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Developer Is Musically Inclined

July 08, 1986|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

Developer Leo Freedman, whose 2,300-seat Freedman Forum theater-in-the-round is now being built next to Anaheim City Hall, is thinking big. Actually, we're talking Broadway here.

"I'm not talking dinner theater. I'm talking top-drawer, legit theater here," Freedman said of his first foray into booking stage shows in 20 years.

Freedman formerly owned Melodyland, yet another Anaheim theater-in-the-round, in the 1960s. Once the county's leading showplace for musicals and headliner acts, the 3,270-seat structure was shut down in 1968, and is now part of a church complex.

But Freedman's show-biz plans are as lofty as ever. He hopes to open his new $6-million theater this fall as a long-running home for Broadway musicals.

But the odds are tough. He's trying this at a time when theaters-in-the-round have faded in popularity and in the face of soaring production costs and decreasing numbers of hit Broadway musicals.

Still, Freedman is doing all he can to cultivate a connection to Manhattan's Great White Way, particularly Broadway and 42nd Street, the fabled intersection in the nation's theatrical capital.

For his opening show, he hopes to present the Broadway musical "42nd Street."

And Freedman even prevailed upon the City Council to rename one of the streets fronting the Forum--to what else--42nd Street. (The other street is already named Broadway).

Nevertheless, construction of the two-level, 53,000-square-foot Freedman Forum--launched last November with much hoopla at the ground breaking--hasn't generated a great deal of notice countywide.

For one thing, the Anaheim project is still overshadowed by a far more massive effort, the Orange County Performing Arts Center, whose $70.7-million, 3,000-seat theater in Costa Mesa is to open Sept. 29 as home to symphony, ballet, opera--and musicals.

Also, Freedman isn't yet able to pinpoint his theater's opening date ("I'm planning it sometime in October"). Despite his announced intentions, he doesn't yet have commitments for opening or subsequent shows.

But Freedman, who says he is putting up the entire $6-million theater construction cost, maintains that his booking connections are strong, thanks to ties with New York and Hollywood producers that date back to his Melodyland days.

Leo Cohen, general manager of New York-based David Merrick Productions, producer of "42nd Street," confirmed in a phone interview this week that discussions are under way with Freedman for a possible new production in Anaheim.

(A touring version of "42nd Street" played Los Angeles two years ago at the Shubert Theatre in Century City, and Cohen said the current national company is set to end its tour in August after a Tokyo run. The original Broadway production, staged by the late Gower Champion, opened in 1980 and is still running at Manhattan's Majestic Theatre.)

A representative for the Shubert Organization, the nationwide theatrical operator, said there have been no discussions with Freedman. "He contacted us 1 1/2 years ago. We told him we were not interested," said Ira Bernstein, general manager of the organization's Century City operation.

Although Freedman in the 1960s also built the Grand and the Anaheim Hyatt hotels across from Disneyland, the Beverly Hills-based entrepreneur is best known in Orange County as the developer of the area's first theater-in-the-round, Melodyland.

Opened in 1962, Melodyland in its heyday presented such touring musicals as "Camelot" with Howard Keel and "Oklahoma" with John Raitt, and such headliners as Johnny Carson, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee and Victor Borge.

By the late 1960s, attendance at Melodyland had slipped markedly, a trend that theater experts contend was due as much to theaters-in-the-round becoming a passing fad as it was to inflationary costs.

Freedman claims that Melodyland's decline was due in large part to managerial problems. (Following its closure as a showplace, the 3,270-seat facility was sold in 1969 to the Anaheim Christian Church.)

"This time, I'm doing it right. I'm not turning it (Freedman Forum operations) over to anyone else. This time, I'm running the whole show myself," Freedman said.

His latest theatrical venture has been in the works since 1977, when the City Council gave him the go-ahead to do the preliminary design. (The site is in the city's redevelopment district).

Originally, Freedman envisioned the downtown facility as a 2,000-seat proscenium complex modeled somewhat after the Shubert Theatre and bolstered--he claimed at the time--by the prospect of a musical-booking connection with the Shubert Organization.

But his project, beset by rising construction costs and the nationwide recession, didn't get off the drawing boards for another eight years. Freedman, meanwhile, had changed the concept to the less costly theater-in-the-round. The plan, designed by the Los Angeles-based Sheldon Pollack Corp., includes what Freedman calls "state of the art" facilities for cable-broadcast productions.

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