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THEATER / NANCY CHURNIN : Carnation Battle Could Leave Artists on Doorstep

Space--the final frontier for San Diego arts groups.

Arguments about the fate of the Balboa Theater, the California Theatre, the Spreckels Theatre and the North Park Theatre have set off tempers for years now.

Add to those sites the Carlsbad Theatre, which opened last year and then closed after one show because of structural flaws, and all remain, like Sleeping Beauties, waiting for Prince Charming to drop $10-million kisses and awaken them.

Meanwhile, starving arts groups lurk outside the castle gates, waiting forlornly for the doors to open so the feast can begin.

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The latest debate is over the Carnation building, a warehouse encompassing a full city block at 354 11th Ave. In December, Sledgehammer Theatre staged “Blow Out the Sun” at the Carnation. That was when local artist Gloria Poore and her RE-IN Carnation project partners thought they were going to buy the property and develop it into work spaces for individual artists and small theater groups.

Now Sledgehammer, which had planned to present Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” at the Carnation on April 17, is rushing to find another space for a May opening while Poore contends with the new owners of the Carnation, the San Diego Community Foundation, about the future of the property.

It seems the foundation, the largest philanthropic organization in San Diego, had the Carnation bequeathed to it two years ago as part of the will of Ariel Wharton (Bud) Coggeshall, 84, who surprised the foundation and his widow (who unsuccessfully contested the will) by donating more than half his estate to the organization. Coggeshall died April 4, 1987, and the very next day, Poore, who had been trying to buy the property from Coggeshall since 1981, made her bid to the bank that is the trustee liquidating the estate.

The Community Foundation, primarily a grant-giving organization, did not even consider keeping the building at first. Then it got advice from investor and developer Morris Slayen, who met the group’s executive director, Helen Monroe, at a party. Slayen said he told the foundation that the property would skyrocket in value and that, while they were sitting on the site, waiting to develop or sell, they could rent it out to local arts groups as a minimally maintained warehouse space.

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Interested arts watchers such as Danah Fayman, president of the San Diego Foundation for the Performing Arts, and Dan Wasil, executive director of Installation Museum, don’t see the controversy between the Community Foundation and the RE-IN Carnation project as a battle between right and wrong, but as part of the continuing saga of the difficulty arts groups have in consolidating their visions to work toward common goals.

But Ethan Feerst, executive director of Sledgehammer, who strongly favors the RE-IN Carnation project, sees the controversy as something far worse than unpleasant. He predicts that, in the end, the arguments may end up costing the very artists both groups say they want to help.

“If this continues, there may be a bidding war between developers, and that will mean hundreds of thousands that will go into the bidding and not to the artists. No matter who gets the building, this could mean less money for the programs,” Feerst said.

The sobering part of all this is that the Carnation is just one battle. The California Theatre is also part of the Coggeshall estate, and the Community Foundation will soon have to decide what to do about that as well.

Did you miss Stephen Schwartz’s musical “Rags” when it opened and closed on Broadway in less than a week’s time? Well, you will have a chance to catch a 20-minute scene from the show as well as a glimpse of the composer of “Pippin” and “Godspell” when San Diego State University students present part of “Rags” for Schwartz on April 22 at the campus’ Experimental Theatre at 2 p.m. “Rags” is one of three shows chosen as part of a design/directing/acting jury, designed by SDSU Professor Beeb Salzer, to allow students to learn from theater professionals by trying their hands at the professionals’ pet projects. Emily Mann will view student work on a scene from “Execution of Justice,” her play about the Harvey Milk-George Moscone murders, at 9 a.m., and Carlos Morton will give his comments on a production of “Los Doridos,” his satiric story about the Spaniards coming to San Diego and naming La Jolla, at 11 a.m. Each scene will be followed by 1 1/2 hours of discussion.

PROGRAM NOTES: A.R. Gurney’s “The Cocktail Hour,” which had its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre in June, received the 1989 Lucille Lortel Award as the best off-Broadway play. Gurney will receive his award March 27 at Sardi’s restaurant. . . . “Girl Talk,” the latest offering from Underground at the Lyceum, will present a potpourri of comic and dramatic pieces from the female perspective starting tonight and continuing Fridays at 10:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. for a five-week run. . . . The Old Globe will present a public reading of “Breaking Legs,” Tom Dulack’s comedy about a playwright seeking backing from investors who turn out to be mobsters, as part of the Play Discovery Program at 7:30 p.m. Monday on the Cassius Carter Centre Stage. “Breaking Legs” will make its world premiere Sept. 6-Oct. 22 at the Cassius Carter under the direction of Jack O’Brien, the Old Globe’s artistic director. . . . United States International University, now in its fourth year as the resident company in the Theatre in Old Town, is expanding next season’s schedule with “Hello, Dolly!” in the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza, Feb. 14-March 11. The rest of the shows at the Theatre in Old Town will include Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” Oct. 4-29, “The Front Page,” Nov. 15-Dec. 3, “The Fantasticks,” Jan. 31-March 18, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” April 11-29, and “Carnival,” May 16-June 10.


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