Historic theater's revival falters

Times Staff Writer

A downtown Los Angeles theater that has hosted some of the biggest names in entertainment since the 1920s but struggled in recent decades is once again in search of a white knight -- one who could pay $12.5 million to buy it.

The Variety Arts Center was purchased in early 2007 by the former owner of the Pasadena Playhouse, David Houk, who hoped to stage plays and musicals in the historic five-story building at Figueroa and Ninth streets.

But Houk was unable to secure the federal tax credits he had hoped would help fund restoration and operation, he said, so now he must sell it or find a new partner willing to buy into his dream of bringing the old stage back to life.

"We have spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out how to get to the next level of financing," Houk said, "but the market is not well."

Completed in 1924 by the Friday Morning Club, an organization for socially elite women, the Italian Renaissance-style structure was the scene of some of the top plays in the country but became a neighborhood nuisance.

The Friday Morning Club added a library, a dining room for 500, an art gallery, offices and meeting rooms. The playhouse "at all times will offer leading New York and London stage stars in their latest and most successful plays," the club promised.

It later became known as Figueroa Playhouse, and among those treading the boards through the years were vaudeville and Hollywood superstars such as Ed Wynn, Dick Powell and Clark Gable.

The owner of Hollywood's Magic Castle, Milt Larsen, attempted to reopen it as a vaudeville club in the 1980s but sold it in 1988 as the long-promised revival of downtown's South Park neighborhood failed to materialize. By the 1990s it was known as a high-decibel night music venue and source of frequent complaints to the police.

Now the blocks near the theater are filled with new residential units, and the $2.5-billion L.A. Live entertainment complex is rising almost across the street. The Variety Arts auditorium is smaller than the nightclub and theater performance spaces at L.A. Live and could be a complementary venue, said real estate broker Derrick Moore of CB Richard Ellis.

"Or you could turn it into a high-end supper club," said Moore, who represents Houk and his partner, Robert Abassi of RTI Properties. Potential buyers might include music and theater impresarios or even a church, Moore said.

Houk is also the developer of Park Fifth, a $1-billion high-rise condominium and hotel complex planned for a site overlooking downtown's Pershing Square. Houk said he will break ground on the project next year if he can secure funding. It would be completed in 2012, by which time the housing market may have recovered.

"We are confident we will be in a different world by then," Houk said.



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