Escondido Begins Program in Audience Participation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What if Escondido built a $63-million cultural arts complex and nobody came?

That thought occurred early to board members of the inland city's proposed Center for the Arts, since they or their successors will be responsible for assuring that the multiple-building complex thrives when it opens in 1993.

The Center for the Arts is planned as a city-financed, 200,000-square-foot project with a 1,500-seat theater capable of handling national road shows, a 400-seat theater for smaller performances, a 29,000-square-foot conference and meeting center and a 25,000-square-foot art center with three galleries. Surrounding the complex will be a dozen small landscaped gardens and parking for nearly 1,000 cars.

Escondido has been around for more than 100 years without many notable cultural events, and with few suitable places to hold them for its 100,000 or so residents.

Parades on the Fourth of July, a Grape Day Festival in the heyday of the area's vineyards, a long run for the Citracado Days (honoring citrus and avocados) have been more the tone of this once largely agricultural area.

Arts center directors and backers decided it was time to start drumming up audiences to fill the vast complex, which breaks ground early next year at Valley Parkway and North Broadway.

Howard Brubeck, a member of the cultural center's audience development committee, recalls that Escondido's cultural peak occurred in the late 1940s and early '50s, when a series of concerts, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the top soloists of the day--singers Marian Anderson and Jan Peerce, classical guitarist Andres Segovia and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, for example--performed at the old Escondido High School gymnasium.

"If we had had suitable facilities back then, we might have developed an audience for such performances, but there has never been a decent place for concerts and performances," Brubeck said. "Now we have to develop audiences in a big hurry."

The committee went to the Escondido City Council last Wednesday and was granted $56,000 to create an "audience development program" to get people interested in events at the arts center. Most of the money will go toward setting up smaller-scale cultural events, with some of it used to draw up mailing lists based on people who attend.

"It's not exactly audience training," Mayor Jerry Harmon said. "It's more about introducing people to the programs we plan to put on at the center.

"I am sure that people will be much more apt to attend a cultural event when they don't have to fight the traffic and drive all the way to San Diego and back," Harmon said.

Deputy City Manager Jack Anderson views the program from more of a dollars-and-cents point of view. He wants to see paying customers aplenty when the complex opens its doors.

The idea of "audience education" came up early during the discussions in the mid-'80s that led to the city's plans to build the center. From the first, Anderson said, "we decided that we'd better make sure that there are some people who would want to come."

Anderson noted that the city already has a local dramatic group, the Patio Playhouse, and a community concert series, but nothing that attracts the kinds of crowds the cultural center will need to hang out "Standing Room Only" signs.

Steve Wolff, a Connecticut-based theater consultant, conducted surveys and found there was an Escondido audience for the imported and local cultural events the complex plans to present.

The Escondido culture campaign has already started, said Eileen Appleby, a member of the center's board of directors. San Diego Symphony musicians presented a pops concert in adjacent Grape Day Park last summer and have scheduled two more concerts this summer, she said; both of the concerts held so far were "very well received."

The $56,000 audience development project may get under way as early as late summer or early fall, Anderson said, "but certainly by this winter."

At least three indoor events will be held in the council chambers of the new City Hall if the acoustics are up to snuff, he said.

"We certainly wouldn't want to present musical events, like a jazz combo, in a place where the acoustics were bad," he said.

Other events will be held near the Center for the Arts site, Kit Carson and Grape Day parks or in the nearby downtown business district during events that draw large crowds, such as the weekly Farmers Market or the annual street fair in October, Anderson said.

"It's possible that we don't have to concern ourselves about attracting audiences," Mayor Harmon said. "But it certainly won't hurt to be on the safe side."

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