THEATER AND FILM/Jan Herman : For a Grateful, Middle-Class Fan of Annual Shakespeare Festival, Charity Begins at Grove

Don Hayes, a box-office clerk at the Gem Theatre, was dumbfounded. "It's amazing!" he said, looking at the check in his hands and then to a woman walking away down Main Street in Garden Grove.

Moments before, she had approached the box office and pulled out her checkbook. "I want to give you $500," she said. "I've been a subscriber since the beginning, and I'd like to make sure you people stay here."

Then, with no other fanfare, the woman uncapped her pen and wrote the check. Hayes blinked. In the seven years he has worked at the Gem for the Grove Theatre Company, nothing like that had happened to him before.

Earlier that day, the plight of the cash-short Grove Shakespeare Festival had been aired over National Public Radio, taking the issue beyond local interest. But Sylvia M. Salenius had not heard the broadcast. She had been following earlier news accounts.

"What makes me angry," Salenius said late last week, "is that the politicians in Garden Grove don't appreciate what they've got. Shakespeare is something no other city in the county has. They shouldn't sacrifice it. They should be proud of it."

Three weeks ago, for the first time in eight years, the City Council rejected a subsidy request from the nonprofit theater company, which runs an indoor season at the Gem and the outdoor festival at the adjacent amphitheater under a city contract. A council majority comprising Mayor J. Tilman Williams, Robert F. Dinsen and Raymond T. Littrell claimed that their "hard-hat" constituents were not up to Shakespeare.

However, when it seemed that the 10-year-old festival might not be able to open without a subsidy, the majority suddenly found itself in a storm of controversy. It hastily reconsidered and, grudgingly, voted a partial subsidy of $20,000. The Grove's full request of $83,000 represents about 15% of the troupe's projected $500,000 budget. The subsidy request was scheduled to be addressed again at a council meeting Monday night.

Perhaps more surprising than the amount of Salenius' donation is the fact that it came from a single mother with a middle-class income. A former Garden Grove resident, Salenius now lives in downtown Santa Ana and works as an environmental planner in Orange. Asked if she would list her donation as an income-tax deduction, Salenius, 39, laughed and said she hadn't even considered it.

"I gave that money because Shakespeare is worth it," she said, "and that's the only reason."

So far, the City Council majority has tried to exploit the subsidy request for political purposes and, in the process, has enlarged the debate far beyond the amount of money at issue.

Dinsen, who portrays himself as a tax fighter, argues that Garden Grove "taxpayers paid well over $1 million" to renovate the Gem, a former movie theater, as though they had borne an unreasonable burden. The money actually came from a federal Economic Development Agency grant.

Littrell, who depicts himself as a crime stopper, contends that the subsidy would be better spent on beefing up the police force by a handful of officers. City staff advised him, when he asked, that the amount requested by the Grove would actually pay for 1 patrolmen.

Williams, who refers to himself as a businessman, proposes turning the Gem into a profitable dinner theater. Given the Gem's present 172-seat configuration and the lack of kitchen facilities, theatergoers would have to brown-bag their dinners and eat on their laps.

Further, he suggests that the troupe has veered from its original amateur purpose by employing professional actors. Apparently, he hasn't read the 1979 dedication plaque on the wall of the Gem, which says the theater was "created as a showcase for community and professional talent."

Williams also seems to have forgotten his comments on the troupe's behalf. In the festival program, the mayor remarked that it is "a pleasure to note the tremendous professional growth of the Grove." And he praised it for drawing audiences from outside the city, thus undermining his own (and the council majority's) subsequent objection that city funds were going to subsidize tickets for out-of-towners.

The Grove board, having already decided to keep the Shakespeare Festival open no matter what the council does, must now make a decision on the fall season. Despite an overwhelming response to a plea for donations--as of Saturday, $18,610 from individuals and $9,500 from corporations since June 24--the board is debating whether the Grove can launch the new season as scheduled.

"This week is when it will have to make a decision," artistic director Thomas F. Bradac said. "There are three options: Do the Gem season we had planned. Do a curtailed season. Or give 90 days' notice not to do the season. All three are being taken seriously."

The Grove planned to open its 10th anniversary season Sept. 30 with a musical, "No Way to Treat a Lady," adapted by Doug Cohen from a William Goldman novel. Both Cohen and director would be brought in from New York to work on the West Coast premiere.

"We wanted to do something special," Bradac said. "It would be a stretch for us. We wanted to be adventurous."

The musical would also be the most expensive show that Grove has ever mounted. Bradac said it would cost $45,000, contrasted with usual production costs of slightly more than $25,000. Because of that, he added, the show has been jeopardized by the cash crisis. C.P. Taylor's "And a Nightingale Sang" is being considered as a substitute.

Other shows that were planned for the season include Joan Micklin Silver's "A . . . My Name Is Alice"; Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight"; Horton Foote's "Lily Dale"; and Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales."

"We have to raise $165,000 of our total budget in grants and donations," Bradac noted. "Half of that was supposed to come from the city. Even though we have received incredible support from the audience, our board is fearful that we have 'top-ended' our fund-raising. In other words, the people who have given generously during this emergency will be not be able to give later."

BACKSTAGE NOTES: Louise Page's "Golden Girls" at South Coast Repertory, a play about a British women's track team, ran into trouble over its title with the Walt Disney Co. A Disney subsidiary makes the popular TV sitcom, "Golden Girls," and Disney holds the right to the title in the United States. Threatened with a suit, SCR has been running an agreed-on disclaimer in ads for the play noting that it has nothing to do with the sitcom.

The Laguna Playhouse application to convert a downtown Laguna Beach building into a 225-seat theater with valet parking is scheduled to come before the California Coastal Commission today. Artistic director Doug Rowe wants to cast Equity actors in professional productions there in addition to the ongoing amateur productions at the Playhouse's Moulton Theatre. The three-story building vacated by Pacific Telephone also would provide much-needed storage, rehearsal and classroom space for the community troupe.

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