PERFORMING ARTS : Defying the Odds : In a career that has spanned half a century, James A. Doolittle challenged his dancers and his audiences. Now, after beating cancer, he’s back on the job.

<i> Lewis Segal is The Times' dance writer</i>

Ten years ago, James A. Doolittle learned that he had cancer and only a 50% chance of survival. At that time, he could look back on four decades of producing opera, ballet, theater and pop music on local stages--and of turning the Greek Theatre, the Biltmore and the Huntington Hartford into thriving playhouses after each of them had floundered under previous management.

Accepting the odds against him, he sold the Hartford to the Music Center and UCLA that year--reserving the right to office space there and a certain number of weeks each season for Doolittle productions “if things,” as he says, “worked out.” The theater was renamed in his honor but, under the circumstances, the tribute carried funereal overtones.

As it happens, things worked out splendidly. Today, the healthy, energetic Doolittle, who gives his age as 76, occupies a spacious West Hollywood office, surrounded by Asian sculpture, post-Impressionist paintings and photos of him with a whole constellation of 20th-Century star performers.

More to the point, he’s become the dance tenant of the Los Angeles Music Center: Mr. Nutcracker since 1992 and also the man who brought Dorothy Chandler Pavilion audiences Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, the San Francisco Ballet “Romeo and Juliet,” the Royal Ballet “Swan Lake” and, oh yes, the Joffrey Ballet “Billboards” and the Radio City Rockettes.


Mixing the highfalutin’ with the lowbrow is one Doolittle habit that his critics invariably seize upon--along with all those pages in his program booklets itemizing his achievements.

But there’s an intriguing story you can’t find in the lists, one you can piece together only by listening to Doolittle’s anecdotes and shop talk: the story of a USC jock who took a class in drama because he heard it was easy and discovered something about his own nature he never suspected. The story of a USC dropout who ran a golf shop in Beverly Hills and became a self-made impresario when a customer asked his help in raising money for a musical about Tchaikovsky called “Song Without Words.”

“I’d never read a script before,” Doolittle recalls, “but I was fascinated by the whole thing. So everybody who came in, from the janitor on up, I tried to sell an interest in the show. Seventy-five thousand dollars is what they needed--it would take more than half a million today--and when I eventually got a good portion of it, in bits, they asked me to produce it.

“It turned out pretty well: It played here for four weeks and four in San Francisco and got some fairly good reviews in New York. So that initiated my interest in dance and opera.”

That was 1945. Now, a half-century later, Doolittle has productions running or recently closed in New York (“Picasso at the Lapin Agile”), San Francisco (“Forever Tango”), on tour in Universal City, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Denver (Ballet Folklorico de Mexico)--and at three Los Angeles theaters: He produced “Assassins” with the L.A. Repertory Company at the L.A. Theatre Center; with Center Theatre Group, he brought “Angels in America” to the Doolittle; and his plans for the Pavilion go beyond the Dec. 20-27 Joffrey “Nutcracker” engagement to a financially risky Pina Bausch project (shared with UCLA) in 1996. The idea is to have the feminist queen of German dance-theater stage a world premiere right here.

Doolittle says that the Pavilion “is ideal for major dance and I’m not too interested in playing dance anywhere else.” However, it can be frustrating working there. “With two-thirds of the [Pavilion] schedule taken up by the Philharmonic, the opera and other commitments, it’s been very difficult to book major [dance] shows there,” he says. “There are only a handful of weeks left.”

He estimates that dance at the Pavilion must average $100,000 a performance in ticket sales just to break even, and he is particularly bitter about the 5% L.A. County tax on such income.

“It’s brutal,” he says. “I think there should be a cap on it. Because cultural things always cost [a lot of] money and you have to get a higher revenue in return.”

Doolittle’s relationship with Music Center management goes back to 1965, when he presented the first ballet performance in the facility. Sandra Kimberling, the current president of the Music Center Operating Company, says he was invited in 1992 to become the resident dance presenter there because “we had no real dance-presenting vehicle after the Joffrey left [as a Music Center resident company] and there were no funds for dance within the Music Center.”

“We had worked together before and he has an absolute passion for dance. He has the connections and respect with the dance companies. And he has the money.”

To finance his productions, Doolittle draws upon a fund he estimates at “at least $2 million” from the nonprofit Southern California Theatre Assn., which he and friends founded shortly after he switched from presenting opera in other people’s venues and leased the Greek Theatre from the city of Los Angeles in 1952. The leasing arrangement lasted for 23 years.

“The money that we have today has all come from what we generated in the nets off our shows back then,” he says. “We’re the only nonprofit that’s never had a fund-raising drive.”

The secret of his success? Low overhead and the habit of supporting high-deficit endeavors such as opera and ballet with high-grossing pop attractions. "[At the Greek], our operation was very small as far as administration and staff,” he says. “It was not top-heavy like most nonprofit institutions. And we were making the money on the Harry Belafontes [12 sold-out engagements] and Neil Diamonds. We had Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, Judy Garland--all the big stars.”

The parlay may have worked at the box office, but it lost Doolittle points with the tastemakers who insisted that genuine impresarios specialize. You’re not supposed to mix high culture and popular entertainment, Euro-American opera house attractions with the traditional performing arts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

But Doolittle liked grand opera and the Peking Opera, so he produced both--in the process becoming multicultural long before anyone coined that word or deemed it a virtue.

For example, if you thought the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival was the first time anyone brought Los Angeles audiences a major production of Greek tragedy in Greek, or Giorgio Strehler’s sublime Piccolo Teatro di Milano, think again. Doolittle did it, nearly a quarter-century earlier. He also presented the first visits of the Grand Kabuki of Japan. And the Royal Danish Ballet. And the Comedie Francaise. He even mounted ballet and opera from the ground up, allowing local artists to work with international stars.

Some of his bookings still seem certifiably demented: Balanchine’s New York City Ballet “Nutcracker” at the Greek in the middle of summer, for instance. Even Balanchine tried to talk him out of that, he says. But it proved the hit of the 1954 season and had to be repeated the next year--and twice after that.

If these kind of attractions seem tantalizing today, they were a revelation in the late 1950s and early ‘60s when Doolittle proved especially daring at the Greek and also ran, for its last five years, the Biltmore Theatre. (It was demolished in 1964, the same year Doolittle bought the Hartford.)

Someone growing up in Los Angeles at that time could obtain, in advance, a student pass to any of these performances. The price: a dollar a ticket. Today there’s no student rush policy that offers anything like the range of choices he made available--much less the cost and convenience.

This gift of access may be Doolittle’s ultimate achievement: making it possible for surfer boys or Valley girls to check out something they saw advertised--Alvin Ailey, perhaps, or the National Theatre of Great Britain--and walk out of the theater with a whole new set of perceptions and priorities.

“I’m proudest of that,” Doolittle says when surveying his career. It was certainly worth renaming a theater in his honor. Or maybe even sitting through “Billboards” and the Radio City Rockettes.