Hueneme Cultural Center Loses 2 Key Artists

Times Staff Writer

The director of the Port Hueneme Cultural Center and his top assistant have resigned; the last theatrical production of the civic auditorium’s current season has been canceled, and Plexus Dance Theatre, the center’s dance troupe, plans to open its next season in Santa Paula.

Joseph P. Bertucci, the center’s artistic director, left his job last Thursday to work in an AIDS hospice in San Francisco. Justin DuPont, who had represented Port Hueneme on the Ventura County Arts Commission and had worked under contract as a set and lighting designer, left the theater last month, later citing “continuing artistic disagreements” with city officials.

Officials of Port Hueneme, which built the center in 1984, blamed the cancellation of “Two in the Bush,” a contemporary play scheduled to debut May 20, on Bertucci’s departure and the unrelated cancellation of the play’s star, Betsy Palmer.


Despite the upheaval, the Channel Islands Chamber Orchestra as well as the Ventura County Master Chorale plan to return during the upcoming season, said the directors of the two musical groups. The chorale has performed at the center during the past two years.

City officials pledged to continue running the auditorium in the same vein as Bertucci, who during his two years in the post assembled three resident performance groups: Plexus, the Channel Islands Chamber Orchestra and the Gold Coast Repertory Theater.

The center had become a hub of cultural activity in Ventura County, and was known for employing professional actors at prevailing Actors Equity wages--an unusual concession for a small municipal theater.

“Joe set some high standards for us, and we will be trying to maintain those standards,” said Mayor Dorill Wright.

At the same time, however, the city may steer the center toward less costly offerings, said Dawn Erickson, who oversees the center as Port Hueneme’s director of Recreation and Community Services. She said the center has not exceeded its $197,500 budget, but its schedule for the current season was “a little bit grandiose.”

Erickson and City Manager Dick Velthon said scaling back may entail such steps as using non-Equity actors, cutting back theatrical runs by one week, decreasing the number of plays produced from eight to five or six, and shortening the center’s season by one month.

The season typically runs from October to May. Eight plays of four-week runs were scheduled during the current season.

Denee Jordan, the artistic director of Plexus, said her company turned to the Santa Paula Theater because of uncertainty about the center’s direction.

“I feel that they are unsure as to what they’ll be doing in the next season,” she said. “I needed to look out for my own company.”

DuPont, who also served as a volunteer publicist for the center, blamed his departure on what he viewed as the Port Hueneme administrators’ lack of respect for artists.

“They were treated either as flaky children or amateurs, or people who knew nothing about what they were doing,” he said. “The recreation department coordinators think they know more about art than the artists.”

Bertucci, whose salary was between $22,000 and $28,000, would not elaborate on his departure, except to say city officials had no objections to the way he was running the center.

Before coming to Port Hueneme, Bertucci had been a director for the Twentieth Century Fox Repertory Theatre, a stage manager for a production at the Los Angeles Actors Theatre, and a producer and writer for a Los Angeles advertising agency.

A More Important Concern

For now, however, AIDS is a more important concern to him.

“I see the devastation that this disease leaves, and I need to do this,” he said last week. “I’m leaving for very personal reasons.”

But Jordan said Bertucci had wearied of disputes with the city over other uses of the facility, where high school and civic groups hold performances, and which can be rented for weddings and banquets through the city’s Recreation and Community Services Department.

“There were many instances when rehearsal was needed but the space couldn’t be had because the facility had been rented to a non-performance group,” Jordan said. “The center is very much a facility for graduation dances, beauty pageants and banquets. . . . Joe’s departure meant the performances side of the performance center didn’t win over the recreational side.”

Burns Taft, the artistic director of the Ventura County Master Chorale, said such conflicts have represented “a big problem” for the center last season, but dwindled in the current season.

“The first season we were there, we had to juggle our schedule around quite a bit because the facility was rented out for weddings,” he said.

City officials defended the community’s uses of the 4-year-old complex and downplayed the importance and frequency of scheduling conflicts.

“Anytime you have a multipurpose facility, you have a conflict of priorities,” Mayor Wright said.