THEATER NOTES : Long Beach Looks Past Bankruptcy

Decades ago, Los Angeles Civic Light Opera set the standard for West Coast musical theater productions. Recently, however, LACLO has been mostly a booker of touring shows produced elsewhere.

Long Beach Civic Light Opera took over as the most prominent home-grown, musicals-only producer in the Southland. Now, with LBCLO filing bankruptcy papers, who'll take that title?

One possibility raised last week was the idea of an overarching organization that would tour shows to several Southland sites.

Wait a second: Isn't that the same idea that last year torpedoed the Theatre Corp. of America, the Pasadena-based outfit that launched a musical circuit headquartered at the Alex Theatre in Glendale?

Not if this new multi-venue organization uses existing audiences, such as the 22,000 subscribers in Long Beach. By contrast, Theatre Corp. tried to build fresh subscription audiences in several cities simultaneously.

No one knows if this scenario might happen. But last week, while discussing how to bring LBCLO back from bankruptcy, the Opera's laid-off executive director J. Phillip Keene emphasized co-productions.

He said Long Beach has been "conducting conversations over the years" with Mark Edelman, who runs Theater League, which produces shows at the Alex and Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. Theater League is the only company that regularly produces Southland musicals with an Actors' Equity contract comparable to Long Beach's.

Edelman, for his part, said that including Long Beach in his circuit "could produce the successor to the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera." Unlike the old LACLO, this new creature wouldn't be centrally located. But Edelman said it would bring musical theater closer to the bulk of the fans. "Maybe this programming is more accessible to the audience in the suburbs," he said.

On the other hand, Edelman also noted that co-productions with LBCLO "would be difficult right now, given their financial situation." The LBCLO debt is $275,000, and its outgoing producing artistic director, Luke Yankee, predicted that Long Beach CLO won't make a comeback "unless a major donor gives it a million dollars."

Keene suggested another possible problem for the proposed alliance: The 3,117-seat Long Beach Terrace Theater is larger ("a blessing and a curse," Keene said) than the Thousand Oaks Probst Auditorium or the Alex. Could the same shows fit such different spaces? No problem, Edelman said--he already takes his Southland shows to a 2,600-seat hall in Phoenix.

Keene also expressed doubt about being third in the Southland line for productions. But Edelman contended that multi-venue productions would attract more area-wide publicity and that the Thousand Oaks, Glendale and Long Beach audiences don't overlap--"there is a lot of growing room."

Audience growing room has been a problem for Long Beach, Keene said. Perched on the coast, the Long Beach facility cannot draw from a circle extending 20 miles in every direction, as inland venues might. Such competitors as Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities recently sprouted within the area north of the Long Beach theater, Keene added.

The LBCLO's other options range from trying to attract mega-stars to retreating into community theater status, Keene said. Even before bankruptcy, the company considered reducing the length of the runs to cut costs--or increasing the number of productions to generate revenue. Less costly productions at the smaller Center Theater behind the mammoth Terrace Theater are another possibility.

Keene denied his former colleague Yankee's charges of administrative fumbling. He acknowledged that LBCLO failed to hire a development director, but "it wasn't for lack of trying." Keene also said "everyone was stunned" at the slump in single ticket sales for the last show, the Yankee-directed "Nite Club Confidential."

Although LBCLO board president Eugene Johnson said some laid-off employees would be re-hired, don't look for Yankee to be among them. "So many bridges have been burned," Yankee said, that he doesn't expect to return.

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