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THEATER : Grove Theatre’s Supporting Cast: Enter the Philistines

It was startling to hear Garden Grove Councilman Raymond T. Littrell say recently: “I’m supportive of the theater because it’s good for the community.”

Littrell volunteered the remark when asked how he thought the Grove Theatre Co. would do when its annual request for a subsidy--$83,000 this year--comes before the City Council in June.

The Grove’s last request squeaked by on a 3-2 vote. This time, four of the five council members indicate, it could be another squeaker. Grove’s operating budget for fiscal 1988 will be $520,000 (not including a grant from Rancho Santiago College). That means the subsidy counts.

So why was Littrell’s comment so startling?

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Littrell’s track record gives an indication of how he is likely to vote. The Grove appropriation has come up for approval five times since he was elected to the council in 1982, and five times he voted against it.

Judging from his comments during an interview last week, he is about to do so again.

Perhaps Littrell confused the meaning of “supportive.”

Had the councilman ever been to a Grove production? Indeed he had. Twice. The first time was four years ago to see “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” he said, and again last week to see “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”

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Littrell prefers going to community and dinner theaters. The Grove shows at the Gem Theatre are generally too highbrow for his taste, he said. As for the Grove Shakespeare Festival, which is held every summer in an amphitheater next to the Gem--need you ask?

“I believe this community is a hard-hat community,” Littrell said, “and very few hard hats take in Shakespeare. They’re more ‘Oklahoma’ types. I’d like to see more things that the citizens of Garden Grove would come out to.”

Besides, he added, the troupe spends too much money and strays too far from its amateur roots as a community theater. When the city hired Grove to operate the Gem Theatre in 1978, he contended, it had no intention of subsidizing productions with professional players.

“You can be very artistic, and the audience can’t tell a dime’s worth of difference,” Littrell said.

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He would like to see more community-style theater productions at both the Gem and the outdoor festival.

Like what?

“The shows they do at the Crystal Cathedral.”

Apparently Littrell has been laboring under the delusion that the Crystal Cathedral puts on church-basement musicals.

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The first “Glory of Christmas” back in 1981 cost a mere $1 million, to say nothing of the next two Christmas extravaganzas, which ran up a combined tab of $1 million, or “The Glory of Easter,” which had a million-dollar debut in 1984.

The Grove could have financed all 10 seasons with that kind of money--and still had enough left over to hire the “amateurs” who starred in the cathedral shows: Carol Lawrence, Michael York, Robert Goulet, Jim Nabors.

Nevertheless, Littrell had his jaws around the argument like a dog with a bone.

How about the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach--couldn’t the Grove take a lesson from them? They run one fine community-style operation over there. Makes a profit, too.

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Sally Reeve, spokeswoman for the Festival of Arts, which runs the Pageant, chuckled on hearing she was running an amateur organization. The Festival of Arts has a $2.4-million budget, she said, of which nearly $700,000 goes to the pageant. It also has a professional staff, a professional orchestra and conductor and, yes, about 400 unpaid volunteers.

“The pageant started out as a little community thing in 1932,” Reeve said. “But I doubt that even after 10 years it could have charged ahead without borrowing money each year.”

Meanwhile, the idea that Shakespeare could be popular or that a Shakespeare festival, properly nurtured, could become a boon to Garden Grove leaves Littrell cold.

Jim Cox, director of development for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, isn’t surprised by the councilman’s attitude. It was common enough in Ashland, Ore., where the most successful Shakespeare festival on the West Coast started 53 years ago.

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“In the ‘60s, this thing was just tolerated,” Cox said from his office in Ashland. “By the ‘70s, it became the mainstay of the town. Shakespeare is big business now. We couldn’t have remained a community theater if we’d wanted to.”

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival operates on an annual budget of $6.7 million. In 1987, its direct economic impact on the town was estimated at $18 million and its indirect impact at $53 million, Cox said.

But like the Grove and all nonprofit theatrical institutions, the festival still has an income gap--despite record attendance of 330,301 last year--because box office income can’t offset production costs without exorbitant ticket prices.

So Ashland provides the festival with an annual subsidy. It didn’t come to much last year, only $30,000--certainly not enough even to nick the $1.4-million income gap. But it’s the gesture that counts. Ashland is a town with only 16,000 people.

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Garden Grove has 134,306 people, not to mention a $47.7-million budget. The city could afford to make more than a gesture--the Grove Theatre Co. deserves clear sailing rather than clear squeaking.


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