L.A. Forum poised to reenter spotlight

When sports and music fans look at the Forum in Inglewood they see the glorious past — days of Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky, nights with Elvis Presley and Led Zeppelin — but more cynical souls see a creaky 43-year-old venue that long ago became a local afterthought.

Now there may be a third view of the Forum — a venue that has a chance to be fabulous once more. A big name from the East Coast is close to finalizing its purchase of the venue and plans a major refurbishment of the 18,000-seat arena, which never recovered from the 1999 departure of its signature tenants, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Kings.

The owners of Madison Square Garden in New York are in the final stages of buying the Manchester Boulevard landmark for an undisclosed price that, according to numerous industry sources, falls between $20 million and $25 million. Their plan is to sink as much as twice that amount into renovations to reestablish the Forum as a heavyweight contender on the Southern California concert scene.

"We have reached an agreement for the option to purchase the L.A. Forum, subject to due diligence and other conditions," a spokeswoman for Madison Square Garden said Thursday. She said company executives would have no further comment for now.

The transaction would be a godsend for Forum Enterprises, a for-profit arm of Faithful Central Bible Church, which paid $22 million to buy the Forum in 2000, intending to use it as a new home for its services and to build a family entertainment center that would generate jobs in an underserved area of Los Angeles. Those development plans never materialized and the huge round building lined with trademark Roman columns became a white elephant.

Marc Little, chief operating officer of Forum Enterprises, confirmed that the church reached an agreement last month to sell the Forum. But he cautioned that the deal was not finalized and that the buyers were still conducting their due diligence (a final property review is now underway with attention to asbestos and structural issues, according to sources close to the deal). Little declined to disclose the purchase price or reveal any details of the agreement.

It's a bold move for Madison Square Garden, considering the age of the venue and the tricky proposition of a music-only venture.

A rejuvenated Forum would immediately be intriguing because Staples Center — the downtown Los Angeles venue that famously lured away the Forum's pro teams — is tied up 130 days a year by sports events.

"Staples Center has a tremendous lack of available dates," said Jim Guerinot, who manages rock acts such as No Doubt, the Offspring, Trent Reznor and Robbie Robertson. "You talk about Madison Square Garden being a great challenge to get into? Staples is even more of a challenge with two basketball teams and a hockey team. So there's been a great need for the Forum."

The resuscitation of the Forum would fall to Jay Marciano, president of MSG Entertainment. Marciano has overseen a major expansion of the company's entertainment division since he came to MSG in 2005 from AEG Live, where as chief strategic officer he handled new venue development, regional operations and presided over AEG's festival division that puts on the Coachella Arts and Music Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Marciano instigated MSG's acquisition and $16-million renovation of New York's historic Beacon Theater that restored the 1929 building and upgraded its technology.

Under his watch MSG also has acquired the Chicago Theatre and entered into a co-booking arrangement of the entertainment at the Wang Theater in Boston. He is in charge of all concert, family and award shows at MSG's venues.

MSG also owns a minority interest in Front Line Management, the world's largest talent management company and part of Live Nation Entertainment. Front Line is headed by Irving Azoff, whom a number of industry sources describe as an architect of the MSG-Forum deal. Azoff did

not return requests for comment.

For nearly 30 years before the splashy $375-million Staples Center opened downtown and took the Lakers, Kings and most concerts away from Inglewood, the Forum was the arena of choice for hundreds of musicians and countless thousands of rock 'n' roll fans who lined up regularly for performances by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, the Police, Guns N' Roses and Nirvana.

Concerts and other public events, however, have been few and relatively far between since the building was purchased by Faith Central, although Green Day and Metallica have played there since the beginning of 2009.

Little said Forum Enterprises entered into discussion with Madison after a planned joint venture with the owner of Hollywood Park for a mixed-use development at the Forum fell through.

"If this deal goes through," Little said, "then the church will have done a good job in terms of its ownership of the asset and raising the opportunities for the Inglewood community in Greater Los Angeles."

The Forum opened in 1967. Its architect, Charles Luckman, also designed the new Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968. That bit of historical connection won't matter much to fans of the 1970 Lakers who will blanch at the notion of "Madison Square Garden" on the Forum's deed.

Even if the Forum regains its stature, it will need to thrive in tight times to pay off for its new owners. Overall ticket revenue in North America is expected to be down about 15% this year compared with 2009, according to Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry-tracking publication Pollstar.

Concert industry veterans are speculating about whether the Forum would strike an exclusive booking deal with Live Nation or remain available for other concert promoters.

"At Madison Square Garden they work with any promoter that wants to come in there," Bongiovanni said. "It will be interesting to see what happens with Live Nation because of [MSG Executive Chairman] Jim Dolan's close association with Irving Azoff."

While the Forum hasn't been intensely active as a concert venue, it still plays one on TV, in movies, video games and even at amusement parks. "Michael Jackson's This Is It," "Hannah Montana: The Movie," the Guitar Hero: Metallica video game and Walt Disney World's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster all use the Forum as a backdrop of one kind of another — although that may speak to the venue's availability more than its charisma.

Many music acts still have a sentimental attachment to the Forum because of its key role in the Southern California music scene over three decades. Some also prefer its acoustics and relative intimacy — Staples Center covers roughly triple the real estate, about 950,000 square feet versus the Forum's 330,000 — but many artists have avoided performing there in recent years because of a long-running labor dispute and other logistical complications.

In 2008, for instance, Neil Young canceled a Forum booking in deference to a picket line by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Roger Waters initially announced that he would bring his massive restaging of "The Wall" to the Forum when the tour reached Los Angeles, but then shifted the complicated production to Staples Center, where he just concluded a three-night stand Sunday.

Still, Tom Morello, lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, said the lack of

polish at the Forum is appealing to the rebel soul of rock.

"The Forum has been an important gathering place for Angelenos and a respite from the sterility of corporate luxury-box venues," Morello said. "I had the good fortune of sitting in those Forum seats many a time and rocking that hallowed room once or twice myself."

Guerinot said a funded and rejuvenated Forum would plug into a powerful history and future.

"It's a bona fide arena, it has the legitimate capacity of an arena, so you're able to do a house with a large audience and you can mix the room very easily," Guerinot said. "It certainly has sentimental value to people of a certain age. But the truth is, it's a great room."

Perhaps, but some onlookers have a hard time seeing anything fabulous that's left in the Forum.

David Brooks, a senior writer at industry trade

publication Venues Today, said Staples will not be easy to beat in the arena showdown.

"In Staples Center and L.A. Live you have several billion dollars invested in a very successful project in revitalized downtown Los Angeles, versus a much older arena in a nondeveloped area with safety concerns in the surrounding neighborhood," Brooks said.

He added that the Forum is still a stop for bands that elect to play there for "music industry or political reasons" or for a retro reason: "It has that old arena feel."

randy.lewis@latimes.com

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard Verrier and Roger Vincent contributed to this report.

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