Bill Bushnell Sails Away From ‘Creatively Toxic’ L.A.


Bill Bushnell is outta here.

The man who ran Los Angeles Theatre Center--L.A.’s most important theater of the late ‘80s--has moved to St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands, where he shares a sailboat, At Random, with his brother Jon, a university professor.

“I could no longer ignore the reality that I couldn’t breathe in L.A. without sucking on my asthma inhalers several times a day,” Bushnell wrote in his holiday letter to friends and acquaintances. “AND (his emphasis), just as important, the City of Angels has become creatively toxic.”

Bushnell elaborated on his thoughts in an interview. The only way to make a living in L.A. theater is by getting a staff job at the Mark Taper Forum, he contended. L.A. politicians and corporate leaders are no longer challenging L.A.’s artists to try something new, he said. “For better or worse, that existed in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” but now, “the synergy is gone.”


To spend millions on “Sunset Boulevard” is “highly questionable,” Bushnell said, but even worse, he added, is the expenditure of much more money on such movies as “Last Action Hero.” Furthermore, he argued, Actors’ Equity’s 99-Seat Theatre Plan, which allows equity members to work for only token wages, is “extremely shortsighted. It encourages bad showcase theater and keeps good theater from occurring.” Elsewhere, where professional theaters are required to use full-fledged equity contracts, “you can find far more vital theater communities in cities 25% the size of L.A.”

Bushnell may eventually land in such a city. “I’ve got one more theater left in me,” he said, noting that he helped develop three theaters so far--Center Stage in Baltimore and American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco are the others. He wants his next to be “a modest-sized theater in a modest-sized city that really focuses on new writers.”

In his holiday letter, he added that if he is smart, his next theater “will be affiliated with a larger institution that will worry about its physical and administrative infrastructure”--the undertow that eventually sank LATC. Bushnell was hired by such an institution--Cal State Long Beach--after LATC died, and worked with its resident theater company, CalRep. But that job ended after only 20 months because of the financial squeeze on California’s universities.

A legal entanglement lingers on for Bushnell in L.A. Soon after LATC collapsed in Oct. 1991, the state’s Employment Development Department assessed him for $46,464 in LATC’s unpaid unemployment and insurance contributions and slapped on an additional $6,607 penalty. But last Dec. 1, administrative law judge Paul Wyler reduced Bushnell’s liability in the case to just those debts from the period between mid-May 1991 and the theater’s final collapse--an 80% reduction, according to Bushnell attorney Mark Rosenblatt’s estimate. Wyler accepted the argument that Bushnell was not in charge of the theater’s finances during the preceding period.

Bushnell and Rosenblatt have now appealed Wyler’s finding that Bushnell acted willfully regarding the non-payment of the later debts. A decision from the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board in Sacramento isn’t expected for several months. Bushnell said he has defended himself “vigorously” in the case, “but a lot can be done by deposition and telephone” from his new home in St. Croix.

“I look at the Theatre Center as a great success,” said Bushnell. “I’ve never felt these places should necessarily be permanent.” Regarding the municipally owned LATC building, now in use only for sporadic rentals: “Eventually somebody will figure out how to make it exciting.”



ANOTHER “WALTZ”: In last week’s item about cast recordings, musical maven Miles Kreuger (whose name was regrettably misspelled) cited a cast album of the 1965 California production of “The Great Waltz” as one of the few examples of a cast album from a production that never reached Broadway. However, a reader points out that an earlier version of “The Great Waltz” played New York 31 years earlier, at the old Center Theatre in Rockefeller Center. The well-informed reader saw it in New York in 1934 and also saw the California revival.