SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Facing the Music : Some are no longer singing the praises of Torrance's arts complex, which has failed to establish a clear-cut niche.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the curtain first rose on Torrance's city-built arts center, patrons hailed the emergence of a new cultural maturity in the South Bay.

Guests in evening attire hobnobbed outside the center on that cool October evening in 1991, murmuring admiringly about the glistening glass-walled lobby, the plush maroon theater seats, the Japanese garden where tangerine-hued koi glided through shimmering pools.

Yet when the opening hoopla subsided, the $13-million Torrance Cultural Arts Center and its 500-seat theater seemed to fade from public view. Although performances continue and guests keep coming, the center has never achieved the front-and-center prominence that many in Torrance believe it deserves.

Now, its low profile has come to haunt the center, as recession-bruised Torrance seeks to cut spending. With an annual deficit of $700,000, the center budget is an easy target for critics. City officials, meanwhile, are finding that running an arts center can generate more headaches than curtain calls.

Many in the South Bay arts community speak in glowing terms of the 64,000-square-foot complex, which includes the theater named for former Mayor James Armstrong, a community meeting hall, a music room and eight dance and arts studios clustered around an open-air plaza and stage.

But the center has been faulted for failing to establish a clear-cut niche for itself.

Even its location is obscure, perched behind City Hall with its back turned to busy Madrona Avenue, reached via a blur of parking lots, marked by hard-to-see blue signs, its address--3330 Civic Center Drive--hard to find even for Torrance residents.

"The biggest problem has been that Torrance has not found a way to make the James Armstrong Theatre known as a place to go," said Robert Guest, president of the South Bay Light Opera Society.

"I can't tell you how many people say to me, ' What Torrance Cultural Arts Center? There's a new theater?' " said Diane Lauridsen, director of the South Bay Ballet.

Center supporters remain confident that the complex will fulfill its early promise. They hasten to note that fully half the $700,000 deficit can be blamed on the recent transfer of costly parks and recreation classes into the center budget. The theater alone, they report, is nearly breaking even.

Even so, center spending is now being scrutinized by the city manager's office, with recommendations due out in May on how to shave the deficit.

The debate unfolding in Torrance reflects the national tug-of-war over government involvement in the arts. Just as some in Washington are questioning the role of the National Endowment for the Arts, some in Torrance wonder whether a cash-strapped city should support a stage for local arts groups.

While no one is suggesting the center close its doors, some assert it should be self-supporting.

"We call it the white elephant, because it just isn't generating any money," said Detective Ed Estrada, president of the Torrance Police Officers Assn.

Others, however, talk optimistically of the new foundation formed to raise money for the center, of recent management changes, of tentative plans for better promotion and for a summer arts series to spotlight the complex.

"The total center is in need of marketing. It has tremendous potential," said former Mayor Katy Geissert, who championed the project and now heads the new foundation.

Indeed, some arts supporters hope the debate will actually aid the center by forcing the city to actively advertise it and make it more accessible to local groups, even if that means investing more funds.

Artists praise the theater's acoustics, its lighting system, the dance studios' sprung wood floors that are specially constructed to absorb the shock of dancers' jumps and leaps.

Yet some fault the city for setting its sights too low and not seeking the outside professional talent such as now featured on new city-owned stages in Cerritos and Thousand Oaks.

Others insist the theater was intended to showcase local talent, not glitzy professional shows. Even so, leaders of several local arts groups report that for artists operating on a shoestring, the center is too pricey and bureaucratic.

This tension was highlighted on the center's opening night when some guests questioned the choice of Susan Anton as the gala's headliner. Some dismissed the singer as too minor league; others labeled her an out-of-towner supplanting local talent that should have opened the center.

One difficulty with building a public theater is making all the players happy. Some say the Armstrong Theatre is too small. Others say it is too large.

With only 500 seats, the theater is too small for major road shows like those frequently featured in Cerritos, Thousand Oaks or the Los Angeles Music Center. (As one artist put it: "Cerritos built the performing arts center that . . . we wish Torrance had had the courage to build.")

The Armstrong Theatre even proved too small for the Torrance Symphony, which continues to hold concerts at the 975-seat Torrance High School auditorium.

"Technically, it's a great space. But it's a 747 with 35 seats in it," said James A. Blackman, executive producer of the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, which he helped found in 1992.

He said he had eagerly awaited the opening of the Torrance center, envisioning it as the ideal home for the approaching South Bay light opera group.

But because of the Armstrong's small size, he estimates he would have been forced to charge nearly $60 a seat to make ends meet. So Civic Light Opera blossomed instead at Redondo Beach's old Aviation High School auditorium, which offered 1,425 seats. Now 3 years old, the light opera is hailed as a South Bay success story.

"I have nothing against Torrance, and I think the cultural arts center was a dynamite idea," Blackman said. "We wanted to be there, and if they ever float a bond and break the top off and hang a balcony in there . . ."

By contrast, the Torrance Community Theatre found the Armstrong too large for its purposes. The community group has been homeless since 1992, when its 130-seat theater building in Old Downtown Torrance fell prey to the redevelopment wrecking ball, its site blacktopped to become a parking lot. Today the group's props are jammed into a warehouse while its leaders search for a new stage.

The theater group has twice staged productions at the Armstrong Theatre, lost money both times and has no plans to return.

The group's vice president, Allan Ruppar, said the Armstrong felt cavernous compared to its old quarters. "Many of the shows we like to do simply wouldn't work out on a big stage like that."

Ruppar also recalls "complexities at the box office," such as a long delay in receiving ticket receipts from the city.

Some say the city simply needs to think creatively, that 500 seats is an appropriate size for many kinds of shows.

"I don't think it really has reached its potential," said Ron Scarlata, theater instructor at El Camino College, who suggests such steps as a larger publicity budget and a children's series. He thinks Torrance officials have been reluctant to put money into the theater.

"It takes a little money to bring money in," Scarlata said.

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From the start, building the center was a financial and political struggle.

As Torrance's population swelled in the 1950s and 1960s, arts advocates lobbied for a cultural center that would reflect the suburban city's new status. But the project stalled when architects proposed a theater $7 million over budget. The city fired the architect and started over.

Such tribulations made that 1991 opening night all the sweeter for backers such as ex-Mayor Geissert, who called the new center "the completion of a circle for Torrance as a complete city."

Torrance sought a modest center, in keeping with its low-key character and emphasis on local talent.

The complex has not stood empty, assert city officials, pointing to a newly redesigned calendar as proof that events are scheduled almost daily. Most events are produced by local groups, from the Rolling Hills Yamaha Music Center to the Torrance Civic Chorale. Many of them draw an audience of about 200.

Those favoring a local focus for the Torrance center say that national talent is already available at El Camino College's South Bay Center for the Arts, just north of the city.

But some local groups wish the city would tout center events, whether through regular advertisements in local newspapers or by constructing a prominent sign to attract motorists' attention.

The center's $968,000 budget includes less than $20,000 for promotion and mailing. Its full-time staff consists of five people with more than 40 part-timers working as needed on such jobs as operating spotlights and cleaning the koi pond.

Some artists talk of organizational problems at the center. Many praise theater manager Bob Stewart, but say his efforts appear to be hampered by limited funding. Some support the hiring of a full-time stage manager, explaining that the use of part-time crew members can foster problems.

For example, microphones have occasionally failed during performances by the Los Cancioneros Master Chorale, a community chorus. And a crucial set of stairs disappeared before they were to be used by Cinderella in a performance by the South Bay Ballet.

Some groups reported delays of weeks or even months in being paid box-office receipts. Under the current system, the city commonly sells tickets for performances, subtracts rent and issues a check to the performing group. The South Bay Master Chorale waited six weeks for its receipts from a Feb. 11 concert. And for arts groups on shoestring budgets, such delays can be perilous.

"What really grinds on a person is, it's our money," said Guest at the South Bay Light Opera Society, which has waited as long as five weeks for its check. "Things like this should be handled in two weeks, tops."

Philip Tilden, who took over managing the center last fall, says he is working to streamline the payment system.

"I guarantee that will change," Tilden said. He also hopes to improve promotion, add signs and install a computerized signboard on Madrona Avenue. Already some groups are praising recent improvements in box office hours and the launching of "Works in Progress," a new city-sponsored series of contemporary theater, poetry and music performed by a variety of Los Angeles-area artists.

Still, other groups report their slim budgets can be strained by the theater's charges for rent, which range from $150 to $500 per performance, and crew, which can run more than $600 per performance, with more for rehearsals. The South Bay Master Chorale's business manager, Marcia Armstrong, says she typically adds $1,000 to $1,500 to her budget to pay the city when a concert is slated for the Armstrong Theatre.

The South Bay Chamber Music Society made overtures to the city about two years ago, only to decide to keep its 10 annual concerts at Harbor College.

"It took me months to get anyone to pay attention," said Erwin Fishman, recalling his efforts to speak to Torrance officials. "And the costs would have been prohibitive to us."

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Leaders of the new Torrance Cultural Arts Center Foundation hope to be able to underwrite some costs for certain productions by local, regional or even national groups. Funding will be sought from corporate and private donors.

The foundation is requesting proposals for a summer series, perhaps kicked off with a gala opening and a "clearly recognizable performer," said Geissert, who also talks of a possible open-air Shakespearean production in the plaza.

Arts advocates say the foundation may provide the dose of adrenaline--and money--that the center needs.

"I perceive in six months to a year, people will say, 'Things are going well there,' " said Ritas Smith, a financial planner and the foundation's treasurer. "I think it's going to surprise the community."

While arts fund raising can be tough in these hard economic times, supporters hope the center's assets--the acoustics, the floors, the garden--will win over potential donors.

Already the Torrance Symphony is taking a new look at the Armstrong Theatre. Stung by the recession, the symphony recently ended its tradition of free concerts and began charging admission, said Peggy Dowell, president of the Torrance Symphony Assn. The result: more income but an audience that had dwindled from nearly 1,000 to as few as 450 to 500 people on a recent rainy Saturday.

Ironically, Dowell said, the shrinkage may allow the symphony to fit comfortably in the Armstrong.

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