It was Saturday evening at LAX, and members of the Company of Characters, a Studio City-based theater, were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a group of fellow thespians. However, these actors were not your typical Hollywood hopefuls. Rather, they were Soviets, coming to Los Angeles to participate in a cultural and artistic exchange.
The U.S. encampment--33 strong--gathered in one of the airport bars to wait.
"I feel excited and nervous," said Leona Eber, 77, an actress from Santa Monica. "We're like little children making friends."
When Continental's Flight 57 landed, the American entourage moved toward Gate 62. They strategically positioned themselves and stretched out a series of signs. One read, "Dobro Pozhalovat." English translation: "Welcome."
The Company of Characters would happily play the role of host to the Soviet performers during their stay, seeing to it that their housing, food and transportation needs were taken care of. Most important, the American actors would provide a comradely connection to a foreign land.
Soon the passengers began to disembark. There, amid the crowd, were 48 Soviets, including more than three dozen performers. For one awkward moment the two groups stood facing each other. A dramatic beat--and then cheers and laughter, applause and hugs.
The Russians were here.
During their nine-day stay in Los Angeles, the Soviets are entertaining as well as being entertained. (Their itinerary includes stops at Universal Studios and Dodger Stadium.) All the performers are professionals, representing three Leningrad groups--the Komedy Theatre, a 60-year-old company specializing in Soviet comedies; St. Petersburg Theatre, a new group composed of seasoned actors whose focus is classic Russian vaudeville, and the Leningrad Jazz Club.
Tonight , the Leningrad Swing Jazz Band, with singer Elvira Traphova, will appear on NBC's "The Tonight Show." The band, along with the two theatrical groups, will also begin a five-night stint at the 450-seat Norris Theater in Palos Verdes. Each evening a different lineup of entertainment is offered, including performances of Chekhov's "The Proposal" and Bulgakhov's "Zoykhin's Apartment." On Sunday, the jazz band will appear at the Santa Monica Jazz Festival, which runs from noon to 8 p.m.
Los Angeles is the fourth and final stopover of the Soviets' trip. They arrived in New York on July 27, stayed for three days and moved on to Maine, where they did a series of benefit shows.
"You are the same as us," said an excited Alexander Bielskii, 33, a director of the Komedy Theatre. "You are the same in appearance and feelings. It's (the United States) more fantastic than I thought. It's like the holidays."
For the most part, the two Soviet theater companies perform in Russian. Nevertheless, American audiences and critics have so far responded favorably to the Soviet presentations, said Bill Raiten, who organized the Soviet-American exchange. As founder of the New Surry Theatre in Blue Hill, Maine, Raiten began the first in a series of cultural exchanges with the Soviets in 1986.
For their part, actors from the Company of Characters are scheduled to travel to Leningrad in November to perform "Fiddler on the Roof" at the Komedy Theatre.
Taking "Fiddler," which is set in czarist Russia, to the Soviet Union has a special significance for both Raiten and Company of Characters director Herb Mitchell. Back in 1975, it was this same play that brought the two men together--and marked Mitchell's acting debut. Mitchell's 50-member theater company is busy raising funds to finance the trip.
The exchange has also attracted the interest of politicians. Coincidentally, Leningrad's mayor, Anatoli Sobchak, was in town last week to meet with Mayor Bradley, who designated Los Angeles the sister city of Leningrad.
And the city of West Hollywood--where many Russians reside--has also jumped on the bandwagon. On Wednesday at 2 p.m., Mayor John Heilman will host a reception in Plummer Park to officially welcome the Soviets.
The visitors admit they are caught up in all the hoopla. But besides enjoying themselves, they also hope the exchange will have a lasting effect. "We Russians have always liked Americans," said Elena Bourakovsky , a costume designer for the Komedy Theatre. "Now we have found proof for our feelings toward Americans. They are wonderful, warm and open. This kind of relationship will bring our countries closer."