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All The Mall’s A Stage : Entertainment: Shopping centers find hiring musicians, mimes or other acts can double sales on a slow day.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Szymanski is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. </i>

Any day of the week, customers at the Sherman Oaks Galleria may run into clowns, mimes, jugglers, comedians, puppets, violinists or big-name bands.

Many entertainers have joined the competitive “mall circuit” in the San Fernando Valley. And mall managers maintain that these shows can double their business on a normally slow weekday morning.

Acts can range from the Kids of Rock Theater, an amateur troupe of teen-agers who use Fallbrook Mall as a rehearsal stage, to jazz singer Ray Charles, who drew a crowd of 7,000 earlier this summer at a free concert in the Glendale Galleria.

Among the few hundred people at a recent Cool Summer Days series at the outdoor plaza of the Sherman Oaks Galleria were a group of five women from nearby Home Federal Loan Mortgage who bought salads for lunch, wore company visors to shade themselves and swayed to a ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll band. “We’d normally go to a place on Ventura Boulevard for lunch, but since the music is here, we are too,” Linda Keckler said.

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“I think it’s the best promotional thing I’ve seen; they should have it every day,” co-worker Vickie Price added.

The weekly music, ranging from steel-drum reggae to jazz by flutist Tim Weisberg, has succeeded in drawing crowds of 500, most of them local suit-and-tie office workers.

“We see a lot of the same faces week after week,” said Karalyn Lucci, Sherman Oaks Galleria marketing director.

About 300 people regularly attend the Glendale Galleria’s Mid-Week Music Series, which also started this summer. The most popular acts include a classical harp and flute duo, and Big Daddy, a brass quartet that plays modern tunes, such as Madonna songs, in a ‘50s style.

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“This is good exposure for performers,” said Nicolette Abernathy, marketing director of the Glendale Galleria, where 50,000 people a day stop to shop. “We get more traffic than the Los Angeles Zoo.”

The malls rarely have a problem finding an act: Abernathy said she gets 20 to 30 requests a week from every kind of performer.

“We’ll be doing more next year,” she said. “Sure, some people come for the music and then leave without shopping, but it does get them here.”

Nevertheless, some merchants have complained that the bands play too loudly and too long, she said. “Our primary purpose is to promote shopping.”

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The hottest trend at malls is weekly children’s entertainment. The Glendale Galleria plans to join five other area malls next summer by adding a children’s show. The Galleria tested the community interest with a monthly storybook hour of reading and found a loyal following.

In Palmdale, parents pressured managers at the Antelope Valley Mall to develop a children’s program. The mall is starting one next summer with a mascot, a giant antelope tentatively named Augustus, who will wander around the mall, much like Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.

“Parents came to us with a community need, and we have so many children between 2 and 6 that it made a lot of sense,” said Julia Pugh, Antelope Valley Mall marketing director. The mall’s program will feature talks by firefighters, police officers, librarians and other public servants.

Having a kids club occurred to Diane Brandes, marketing director of the Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks, when she saw so many moms, dads and grandparents with strollers on weekday mornings. The harpists and fiddlers she hired to play throughout the mall didn’t seem to be enough, so she came up with the O. K. Kids Club. (O. K. stands for Oaks Kids.) After a year, it has more than 300 members.

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“We’re not competing with any nearby malls,” Brandes said, referring to larger kids clubs at malls only a short drive away. “We each serve our own populations. For the most part, we get people who live near us.”

Emcee of the O. K. Kids Club is Karen Glasser, who wrote and recorded a theme song specially written for the mall show. Every week, mall merchants hand out drinks and cookies afterward.

The pioneer for local children’s entertainment in malls is Canoga Park’s Fallbrook Mall, which started a show called “Wednesdays Are for Kids” four years ago. Fairy princesses, clowns and children’s aerobics are featured every Wednesday at two free shows that each attract from 100 to 250 spectators. Prizes such as movie passes, yo-yos and T-shirts are given out at each show. One of the most popular acts is the high-energy sing-along performed by Craig & Company.

“We want to give parents a reason to come to the mall on a slow day,” said Fallbrook’s marketing director, Christine Silvestri. “It builds loyalty to the mall, and some mothers use us as an alternative to nursery school.”

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Some families going to Fallbrook Mall have also discovered the nonprofit Kids of Rock Theater, a group of teen-age dancers, comedians and singers performing monthly for nearly three years at the Food Court, a cluster of snack shops.

“Customers love to watch us, even if it’s just rehearsal,” said producer Muriel Stone, whose troupe is practicing pieces from “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables” and “Hair” in an area across from the Hickory Farms store. Unlike the performers in all the mall’s children’s shows and other professional acts, the teen-agers are not paid by the mall. Instead, they get free rehearsal space and a built-in audience.

To find good acts, some malls hire talent coordinators such as Ron Merkin of Center Ring Productions in Reseda. After 15 years of providing acts at local malls, Merkin has seen interest soar in educational children’s shows. He provides the talent for the Kids Club in Topanga Plaza, which has grown so huge in two years that it is held twice a week. About 500 children attend on Tuesdays and 350 on Thursdays.

“We have acts specifically trained for performing in the mall atmosphere. It’s quite different than doing a birthday party,” said Merkin, who also books acts for malls outside the Valley. “We teach simple topics because we know we are dealing with young, impressionable minds.”

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This month, Kids Club introduces five puppet characters who will be making regular appearances. They include Max, a macho but sweet dude who likes to exercise; Everett, a nature buff with flowers in his hair, and Peaches, a skateboarding Topangasaurus girl monster whose philosophy is “I want to be the best me that I can be.”

Also this month, Kids Club launches its membership card, which allows parents discounts at Topanga Plaza stores. “Ask any parent with a stroller, and they’ll tell you the last place they want to be is in a mall,” Merkin said. “These acts make it a little easier to get the children to go shopping after the show.”

Parents tend to linger an hour or two after the shows, and then do their shopping errands, said Ellen Chester, Topanga Plaza’s assistant marketing director. The mall’s first crowds of 40 children have grown to about 500, and many parents stay to watch shows as diverse as the Douglas Seymore Marionettes, a Las Vegas act, to Tahra Parker, a laid-back singer with a guitar who gets parents and children to sing songs together such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “The Farmer in the Dell.”

“It’s become a place for parents as well as kids to socialize,” Merkin said. “Parents tell me they have traded good child-rearing tips here.”

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Topanga Plaza’s marketing director, Annette Bethers, said the mall is considering an adult-oriented lecture series for as early as October.

Some customers, however, such as Tamra Levine, said they would be more likely to bring their children to programs they can all enjoy. Levine has driven every week this summer from Valencia to the Sherman Oaks Galleria with her 13-month-old son, Joshua, to hear the free music series.

“I love it, and he loves it, and I haven’t even tried those kiddie shows at the other malls,” Levine said, dancing with her son to “Jailhouse Rock” as the band The Roomates played. “I meet a lot of my friends here.”

Levine’s friend, Helen Davis, who drives from Woodland Hills with her infant son, Colin, said: “If it weren’t for the music, I would never normally come here. I think of the Galleria as where all the teen-agers hang out.”

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Nearby at Sherman Oaks Fashion Square, the “Hot Jazz, Cool Nights” series that ended in July proved a success. The 85 chairs set up every Thursday night were almost always filled, and some acts drew 300 people, said Sandy Stavig-Turner of the mall’s promotions department. The mall’s merchants association revived the idea of a concert series, which was successful six years ago, and decided to pay for quality jazz musicians this summer.

“Live music and entertainment enhances the shopping experience; it might bring them back to your place instead of someone else’s,” said Jennifer Gordon, marketing director for the area’s newest mall, Media City Center in Burbank, which opened Aug. 24. Strolling trios of woodwind players and other musicians are planned for weekend days, and regular jazz and children’s entertainment is being considered for next summer.

For senior citizens, Northridge Fashion Square has set up a monthly lecture series and a daily mall-walking program. As many as 500 people come to hear doctors from Northridge Hospital Medical Center speak about foot problems and health issues, and every morning before the mall opens, senior citizens walk the mall. It’s about two miles up and back.

“We have people who have logged 3,000 to 4,000 miles,” Northridge marketing coordinator Angela Giacobbe said. “People look to the mall as a central place for their entertainment, and we don’t always have something for senior citizens. It’s a safe place to walk and meet people, and the air is cooler and cleaner than outside.”

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Northridge also has more than 200 children a week come to its Kids Corner on Thursdays.

Most malls have seasonal events, such as Halloween trick or treating, Christmas carols, bridal shows and back-to-school fashion shows.

Other malls try to schedule entertainment around special events. For example, Janss Mall in Thousand Oaks has a farmers market on Thursdays and offers clogging, square dancing and fiddling shows at the same time.

In a most unusual promotion, the Promenade Mall in Woodland Hills decided to show customers its underbelly as it undergoes renovations. For an entertaining sneak peek of the construction, not expected to be completed until 1994, people are taken on “Hard Hat Tours” and allowed an unusual view of Warner Center from the mall’s roof.

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The mall’s skylight center is now just bare steel, but the Promenade plans chamber music and jazz when it is completed. “Those shows do get expensive, but they do help,” Marketing Director Elizabeth Pedersen-Knapp said.

“It’s hard to do anything inside the mall with all this going on, so we thought the tours would be a way to keep customers interested,” Pedersen-Knapp said. “Anything like this that you do in a mall will make better sales and increase traffic.”


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