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It's 'Go' For Theater On Uci Campus

October 02, 1985|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

Although the City of Irvine may not start construction of a $9.5-million, 750-seat theater on the UC Irvine campus for another 12 to 18 months, organizers say the long-awaited venture is quickly taking shape.

The newly named nine-member operating board for the proposed Irvine Performing Arts Theatre is to meet in late October, and a national search for the project's managing director is expected to be launched soon after.

Final leasing and other documents, while still to be approved, are only formalities, city and university officials say.

Already, these officials say, the project is, in many ways, a milestone. For example:

- The Irvine facility will be the largest municipally built theater in Orange County, topping both the 545-seat Grove Amphitheatre in Garden Grove and the 199-seat Curtis Theatre in Brea.

The entire $9.5-million construction cost of the Irvine campus facility is to be paid with city-issued bonds. The Garden Grove and Brea facilities, both completed in the early 1980s, were built mainly with federal monies for redevelopment.

- The Irvine project is the UC system's first campus-theater collaboration with a city, university aides say. Although the university is not involved in financing the construction, it is providing a two-acre site on the UCI campus and has agreed to pay one-third of the estimated $300,000 in annual operating costs. In return, UCI is assured of one-third use of the new facility.

The only other theater-sharing venture in the UC system is with a private group, aides say--the $5.2-million, 500-seat Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 1982 on the UC San Diego campus. But that facility, which is used during the summer by the La Jolla Playhouse, was financed wholly with private monies.

"This (Irvine) project is virtually a one-of-a-kind partnership for the university--a collaboration that we believe will be an enriching one for all of us," said John Miltner, a UCI vice chancellor.

Irvine Councilwoman Sally Anne Miller sounded a similar theme. "As far as we're concerned, it's all systems go for this project. It's a true town-and-gown interchange in the arts, and one of the most exciting theater projects this county has ever had."

The city and university announced the project's official launching on Aug. 23, a few days after the City Council had authorized the full $9.5 million in bond financing. Adding to this aura of harmony, the Irvine Co. donated $100,000 to the project.

However, the Irvine Performing Arts Theatre wasn't the first official choice for the UCI location--a Gateway Plaza site between the Administration Building and Campus Drive. In 1978, UCI entertained the possibility of locating the multi-theater Orange County Performing Arts Center there. That idea was abandoned in 1979 when the Performing Arts Center project finally settled on a site in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza Town Center.

In 1982, then-UCI Chancellor Daniel G. Aldrich Jr. proposed using the Gateway Plaza site for the smaller Irvine theater. At that time, the city already had a theater design (a preliminary version drafted in 1978) in hand, plus $1.5 million in previously designated city-bond monies for the project.

However, as Irvine Performing Arts Theatre backers tell it, they weren't able to get the UCI project off the ground. They failed to raise any monies from private sources and some City Council members remained cool to the venture. Negotiations between the city and the university floundered, undercut by a bitter dispute between UCI and other Irvine community groups over a different issue--the location of a new hospital.

But in 1984, the theater venture suddenly took a turn for the better. "We got a new City Council (voting bloc) behind the project," explained Miller, "and Jack Peltason (the new UCI chancellor) made it clear he was backing this project all the way."

And this year, the newly realigned City Council seemed to have settled the thorny site issue. For years the site of the theater had been linked to the location of a permanent Irvine City Hall. At first a City Hall center at the Irvine Co.'s University Town Center across from UCI's Gateway Plaza was the choice. Then various sites in the city's central sector were given higher priority.

In actions this year, culminating with the Aug. 20 bond authorization for the theater, the council officially separated the two buildings: The permanent civic center is to be built in Westpark in the central sector; the theater at UCI in the southwest.

Then on Sept. 10, the council approved the first operating board of what is formally known as the "Civic Theatre of Irvine." Three of the nine members are UCI officials (William Lillyman, executive vice chancellor; Robert Garfias, dean of fine arts, and Joseph Huszti, music program chairman).

And the San Francisco firm of Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons, which drafted the 1978 preliminary design, was contracted to do the final drawings on the proscenium-styled, two-level facility.

According to project organizers, existing medium-sized theaters are not available--while other facilities are too small--for the kinds of programs being planned for the new 750-seat civic-campus theater. The largest existing UCI facility is the 420-seat Fine Arts Village Theatre.

In addition to UCI's own student and touring-artist presentations, Councilwoman Miller said that the attractions at the new theater are to include concerts, plays, conferences and other events involving community groups and schools. She said that children-oriented presentations by the South Coast Repertory Theatre and Orange County Philharmonic Society are other possibilities.

"It's a 12-year dream coming true," said Miller, considered the chief community activist behind the project. "What's so extra-wonderful is that the theater will be right on campus--the location we've most wanted from the very beginning."

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