Starring Role for NoHo : Burgeoning Arts District Spotlighted in Festival

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeing the fledgling NoHo district come alive with events like this weekend's second annual Performing and Visual Arts Festival particularly warms the hearts of entertainment industry veterans like Ken Johnson.

"It's just wonderful. I've lived in the Valley for 21 years now, so I've watched this area grow and really turn into something," said the 68-year-old character actor.

Johnson tends to turn up in zany movies, including "I Married an Ax Murderer" and "The End" with Burt Reynolds, "where I played a lunatic who did bird calls," he said. "But even though I've worked in films and television for a long time, before that I spent 25 years in the theater."

A North Hollywood resident, Johnson said he recently brought his brother, who is also an actor, to the NoHo arts district "to show off the neighborhood. He was very impressed." Several thousand people turned out for the opening day of the free festival Saturday. It continues today in the plaza of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences at the corner of Magnolia and Lankershim boulevards from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The event showcases an eclectic variety of professional and amateur acts on a tent-covered stage, and also features vendors selling art, crafts and food.

But the festival's main purpose is to promote NoHo's burgeoning number of theaters. There are now 15 theaters in the neighborhood, eight of which are staging scenes from current shows as part of this weekend's festivities.

Festival-goers can see the productions by hopping on a free shuttle bus that makes the rounds every 15 minutes.

"We're taking them to all the theaters not only so they can see and appreciate live theater, but to see our theaters and to know we have a number of quality theaters in the NoHo district," said Jim Mahfet, executive director of the North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, festival sponsor.

The Chamber of Commerce and other organizations, including the television academy and the Community Redevelopment Agency, have been working to clean up and promote the neighborhood as the NoHo arts district since 1980. They are now hoping Los Angeles city leaders will make it official--giving a boost to the commercial revitalization of North Hollywood.

"We're hoping the district will continue to grow and bring in more artists. They in turn will bring in more and more people to see the art," Mahfet said.

Another festival goal is to showcase promising new entertainers, said Susan Cheyno, another of the festival's organizers.

"Part of the idea is to give new groups a start and hopefully help them on their way," she said.

Cheyno pointed to Donna and Mark Foster of La Crescenta as a good example.

During the week, Donna, 38, teaches fifth grade at a Los Angeles elementary school and Mark, 38, works for a security company. On weekends, the couple play Renaissance and Celtic music using period instruments, as well as an electronic keyboard and other 1990s technology.

They have been playing at weddings, bookstores and charity gatherings for about eight years. But Saturday was one of their first opportunities to appear at such a large, well-publicized event.

It was a chance the couple eagerly grasped, despite temperatures that made for difficult work in heavy velvet and brocade costumes.

"A lot of people ask us how we cope with the heat," Donna said. "We say we drink a lot of water and just try to grin and bear it. But we both love music so we love doing this.

"And, of course, we've been working on a demo tape and CD. Make sure you mention that!" she said with a laugh.

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