can go back to what they had done for 20 years before the fire, producing live theater by and for the people of Los Angeles.

Several evenings each week, small groups gather there to practice the theater arts.

This was Wednesday, dance night.

I followed the light to a door and rang the bell. Harold Brown, the voice instructor, let me into a hallway decorated in homey fashion with a desk, old couches and chairs and a television tuned to an arts program.

In blue jeans and a plaid shirt, Kathy Herbert, coordinator of the Cultural Arts Department's theater program, sat on a couch stroking a cat on her lap.

The dance class was late assembling, so Herbert made conversation. Her favorite topic, as it has been since the fire, was her vision of the new Los Feliz Performing Arts Center, rising from the ashes of the old. It should be more formal than the old one, she said. It would have a proscenium stage and about 400 seats.

Herbert presented her idea to the city soon after the fire. It would have cost about $10 million.

"They said, 'Tell me what you want.' I did. They said, 'That costs a lot.' I said, 'I know.' "

Since then the plan has been scaled back to about $5 million, she said.

But the city has yet to accomplish the lesser goal of tearing down the shell of the old theater. A company hired last summer to do the job found asbestos in the roof. The city must now find a state-licensed asbestos contractor to remove it. That could cost as much as $51,000, a city engineer estimated. It won't be done until March, at the earliest.

In the meantime, Herbert pursues a strategy of using the annex to keep the theater program alive, even while it is unable to produce any theater.

She conceived the plan the day after the fire.

"If we don't have some activity going on, we will lose the sense and the validity of what we are doing," she said. "Being as the master key opens both doors, we just used the key and moved in and nobody said 'Boo' about it."

Eventually the buzzer at the back door rang. It was a mother and daughter team, reporting for dance class. Soon the instructor, Andie McCuaig, made her appearance in a beige business outfit, an IBM identification tag still dangling from her neck on a chain. She disappeared a couple of minutes and returned in tights and pink leg warmers.

When a third student arrived, the class assembled in a room where the clothing racks had been removed and a plywood dance floor erected on top of the catwalks.

McCuaig put a cassette into a portable stereo. The students took their places behind a row of wooden girder posts and turned to face their mirrors, an odd collection of bedroom castoffs propped against the wall on chairs.

They exercised first. Then McCuaig led them through dance routines.

"Back, side, step, plie, reach," she shouted, floating across the floor and stopping just in front of a post. "Got it?"

The others followed, not as gracefully. But they all stopped expertly just in front of the post.

Later, McCuaig told her story. She was once was one of Jim Taylor's girls, dancing with Jackie Gleason. She also did some Broadway and had a nightclub act. Just before the fire she auditioned at the theater and got a part in "Carnival." She began teaching dance and was hoping to become the center's choreographer.

Her classes at that time had 15 to 25 students, she said. Now only a handful come to any session, and she doesn't especially care to recruit more.

"We don't like it too crowded," she said. She's also been finding it harder to fit class into her career as a computer systems administrator at IBM.

She perseveres, only to keep the spirit alive.

"I don't want the thing to just die and fold up and go away so I am there to keep some life in it."

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