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A Time for the Old to Be New Again : Return of crooners and roller-skating, resurrection of landmark venues and new CityWalk were highlights.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe the Valley turned younger and hipper, diving headlong into the “retro” fad. Maybe it was a matter of the beleaguered masses, weary from another year of recession and crime, turning to escapist nostalgia. Or maybe we just ran out of ideas.

Either way, for arts and leisure, old was new in 1993.

How else to explain the return of crooners and roller-skating, of harmonica blues and the Texas two-step? And the resurrection of such venerable venues as El Portal and Alex theaters--both of these cinema dinosaurs were re-created as grand theatrical stages during the past year.

“Anybody can put up a new building,” explained Glendale City Councilwoman Eileen Givens, lauding tonight’s grand reopening of the Alex Theatre in her city. “Now we have what most communities don’t have. We’ve restored a real treasure.”

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Fitting, it seems, for a year that began with less news and more Frank. KGIL-AM (1260), a stalwart on the talk-radio circuit, switched to an “adult standards” format, renaming itself KJQI and playing the likes of Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

“Music brings joy,” explained Saul Levine, whose Mount Wilson FM Broadcasters Inc. purchased the station for $2.5 million and immediately ordered the change.

The initial reaction from listeners was disappointment.

No such grumbles greeted the resurgence of roller-skating. Whether at the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale, Northridge Skateland or other such establishments, rink owners reported larger crowds, especially among seniors. “At my age,” Pat Hathaway, 63, said, “it’s the good-looking men!”

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At the same time, nightclub owners announced the arrival of the “Disco of the ‘90s,” but it turned out to be old-fashioned country dancing. Suburbanites as squeaky clean as their brand-new boots packed clubs such as the Longhorn Saloon in Canoga Park and the Ranch House Bar & Grill in Valencia to take their places in the line dance.

And if it seemed that all of this signaled the death of civilization, a quiet voice of refinement called out from the wilds of Burbank. Alumni of the Chouinard Institute held a reunion gathering. The attendees were defined by a grand heritage in the fine arts. Chouinard opened its doors as an arts school in 1921 and, before it was renamed as CalArts and moved to Valencia in 1972, turned out a long list of notables.

Nelson Riddle and Henry Mancini honed their musical skills at the tiny school. Fashion designers Edith Head and Bob Mackie studied there. So did artists Emerson Woelffer and Ed Ruscha.

Amid the clatter of urethane wheels and cowboy heels, at least we had memories.

Not everything was old in the old year.

An unlikely newcomer blossomed last April when the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History opened a satellite branch at, of all places, the Media Center Shopping Mall in Burbank. The 12,500-square-foot hall was born of delicate negotiations between the mall’s developer and city and county officials. In the end, they all contributed to provide a place for the county museum to showcase traveling exhibits and more of its vast collection.

An edifice of a different sort arrived a month later as Universal Studios opened its much-awaited CityWalk. The stretch of shops and restaurants promoted itself as a kinder, gentler version of such Los Angeles street scenes as Melrose Avenue and the Santa Monica Promenade--all the excitement without panhandlers and fear of gang cross-fire. The startling architecture drew approving reviews while social critics argued that city dwellers should be fighting to reclaim the streets, not hiding from them.

Such matters notwithstanding, CityWalk provided a new home for the Museum of Neon Art, which decked its faux streets with a dazzling array of signage.

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On a smaller scale, the Valley Cultural Center raised $300,000 to build a permanent stage for its summer concerts in Warner Park. In the past 18 years, some of these performances had been given from the back of flatbed trucks. And the first issues of Caffeine magazine reached coffeehouses throughout the Valley. The publication, aimed at a young and amped crowd, featured Charles Bukowski along with a host of new writers.

The arts crowd got another boost in June. The Laemmle theater in Encino, literally the only home for foreign and art films in the Valley, completed renovations, enlarging from three screens to five. And across town, in North Hollywood, the NoHo Arts District held its first NoHo Performing Arts Festival. The two-day affair included a full menu of plays, revues and stand-up comedy.

“We want to make this a thriving arts district,” said David Cox, co-founder of the American Renegade Theater. “What we hope to achieve is enough high profile so that people recognize the theater that is in the Valley.”

This year brought some sad stories to go with the successes.

Juice had all the essentials to be a thriving hip-hop club--the rap and R&B; music, a dance floor and even a pool table for those too cool to work up a sweat. But like previous hip-hop clubs in the Valley, it quickly went out of business. The promoters claimed a geographical disadvantage: No one expects to find hip-hop north of the city.

In Canoga Park, Ron Lancaster tried to create a new kind of gathering spot. The out-of-work accountant opened his Storyteller Bookstore & Cafe as an altar for the forgotten art of folk tales. He said he hoped to start a trend.

By year’s end, the Storyteller had closed.

So we were left to fall back on old favorites. The Country Club in Reseda, a rock ‘n’ roll venue that had seen its glory days pass, began a new era as an emerging blues spot. A tribute concert to Chicago’s Little Walter was followed with performances by Gregg Allman, the Jeff Healy Band and Etta James. Veteran bluesmen found themselves with a 910-seat alternative to the typical small club.

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“It’s nice to have a blues venue with some elbow room,” said harmonica player Juke Logan.

December brought the comeback of the Gnu Theatre, a longtime Valley standout. The Magnolia Boulevard theater closed down in June and no one expected it to reopen so quickly. But the Epic Theatre Company moved in and, by Dec. 2, had renamed the place--it’s now the Odessa Theatre--and opened with James Kennedy’s “Wrecks.”

More good news arrived with the announcement that El Portal, formerly a vaudeville house and movie palace in North Hollywood, would become home to the Actors Alley Repertory Theatre. The company will reappear on Jan. 15 with Peter Lefcourt’s “The Audit” and James Thurber’s “The Male Animal.”

Meanwhile, along Burbank Boulevard, the Group Repertory Theatre celebrated its 20th anniversary with a series of plays revived from last season.

Some things never change.


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