Above Jerry's Deli in Studio City is a 48-seat theater that until January was the home of the Donald O'Connor Family Theater. After a rent hike, however, the theater decided to close its doors.
But this being Los Angeles, as soon as it folded, another group of actors was waiting in the wings. And now the space is the home of the Company of Characters.
Headed by Herb Mitchell--a former stockbroker and businessman who turned to acting 10 years ago--the 50-member company is ready to start its first season. It opens tonight with David Rabe's "In the Boom Boom Room" and ends in the fall with "Fiddler on the Roof"--a production that will also play the 900-seat Komedy Theater in Leningrad.
To help the company survive, Mitchell realizes he will have to take a different tack. After all, after opening in November, 1988, the Donald O'Connor Theater experienced a modicum of success.
During its 15 months at the Studio City location, it produced four main-stage productions, beginning with "Charley's Aunt," starring Donald O'Connor, and ending with "The Great White Way . . . Broadway."
The latter, said Alicia O'Connor, producing director of the theater and Donald O'Connor's daughter, received good reviews and was sold out every weekend during its three-month run.
Nevertheless, ticket sales alone could not offset the theater's increase in rent. And there were other reasons the theater closed, Alicia O'Connor said. She became more interested in producing films and in acting, and her father decided a larger theater would better suit his needs.
Mitchell says the rent he pays on his monthly lease is "pretty high." But he said all theater spaces are expensive these days.
He expects to keep his theater alive through a plan that clearly exhibits his business acumen.
Each member of the Company of Characters is charged $125 a month--which is not unusual for participation in a theater group. But what sets Mitchell's company apart from some others is that in exchange for their dues, members are offered a variety of classes and workshops.
Included are scene study classes twice a week, a commercial workshop once a week and showcases twice a month for producers and casting directors, to help them shop for talent.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, the theater will feature a production on its main stage. Each member of the company is guaranteed the opportunity to appear in one major production a year, although not necessarily in a major role. In addition, beginning this summer, a series of one-act plays will be presented on Thursday nights.
Diana Carpenter, a Marina del Rey resident who has been acting for seven years, said one reason she joined the company was because of the classes and workshops. "To me it seems like a reasonable price," she said. "It's a unique program. . . . It's a very aggressive plan."
Mitchell expects that next year the company will start presenting four main-stage productions. This year's three shows tentatively include a comedy set for this summer.
Mitchell said his philosophy in choosing shows is to pick plays that are uplifting, both spiritually and emotionally, "although this doesn't apply to the first show we are doing."
"We want to do good theater. I want the audience and actors to find love in the work. With all the hate in the world, we want to do our part in showing there is a lot of love."
Mitchell said the company will probably focus on doing established works since he is particularly interested in well-written plays. Often, he said, original material by unknown writers does not fill the bill. However, he added, "We're not closing our eyes to original stuff."
Another objective is to present plays that have roles for women. That's one of the reasons he chose "In the Boom Boom Room." Of the 50 members in the company, about half of them are women.
Company members, whose acting experience varies, range in age from 18 to 60. Many of the performers are in their 40s and 50s, he said, so they can play roles close to their actual ages.
Most of the members hold other jobs while waiting for a break in show business. "We even have two accountants and an attorney," Mitchell said.
But not everyone wants to act. The Company of Characters includes about half a dozen people interested in producing, eight to 10 directors, and several writers and choreographers.
Mitchell started the theater group, he said, after he got tired of hearing friends say, "Let's get a show up." So he took the initiative.
All the company's members are his friends or acquaintances.
"I called them up and asked them if they'd be interested in joining the group," he said. "I respected them, and they respected me."
Anthony Leonardi, an actor who lives in Reseda, said the main reason for joining the group "is Herb Mitchell. . . . He's a great acting coach. He lets actors find their way."
As president of the company, Mitchell decided to direct its first show. It will be his second directing endeavor. "I'm a dictator," he said with a laugh. "I'm controlling the company's destiny from the beginning."
Mitchell views his roles as director and teacher as secondary to his role as actor. When the Company of Characters produces "Fiddler on the Roof," Mitchell will play Tevye, the part that got him started in acting in 1975.
Mitchell was working as a stockbroker in Maine, with a wife and four children to support. He didn't take acting seriously, he said, because of his family obligations. But after working in a community theater, he became aware of his creative instincts.
"All I was dealing with was one plus one equals two," he said. "Now, I could take someone from tears to laughter. I thought to myself, 'What a wonderful feeling to do this!' " Mitchell's performance earned him a very favorable review from playwright Samuel Taylor, who happened to be vacationing in Maine.
Several years later, when his children were grown, Mitchell went into business with his brother. In Maine, they opened up a jazz club and bar called Geddy's. Since it was a seasonal business, Mitchell was free for about six months of the year, and he found his way to San Diego.
He arrived on a Friday night, auditioned, and by Monday morning had landed a part in an Old Globe Theater production of George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man." Mitchell subsequently was cast as Captain Allard in "Short Eyes" at San Diego's Puppet Theater. Soon after, he decided to make acting his career.
Mitchell has appeared in more than 100 television commercials, most recently for Kellogg's Common Sense Oat Bran Cereal. He has also appeared on a variety of television shows, including "Cheers" and "Mike Hammer." And he has just signed a contract to be the spokesman in Dean Witter ads.
Mitchell said he was interested in reviving "Fiddler on the Roof" because "It's universal. It's not just a Jewish play," he said. "Every man has his own struggle of bringing up a family."
The Company of Characters will perform in Leningrad as a result of Mitchell's longtime friendship with Bill Raiten, who directed Mitchell in his stage debut.
Raiten, who will direct "Fiddler" for the Company of Characters, has been involved in a cultural exchange program with the Soviets since 1986.
"The object is to not only exchange culture," he explained, "but also to get to know and better understand the people" of the Soviet Union. Raiten has arranged for the Company of Characters to perform at the Komedy Theater from Nov. 29 to Dec. 3. The Company of Characters will be the first American company to perform "Fiddler on the Roof" in the Soviet Union, Mitchell said.
Making arrangements to go to the Soviet Union while operating a new theater company is a challenge. Mitchell's wife, Janet, is especially helpful, he said. She is the theater's administrative assistant. Mitchell said he receives little compensation from the theater, except for a portion of the proceeds from the commercial workshop he teaches, and says his efforts are not solely self-centered.
"But life has never been better to me. I'm a working actor. I've got a great family. And now I've got my own theater company," he said. "I'm exhausted. I'm overwhelmed. I'm tired, but it's a good tired."
The Company of Characters is located at 12655 Ventura Blvd. in Studio City. "In the Boom Boom Room" opens at 8 tonight. The production continues Fridays through Sundays until July 1. Tickets are $12 Fridays and Saturdays, $10 on Sundays, when curtain time is 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (818) 508-4538 or (213) 466-1767.