VA Grounds Becoming a Staging Area

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

The Veterans Administration grounds in West L.A. have been known to L.A. theatergoers for years for the UCLA-operated Wadsworth Theater and, more recently, for summer productions of Shakespeare Festival/LA in the Japanese Gardens.

Now it looks as if the VA grounds may become even more of a Westside theater center. Producer Michael Callan is bringing a commercial production of the Allan Sherman revue "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!" into the complex's 512-seat Brentwood Theatre, which recently has been spruced up by volunteer labor from the VA hospital.

Venture West, a new theater company, is making plans to do professional productions in a 99-seat space elsewhere on the grounds. And other producers who might have even bigger plans for the Brentwood are looking into the possibilities.

The Brentwood, built in 1944 as an entertainment center for veterans at the hospital, apparently hasn't been used for professional theater, at least not within recent memory. "It fell into disrepair during the last 10 to 15 years," said Peter Roy, a sound designer and Vietnam veteran who serves as the theater's volunteer manager.


But recent volunteer efforts have "refurbished it from top to bottom," he said, with new lighting, paint and sound system. It has 325 fixed seats in back, with room for movable seating in the front, which originally was designed to accommodate wheelchair patients. It also boasts a full fly loft, three dressing rooms, a green room, a director's lounge and a box office.

It will rent for $500 to $600 a day plus technical fees, Roy said. Veterans have been trained to do some of the technical jobs, and the rental revenues will benefit veterans' projects.

Roy said that the owner of a Broadway theater is thinking about bringing in several shows and doing further renovations. He declined to identify the individual.

However, other sources said the likeliest contender is Martin Markinson, owner of the Helen Hayes Theatre, Broadway's smallest. With only 597 seats, it's not much bigger than the Brentwood.

Markinson confirmed that he's shopping for a theater in L.A. and that he looked at the Brentwood, but he also expressed doubt about its commercial viability. "It's an auditorium, not a theater, and it's hard to bring a New York show into an auditorium," he said. Nevertheless, he said the Brentwood is "a possibility, depending on how they renovate it and what kind of rental it might be."

Markinson wants to run a theater in L.A. because he believes that "a nucleus of Hollywood actors are frightened to do plays in New York" but might do them on their home turf. However, suitable commercial venues are rare, he said, especially now that the Geffen Playhouse--not far from the Brentwood and similarly sized--is used by a nonprofit theater company devoted to doing seasons of several shows, precluding long runs.

He dismissed such Westside venues as the Canon and Coronet as too small for many commercial productions, while the Wilshire in Beverly Hills is too big for the kind of production he has in mind.

The Center Theatre Group has also considered the Brentwood as the Mark Taper Forum's second space, especially since last year's plans to use a space in Santa Monica's Bergamot Station fell through. "It's an attractive space," said Taper associate artistic director Corey Madden, "but it would need a tremendous amount of renovation to meet our needs."

"I saw a jewel under a bunch of mud," said "Hello Muddah" producer Callan, recalling his first impression of the Brentwood. He acknowledged that the relatively low rental cost was one of the factors that drew him there and that the space could be considered an auditorium. But "it looks like a theater to me," he added. "It plays like a theater."


WHERE IS HE NOW? In this Christmas season, replete with many more "Christmas Carols" than usual, let's not forget Kevin Von Feldt. After two aborted attempts to mount all-star "Carol" productions in earlier years--which collapsed amid angry charges of nonpayment from various creditors--Von Feldt finally opened a "Christmas Carol" in 1994 at Pasadena's Raymond Theatre. It seemed like a Christmas miracle, given his earlier efforts.

But not everyone remembers it fondly. Sir John Gielgud's attorneys are still pursuing Von Feldt, seeking $100,000 in remaining payment (plus additional charges) for the British icon's taped narration. The Sacramento Theatre Co. has filed a lawsuit charging that Von Feldt rented costumes for the production and never paid for them or returned them. The local stagehands' union wants $40,000 in penalties and attorneys' fees incurred in late payments to its members who worked on "Carol."

Von Feldt calls occasionally and promises to complete his payment, said one of Gielgud's attorneys. "But he never leaves a number and he never tells you where he is, so you can never reach him."


KELLER AT LA JOLLA: Neel Keller has been named artistic associate at La Jolla Playhouse. A former artistic director of Chicago's Remains Theatre, he will assist artistic director Michael Greif with season planning, project development and casting and direct one large-scale show in the 1997 season.


CHANGE OF REP: Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director Sharon Ott is moving to the same position with the Seattle Repertory Theatre next year. Ott is best known in the Southland for staging Philip Kan Gotanda's work ("The Ballad of Yachiyo" at South Coast Repertory, "The Wash" at the Mark Taper Forum, "Yankee Dawg, You Die" at Los Angeles Theatre Center) and for "The Woman Warrior" at the Doolittle Theatre. Seattle's Dan Sullivan, also familiar to Southland audiences (most recently, as director of "Psychopathia Sexualis" at the Taper), had earlier announced that he would leave after this season.

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