Dark Days for the Arts

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No opening-night jitters or triumphant curtain calls--not for any of the aspiring singers, actors and musicians in of 1997, whose high-school careers will end without their ever performing in the school's 900-seat auditorium.

Condemned after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the 42-year-old Henry Mayo Newhall Auditorium has remained closed due to a legal dispute between the local school district and its insurance company.

In the three years since the quake, not a word of dialogue has been spoken nor a single note sung there by students or any of the local performing-arts groups that also relied on the facility.

The auditorium, the only indoor facility in the Santa Clarita Valley able to seat more than 500 people, was "the most important building in the community," said Sue Trock, a leader of the Hart High School Foundation, a group dedicated to raising funds to rebuild the auditorium.

On Wednesday, the foundation got help from 200 performers, who tapped, sang and danced to raise $8,000 during a talent show at Magic Mountain.

That leaves a lot of singing and dancing to go to meet the repair bill of more than $1 million.

But "one way or another, we're going to have a new auditorium," Trock declared.

So why have Santa Clarita's future Vladimir Horowitzes and Meryl Streeps been pushed out on the streets?

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A dispute over whether the William S. Hart Union High School District acted too late to file a damage claim with its insurance company following the Jan. 17, 1994, temblor has blocked reconstruction efforts.

RLI Insurance Co. of Peoria, Ill., says the school district waited almost two years before notifying it of the quake damage--much too long for the company to honor the district's $2-million policy, according to Tom Trent, property claims director for RLI.

"They were supposed to report proof of loss within 90 days," Trent said. "They did not. They had 12 months to file suit and they didn't do that either. Contractually, we feel very confident."

Officials from the school district said they waited so long to file partly because they didn't realize the damage was severe enough to report and partly because they didn't realize the auditorium was insured.

Bill Maddigan, director of business for the district, said he didn't report the damage at first because initial assessments to the school were relatively low, less than the insurance policy's deductible, and the district believed there was no coverage on the auditorium. After inspections months later, the estimated cost of rebuilding the rest of the school began to rise.

"The district is responsible [for its problem] to a certain extent," said district Supt. Robert Lee. "We should have taken a look at the policy."

But Maddigan said he informed the insurance agency that sold the district the policy in 1988, Arthur J. Gallagher Co., several months after the quake, after learning that the damage was more severe than first thought.

Maddigan claims that Gallagher failed to report the quake damage to RLI and to provide a copy of the policy to the district.

Representatives of Gallagher could not be reached but, in a letter to Trock, Gallagher attorney Robert S. Schulman declared that it was the firm's policy not to comment publicly on disagreements "but to permit the civil justice system to resolve disputes. . . ."

In the fall of 1995, inspectors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked to see insurance policies covering damage at the school, just before FEMA was about to fund repair costs for the auditorium. Supt. Lee said the broker sent copies in October of that year, and it was only then that the district learned the auditorium was covered, along with the main school buildings.

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RLI officials were finally informed--22 months after the earthquake--but by then it was too late, they said.

"I was dumbfounded," Maddigan said on learning that RLI was refusing to pay. "The policy was in force. It was paid up and current and for them not to pay, in my opinion, is unjust."

The district tried for a year to negotiate with Gallagher and RLI but got more bad news from FEMA officials. They said they couldn't provide funds for any insured property but they would pay most of the $4.8-million repair costs for the school's gymnasium--which wasn't insured. The gymnasium was completed last December.

Officials from FEMA did not return phone calls from The Times.

So, while the uninsured but rebuilt gym is rumbling with activity, the insured auditorium languishes. According to Timothy Dillon, attorney for the school district, the case could take another year to resolve.

While the major players continue to maneuver, Santa Clarita's performing arts suffer, Trock and others say.

"Everybody worries about sports," said Gail Hart, a member of the Hart High School Foundation. "But the arts are suffering."

Community dance schools, opera groups and acting ensembles as well as Hart students have been forced to perform in backyards, trek to auditoriums in the San Fernando Valley or farther, or simply cancel their productions, said Hart Principal Laurence Strauss.

"We've had to be very creative," he said. "The community has been displaced because of the loss of the auditorium."

Strauss also said the school's former drama and music teachers quit and took jobs elsewhere, partly due to continued delays in the auditorium's reconstruction.

Amy Smith, 17, a Hart junior who said she wants to act on Broadway someday, is forced to take bows on a makeshift stage in a Newhall backyard. Hart's performing arts department is attracting fewer students than it once did and the school's poor facilities are to blame, she said.

"We can't perform musicals," Amy lamented. "Backyards don't really have good acoustics."

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People like Carla Hunt--owner of Dance Studio 84, a jazz, tap and ballet school with more than 700 students--have had to transport lighting, sound and stage equipment, costumes as well as their fans to Glendale.

"Glendale High School's auditorium is great," Hunt said. "But the long drive limits the time we can rehearse. . . . We lose a lot of the community attendance because of it too."

Those who would otherwise use the Hart auditorium can sometimes turn to the 3,000-seat partially enclosed amphitheater at Magic Mountain. But according to Hunt and Trock, the amusement park charges nearly $1,000 for a typical two-hour event, the amphitheater is difficult to book in the busy summer season and it's cold outdoors in the winter.

Soundbites, the choral group that Amy belongs to, had to cancel a choir competition it holds annually at Hart to raise money because it couldn't afford Magic Mountain's fees, she said. Last year, the group held it there and barely broke even, she said.

For Wednesday night's fund-raising talent show, Magic Mountain donated the use of the amphitheater, Trock said.

"Magic Mountain has been great," she said. "But this community needs its auditorium back."

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