Growth, Not Grants, for Playhouse

Let half a dozen Pasadena Playhouses bloom--in as many different cities, and without using any government financing.

That’s the dream of David G. Houk, the chairman of Theatre Corp. of America, which runs the playhouse.

Houk is in negotiations to buy theaters in six cities. He said last week that he may make an announcement of at least some of the results of his theater-acquiring campaign within six to eight weeks. But he declined to release other details now, other than to confirm that some of the cities are in California.


His eventual goal is to earn enough money, through subsidiary businesses such as restaurants and by moving productions from city to city and thereby amortizing the costs, to pay the bills of his nonprofit theaters without using contributions from any source--private or public.

It’s the public money that will be dropped first.

“It’s been a personal philosophy of mine for a long time,” said Houk. “It’s not appropriate for taxing agencies to take money from one group and re-distribute it to the arts.”

“I’m somewhere to the right of the libertarians,” he added. But he doesn’t belong to the Libertarian Party or to any other particular political organization, nor does he want to impose his philosophy on other arts organizations.

Despite Houk’s attitude, the Playhouse has applied for and received government grants, including more than $61,000 since 1989. “I have had my arm twisted in a couple of cases,” acknowledged Houk.

But those days are apparently over. This week the Playhouse rejected a $4,500 grant from the county Music and Performing Arts Commission--an event that the commission’s executive director J. Foster said was unprecedented in his 15 years with the commission.

In a letter declining the grant, playhouse development director Kenneth Ott, who had applied for the money last October, suggested that the county could assign the $4,500 to the embattled Los Angeles Theatre Center. That decision is up to the commission, said Foster.

An official playhouse statement released by Ott declares: “We do not depend on nor do we accept governmental or taxpayer supported subsidy. We strive to eliminate our need for long-term corporate support. We seek to survive on earned income. . . . We lead the way into the 1990s for other nonprofit arts organizations.”

After listing a series of techniques for success, the statement continues: “A formula for success for a Fortune 500 company? Perhaps. . . . It is simply the way we at the Pasadena Playhouse do business. We are a business, a nonprofit theater business.”

Susan Dietz, who left her job as artistic director at the playhouse last fall, expressed surprise that the organization turned down its first county grant after four years of trying to get one. But she said it didn’t sound uncharacteristic of Houk: “He’s a maverick. He’s a guy who wants to go his own way.”

NON-TRADITIONAL “DOLLY”: “It takes non-traditional casting to the limit,” said director David H. Bell, speaking of his upcoming staging of “Hello, Dolly!” at Long Beach Civic Light Opera.

Nell Carter, the star, will be supported by other African-Americans in the roles of Vandergelder and Ermengarde. But this will not be an all-black “Dolly"--like the famous revival that starred the late Pearl Bailey.

Latino actors will play Ernestina and Ambrose, said Bell, while white actors play Cornelius, Barnaby and Irene Molloy.

Overall, he said, the cast will be slightly more than half-"ethnic,” and slightly less than half-"Anglo.” A couple of Asian-Americans will be in the chorus. He declined to identify specific actors until casting was completed.

“I wasn’t intrigued about doing just another ‘Dolly,’ ” said Bell. The non-traditional casting “may not work, but you haven’t seen it before, and I got jazzed on it. It creates a freshness.” Yet the script won’t be changed, he said; “it remains a period piece.”

While any of the roles could be cast “from any color,” said Bell, he did want to keep the uncle-niece characters of Vandergelder (Dolly’s romantic target) and Ermengarde of the same race. Vandergelder will be cast black, he said, because Bell had already cast Ermengarde black, not because he wanted the man Dolly pursues to necessarily be of the same race as Dolly.

Bell is accustomed to creating new twists on old vehicles; he is currently rehearsing yet another version of “The Phantom of the Opera"--in which the Phantom and his romantic rival Raoul are brothers.

This makes Raoul much less of “an appendage” than he is in the other versions, said Bell, who wrote the book and lyrics for a score written by Tom Sivak, with appropriations from Tchaikovsky.

His new “Phantom” opens Sept. 5 at the Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace Theatre, a 1,000-seat proscenium house in suburban Chicago.

PAY WHAT YOU CAN: You may pick your own ticket price at the Thursday matinee of “Sarafina!” this week--assuming the house isn’t sold out before then. Remaining tickets go on sale on a pick-your-price, cash-only basis at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Doolittle Theatre box office. There is a limit of two tickets per purchase.

The Mark Taper Forum has scheduled pay-what-you-can performances of “Widows” on the evenings of Sept. 1 and 8. At the Taper, pay-what-you-can tickets are available seven days in advance.

The $10 “Public Rush” sales, which usually begin 10 minutes before curtain at both theaters, are suspended on “Pay What You Can” days. This marks a change in policy at the Taper since last spring, when a Taper customer raised a ruckus; he had been asked to pay the “Public Rush” price, after waiting in line for a pay-what-you-can ticket.

Information: (213) 972-7373.