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Art Goes Dark at Theater in Sante Fe Springs That Inspired Young Hoofers

August 04, 1985|MELINDA BURNS | Times Staff Writer

Tom Bauer, director of the Santa Fe Springs Community Theater, had a message for the teen-age actors who, dressed like hoodlums, gathered around him before the start of a recent performance of "West Side Story."

"We need to be as intense as possible," he said, as a hush fell over the group. "This is a show that has anger, vitality. Pump it up right now and come on ready to blaze the stage."

For 2 1/2 hours, the youngsters, many of them Santa Fe Springs residents, did just that, storming the outdoor stage at Lake Center Junior High School with songs, mambos, gang rumbles, love scenes and tears. The energy is just as high for "Damn Yankees," which was performed in repertory with "West Side Story" this summer.

Lack of Support

But intensity was not enough to save the 5-year-old company, brainchild of Lake Center English and history teacher Bauer, 47, and music teacher Tom Hut, 35. The theater group will fold after its last performance Saturday night, $3,000 in debt--a victim of poor community support.

With a city subsidy of $18,000 in 1983 and $22,000 in 1984, the company broke even, Hut said. The company's troubles began this year, he said, when the city cut its subsidy to $10,000, half of it in cash and half in services.

To break even this season, the community theater had to draw 375 persons to each of nine performances of the two musicals, Hut said. But average attendance, primarily in ticket sales at the gate, was only 200. The group performed "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" this spring to audiences averaging 125 persons.

Will Pay Personally

Hut, who has produced 12 shows with the community theater, said he will pay the debt out of his own pocket. In the meantime, the theater's performances of "Bye Bye Birdie," scheduled for May, 1986, have been canceled, he said.

"It's a shame (the company) has to go," Hut said. "Dreams die hard. But sometimes you have to play your dreams, even if it costs money. If you don't, you don't feel good about it."

City Council members who were interviewed had mixed reactions to the company's plight. Mayor Pro Tem Betty Wilson said the council had cut its subsidy because the money was benefiting too few people. This year, she said, the theater management "just bit off an awful lot more than they could chew."

Reconsideration Suggested

Councilman Luis Escontrias said he regretted the theater's end. The council should reconsider its allocation to the group, he said, because "it provides a cultural base for residents to be exposed to the arts and an opportunity for youngsters to advance in the field."

(The city last year spent more than $130,000 to subsidize four performances of well-known singers and orchestras in the annual Santa Fe Springs Music Festival, with an average 2,400 persons in attendance. The Music Festival and community theater are the only two programs in the arts to receive a subsidy from the city.)

The youngsters in the community theater see their situation as nothing short of tragic. Many said they got their start on stage in 1980, when the community theater--then operated by the school--opened with "Li'l Abner" to an audience of 48 persons. Most have spent long summer days under the hot sun rehearsing for "West Side Story" and "Damn Yankees," reluctant even to go home. All of them dream of becoming professional actors.

Source of Friends

"I'm terribly depressed," said Becky Kennedy, 16, of Norwalk. "This is the only place I feel happy. Before I started coming to the plays, I never had friends."

By definition, a community theater does not pay its actors, and the majority of its technicians, musicians, stage crew and support staff are volunteers. The Santa Fe Springs Community Theater used half its budget to pay the director, producer, choreographer, lighting director, stage manager and some members of the orchestra.

Each musical has a cast of 40, an 18-member orchestra and a crew of about 50 persons who work on costumes, security, stage construction, lighting and sound. About 70% of this year's actors and most of the support crew are from Santa Fe Springs, Hut said.

Two Ways to Survive

In other Southeast-area cities, the theaters survive in one of two ways.

Like the Huntington Park Civic Theater, the Norwalk Community Playhouse or the 64-year-old Whittier Community Theater, they avoid expensive-to-produce musicals and scrape by with audiences of under 100 and yearly budgets of $2,000 to $10,000. City assistance is limited to providing an auditorium for rehearsals and performances--but it is an assistance without which the groups could not survive.

Or, like the Downey Civic Light Opera Assn. and the Whittier-La Mirada Light Opera, the community theaters produce only musicals, spending about $250,000 yearly and drawing from 800 to 1,200 persons to each performance. With Downey and Whittier-La Mirada, the theaters, each of them about 30 years old, depend heavily on sales of season tickets well before the season starts. Even then, they barely break even.

$10,000 Borrowed

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