Loss of Shubert Alters Face of L.A. Theater

TIMES THEATER WRITER

At first, the news of the proposed demolition of the Shubert Theatre in Century City may look like a case of "out with the old, in with the new."

The "old" in this case, the Shubert itself, is 30 years old. On Monday, real estate developers confirmed that they plan to raze the theater--after the Shubert Organization's lease runs out in September 2002--as well as the rest of the ABC Entertainment Center. Two office buildings will go up on the site. Only the underground parking garage is expected to survive.

In the world of commercial theater in Los Angeles, the "new" is the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, scheduled to open in November. The new theater will be home to the Academy Awards broadcast in March. Managers of the Kodak already have booked a run next spring of "The Full Monty"--a musical that might have played the Shubert a decade ago.

The closing of the Shubert will mark the first demolition of a major Los Angeles "legit" theater since the razing of the downtown Philharmonic Auditorium in 1985.

"It's a big loss for Los Angeles theater," said Peter Schneider, producer of "The Lion King," which opened at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in October 2000. "The Kodak is as yet untried."

Anschutz Entertainment officials, who operate the Kodak, could not be reached.

No show would be able to last as long as a year at the Kodak, because the Academy Awards will require any long-term tenant to get out for at least three weeks each spring. And the Kodak's managers are planning an eclectic menu that also includes concerts and other awards shows.

The closing of the Shubert, the opening of the Kodak and the continuing presence of "The Lion King" at the Pantages may well establish Hollywood as the locus of big-time commercial theater in Los Angeles, although the Ahmanson Theatre downtown also hosts a number of first-run Broadway tours.

Lawrence O'Connor, general manager of the Shubert from 1991 to 1999, said, "What they tried to do at the Shubert has not been done in L.A. or hardly anywhere else in the country outside New York. For a large part of its history, it was solely devoted to long, commercial runs without benefit of funding from a nonprofit or from subscriptions.

"The Shubert's history was a microcosm of commercial theater in L.A.," he said. "Sometimes it was a huge success; sometimes there were a lot of empty seats and dark nights."

When producer Garth Drabinsky presented the U.S. premiere of "Ragtime" at the Shubert in 1997 and then continued to run the show there even after another "Ragtime" company opened on Broadway, there was talk that he was attempting the decentralization of commercial theater away from New York. However, the talk dissipated when the L.A. "Ragtime" closed a few months after the Broadway opening, amid charges that Drabinsky had fudged the box-office reports.

After "Ragtime," fewer road tours of big musicals were being produced, and the decision by Schneider and Disney Theatricals to play L.A.'s version of "The Lion King" at the Pantages instead of the Shubert was seen by many observers as a potentially fatal blow for the Shubert.

However, the New York-based Shubert Organization tried to keep the theater going by announcing a subscription series of limited runs, including the current "Kiss Me, Kate."

Gordon Davidson, producer-artistic director of the Ahmanson Theatre, said that as recently as last Friday, Shubert Chairman Gerald Schoenfeld told him that he was still trying to negotiate the fate of the Shubert with the property developers.

Davidson said that he believes the decision was ultimately "all about real estate. It has nothing to do with the occupancy rate of the theater."

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