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The Boom In L.a. Theaters: Will It Turn Out A Bust?


Never has Los Angeles seen such a boom in theater construction and renovation.

All over the city, theaters are being planned to improve neighborhoods, humanize shopping centers, massage egos--and even stage plays. From Venice to Northridge, Santa Monica to downtown, entrepreneurs talk optimistically of opening 30 theater spaces in the next five years.

All that's missing are the plays to fill the stages, the money to produce the plays and the audiences to see them.

"There are lots of facilities not being filled on a regular basis now, and we're talking about building new ones," says Edward Weston, western regional director of Actors' Equity. "I'm fearful that we've returned to the edifice complex of spending money on buildings rather than building acting companies."

The theatrical landscape is changing fast.

Some of the projects are huge, such as the $85.5-million Orange County Performing Arts Center under construction in Costa Mesa and a planned $72-million, two-location performing arts complex in the San Fernando Valley. At least five are tucked into multimillion-dollar real estate developments. The $15-million, four-theater Los Angeles Theatre Center opens on Spring Street in September, and the City of Beverly Hills has budgeted two theaters in its new civic-center complex.

It looks like a great idea: Los Angeles is the nation's second-largest theater market after New York, and Los Angeles box-office receipts last season of $56.26-million were more than double those of Washington, the nearest contender, according to the trade paper Variety. More than 100 professional theaters of all sizes are producing hundreds of plays here annually.

But a Calendar study of the marketplace reveals there are clouds waiting in the wings.

Los Angeles may have a big appetite for touring shows like "Cats," but audiences for less extravagant fare here have declined since last summer. There are fewer and fewer successful plays on Broadway, and all of the new or expanded theaters will be competing not just for audiences but for proven hits. At the same time, higher tickets prices are frightening away potential theatergoers, government support of the arts is down and private-sector dollars aren't enough to meet the needs of many nonprofit theaters.

Looking ahead, an independent consultant recently suggested that Los Angeles County postpone two of the three proposed Music Center theaters because the market appeared saturated. As of last week, meanwhile, the long-dark 1,900-seat Wilshire Theatre found new company. It has been joined by the just-opened 863-seat Henry Fonda Theatre (now dark after a brief run of "Twelve Angry Men") and the 377-seat L.A. Stage Co. (after today's closing of "Penn and Teller," it has no immediate bookings.)

And when the newly renovated, 2,300-seat Wiltern Theatre opens in May, it will probably stick to music, opera and dance rather than theater because of what one executive there calls "the reality of the marketplace."

Yet producer after producer expresses incredible optimism in the face of what appear to be overwhelming economic odds. Each believes that he or she will be successful when it comes to selling tickets, raising money to supplement ticket sales and maintaining a high profile in a crowded marketplace. And many are hedging their bets by establishing ties with restaurants or other commercial ventures.

When impresario James A. Doolittle produced his first musical, "Song Without Words," here in 1945, he recalls, Los Angeles stages billed not only dramas and musicals but vaudeville and live prologues to movies. Some of the grand old theaters became movie houses, while others passed into memory. Still others like the Pantages and the Henry Fonda (formerly the Music Box, then the Pix) have gone from stage to screen and, now, back to stage again.

Los Angeles today has essentially three types of theaters: the handful of big, Broadway-style houses that play shows like "La Cage aux Folles," the growing number of Off Broadway-style mid-size houses playing such shows as "Isn't It Romantic" or "Little Shop of Horrors," and about 100 theaters of 99 seats or less presenting everything from Shakespeare to performance art.

Usually producing in Equity Waiver theaters (those of 99 seats or less where Actors' Equity has waived its salary and contract rules), the city's nonprofit producers have been frustrated artistically and economically. For one thing, they've claimed that the only people making money at that level are the landlords. And when they produce a hit, it's often too expensive or too complicated to move it into a bigger theater where they might make more money and give the show (and its players) a longer life.

". . . What was missing and (what) would thrust this city into the world class were mid-sized developmental houses that can afford to be experimental and take risks," says Bill Bushnell, artistic/producing director of the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

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