California Music Theatre Creator Surveys the Wreckage of a Dream

A post-mortem, please, from Gary Davis, who co-created and headed Pasadena-based California Music Theatre throughout its five-year-plus history. Beset by a debt that was close to $2 million, according to Davis, the organization folded last week.

"We never had the cash to get the word out," Davis said last week. "We had a deficit from the day we opened our doors, and we were unable to get the revenue we needed for marketing. We were simply paralyzed by our payables."

The company had costlier union contracts than most of its competition. But its stagehands' contract automatically came along with the primary venue CMT rented, Pasadena Civic Auditorium. With the musicians' union, "we just plain talked to the wrong people." And a demanding actors' contract was necessary in order to establish the company's professional credentials, said Davis--although he also noted that a new contract, enacted by Actors' Equity last year, would have been much healthier for the company.

Show selection? "Perhaps we were a little idealistic in the first season" said Davis, referring to such shows as "The Most Happy Fella" and "She Loves Me." "I still believe there is a market for shows that aren't done as often, but the organization has to compile a track record (with more familiar titles) first." As for the world premiere of "Clothespins and Dreams," Davis said audiences loved it, but they were small. "We did not have people who wanted to take a chance." And he has had "a lot of second thoughts" about CMT's investment of time and money in the aborted "Sayonara."

Davis says he spread himself too thin, "but it was a reflection of not having enough cash." He realized this most vividly when he helped paint the dressing rooms at the group's final venue, the Raymond Theatre, last year, then had to step in as Cap'n Andy at the opening of "Show Boat" when Van Johnson got sick.

CMT DEATH WATCH: The drowning of CMT set off ripples that lapped up on a number of other shores in the Los Angeles theatrical community.

"What's so sad is that this is the second subscription operation to take a dive" in the last year, said Lars Hansen, who co-founded CMT in 1986 but left in 1988 to join Pasadena Playhouse, where he is the executive director. The other collapse to which he was referring was that of Los Angeles Theatre Center last October.

CMT subscribers have not been left completely high and dry. Two semi-professional organizations have stepped in to honor their tickets or vouchers. Between the two groups, six shows will be offered, from which CMT subscribers may choose a total of four.

The Occidental Theater Festival at Occidental College will honor CMT tickets at alfresco productions of "Oklahoma!," "The Foreigner" and "The School for Wives" this summer.

And Whittier/La Mirada Civic Light Opera will offer CMT subscribers the choice of "Anything Goes" (which happens to be the same show that would have launched the aborted CMT season) in July; "Hurry! Hurry! Hollywood!," a new book musical about show-biz hopefuls in the '30s, by singer Sam Harris and Bruce H. Newberg, in October, and "A Musical Merry Christmas" in December.

The two groups hope to pick up some new subscribers of their own this way.

Because of its proximity to Pasadena, the biggest beneficiary of CMT's fall might turn out to be San Gabriel Valley Civic Light Opera, based at San Gabriel Civic Auditorium. San Gabriel CLO Executive Director Roger Lockie is hardly gloating. "It's a loss for everybody," he said. But he did note that his organization, just completing its eighth season, "started smaller" than CMT, "has grown with controlled steps" and has survived.

Above the semi-professional arena, the absence of CMT may strengthen efforts by the management of Pasadena Civic Auditorium, the venue that housed CMT for most of its history, to attract a presenter of touring musicals.

Auditorium manager Richard Barr said he's in negotiations with the Kansas City-based Theater League, which is attempting to put together a circuit of venues in several cities that would be known as the American Civic Light Opera. Each venue would get one-week runs of four or five shows each year.

This couldn't happen until late 1993 at the earliest, however. A hoped-for launch of the project with a booking of "Les Miserables" next winter has been derailed by a plan to return the show to the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.

THE NAME GAME: One hitherto unnoticed ingredient in the collapse of California Music Theatre may have been its name. James Blackman, managing director at CMT during part of its history, said "a major difficulty" was that "horrible" name.

Blackman said he would approach "the president of Whizbang Corp." for contributions to CMT and have to start by explaining that it was Pasadena-based. "They thought I was from Sacramento. No one could take ownership of a company named after the state."

The group's founders, he said, "should have forged a stronger alliance with the city of Pasadena . . . but they never thought of themselves as a civic light opera; they thought they'd create shows and then tour them. They did not want to factionalize themselves."

Davis defended the name. "It can be a minus as much as plus to be identified with one community," he said Wednesday, pointing to "the large contingents" of CMT subscribers who came from outside the Pasadena area.

At any rate, when Blackman co-created a new civic light opera in Redondo Beach earlier this year, he made sure that the city "was almost a partner in what we're doing," and he said he "carefully picked the name" to emphasize the South Bay ties.

Yet even Blackman's naming process wasn't careful enough. Until a few weeks ago, his group was called South Bay Civic Light Opera. But then a local Gilbert & Sullivan group known as South Bay Light Opera Society raised a protest. Blackman backed down and changed the name of his group to Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities.

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