A Noise Within sounds a new move

Times Staff Writer

The former Masonic Temple in downtown Glendale is an old, decrepit and some say haunted building -- a venue perhaps more suited to Hollywood horror flicks than the plays of Shakespeare, Beckett or Moliere.

For nearly 17 years, the nine-story structure on Brand Boulevard has served as home to the classical theater company A Noise Within. And for most of that time, the building has lived up to its horror-movie image: Electrical blackouts, mysterious drifters and dead birds in the attic are just some of the problems that have plagued the critically acclaimed theater company during its residency.

After years of looking for a more hospitable location -- and one that could accommodate its growing audience -- A Noise Within says it has secured half of the $16 million needed to build a new space in East Pasadena.

Scheduled to be completed in spring 2010, the 35,000-square-foot theater will reside in the Stuart Pharmaceutical Building, a midcentury modern landmark designed by architect Edward Durell Stone, on Foothill Boulevard.

A Noise Within will construct a three-floor facility at the west end of the mixed-use complex. The centerpiece will be a performance space with 350 seats, more than double the company’s seating capacity in the Masonic Temple.


The parcel of land, worth an estimated $2 million, was donated by David Worrell of SMV Technology Partners, which owns the Stuart Pharmaceutical Building. Under a deal with Pasadena, SMV made the donation to A Noise Within in exchange for the city’s assistance in its plans to convert the remainder of the building into apartment units.

Other funding for the new theater is coming from the Ahmanson Foundation, the Weingart Foundation, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation and individual donors.

Feud with City Council

The move will be a welcome change for A Noise Within, but it also represents the latest episode in a continuing feud with the City Council in Glendale, which the company contends has neglected its needs over the years.

“Our sense is that this City Council has a begrudging tolerance for us and nothing more,” says Geoff Elliott, A Noise Within’s cofounder and artistic director with his wife, Julia Rodriguez-Elliott.

The Elliotts say their relationship with the council soured in 2000 after A Noise Within decamped from the Masonic Temple to reside at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State L.A.

When that arrangement fell through after a year because of repeated clashes with university officials, the company returned to Glendale.

“When we came back, it was a different climate. People who had supported us were no longer there,” says Rodriguez-Elliott.

According to the Elliotts, an attempt to relocate A Noise Within to a space in downtown Glendale -- near Broadway and Louise Street -- became too costly when the city wanted them to build a parking structure underneath the property, which itself was a parking lot.

Jim Starbird, Glendale city manager, describes the Elliotts’ claims as “unfortunate” and adds that the city has cooperated several times with A Noise Within in its search for a new residence. “Once they decided to move to Pasadena, we haven’t tried to keep them here,” he says. “In all candor, we haven’t worked with them since then.”

The space in the Stuart Pharmaceutical building became available in 2006 thanks to the intervention of Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, a longtime fan of the theater company who learned about their search through a mutual contact. Bogaard, along with the city’s director of planning and development, Richard Bruckner, helped broker the deal between A Noise Within and the building owner. The City Council has already approved the building plans, and construction is scheduled to begin early next year, pending an architectural review.

Because A Noise Within performs classic plays without amplification, a primary concern is the acoustics of the structure. The lead design firm, Berry/Keller Architects, says walls will be angled to reflect speech, and catwalks above the stage will come equipped with sound reflectors.

“The goal is to retain the intimate feel that A Noise Within is known for,” says John Berry, a partner at the architecture firm.

Backstage space is another priority. In the Masonic Temple, the company must construct sets on the first floor and carry them up six flights of stairs. The sets have to be built in 8-foot lengths to allow the crews to make the turns going up the stairs. In the new theater, the set and costume shops will be behind the stage.

New amenities mean A Noise Within will be able to tackle plays it has avoided, such as “Antony and Cleopatra,” which demand larger scale productions. More space also means they won’t have to turn away audiences -- the company’s education program for local schools now operates at capacity for 10,000 students annually.

The new building will mark the first time that A Noise Within has owned its own theater. For the last 17 years, the company has informally leased the Masonic Temple from the owners, Frank De Pietro and Sons, for a symbolic sum of $1 per year, although A Noise Within has had to pay all ongoing expenses. Once A Noise Within leaves the temple, the owners plan to convert it into residential and office spaces.

The Elliotts say they have no sentimental feelings for the Masonic Temple, although the building has provided its share of memories.

A ghost liked the play

During a performance several years ago of Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” actors say they saw a ghost standing on the corner of the stage. The ghost didn’t disturb the performance; it stood quietly upstage right, listening peacefully to the play.

A production of “Oedipus Rex” turned farcical when the lack of hot running water in the temple forced the lead actor to wash off his bloody makeup in a kiddie pool just before the curtain call.

“The Masonic Temple is a structure in disrepair,” says Rodriguez-Elliott. “When we move to Pasadena, it will be nice to have people come because of the building, not in spite of the building.”