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Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

August 17, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

Two major Los Angeles theater partnerships have broken up. Civic Light Opera won't be presenting shows at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion after next season. Center Theatre Group won't be co-running the James A. Doolittle Theatre with UCLA after this summer.

Each parting is painful. Civic Light Opera --which, from 1981, has meant the Nederlander Organization--feels as if it has been squeezed out at the Music Center in favor of yet more performing-arts groups that can't pay their way. "Last year we paid the Music Center $470,000 rent," said CLO's Stan Seiden. "How can they afford to walk away from a tenant like that?"

Center Theatre Group--in particular, Gordon Davidson--feels chagrined that it can't afford to carry on at the Doolittle, its second attempt at running an outside theater. (It also had to give up at the Aquarius.)

Still, there's been no general damage. Civic Light Opera isn't going under ("No way," said Seiden), just changing its address. The Doolittle isn't going under, just changing its management. The Music Center isn't going under--although it's going to have to reach deep to cover CLO's departure. Life in Los Angeles theater will go on. More abundantly than before, it could be.

It has already started. Take "Nicholas Nickleby." Why did it play the Ahmanson this summer? Because CLO had previously given up its time slot there, preferring to concentrate on the larger and potentially more profitable Pavilion.

True, "Nickleby" might have come to town anyway. But it seemed particularly right and festive to have it at the Music Center, with people picnicking all over the Plaza. It was certainly a more rewarding use of a community stage than, say, Joe Namath in "Sugar."

Pardon the low blow. But when CLO brought in "Sugar" from Atlantic City, N.J., or wherever, in 1984, it was clear that the Nederlanders still hadn't gotten the message, after three years, that bus-and-truck standards didn't cut it at the Music Center.

Granted, "Sugar" was a last-minute substitution for an aborted "On Your Toes." This summer, we finally got "On Your Toes." The show was fine. But the ad campaign was a disgrace. "NATALIA MAKAROVA IN 'ON YOUR TOES'--2 and 8 P.M." Not a hint that Makarova didn't appear at matinees.

CLO rectified the ad, but again you saw the bus-and-truck mentality, as if the show would be playing another town by next week anyway, so why not cut a few corners? This from an organization whose founder, Edwin Lester, used to write personal letters to patrons who objected to one of his shows.

Whether or not the Music Center squeezed out CLO, it has been an uneasy relationship ever since the Nederlanders took over the organization. Questions were raised (by the Shuberts, certainly) as to whether the Nederlanders weren't using the nonprofit CLO for their own purposes.

All that can be said for sure is that CLO under the Nederlanders has lost its sense of being a Los Angeles institution and now feels like the West Coast branch of a Times Square operation. It knows something about public relations, but nothing about community relations, and that's essential for a resident arts group. Perhaps it will be more sensitive to its patrons at the Pantages--while it has some patrons left.

What will the Music Center do without CLO? For one thing, it will be freer to book and to produce musicals on its own. CTG/Ahmanson has already booked "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" for its third show this season, and producer Robert Fryer is looking for another major musical for next summer.

Another player enters the game as well: the new Music Center Opera Company. It's bringing in "Porgy and Bess" from the Houston Opera next spring and its artistic director, Peter Hemmings, isn't opposed to producing the occasional operetta--Gilbert and Sullivan, Offenbach. So, ironically, the departure of Civic Light Opera may lead to more actual light opera at the Pavilion. But not to more musicals, we hope. The house has always been too big for them.

The Pantages is also too big for musicals, and has grown just a little tatty around the edges. But if it's glamour that CLO subscribers want, the Pantages has it, starting with its wondrous arched lobby. There's no reason CLO patrons should avoid this house, if they're made to feel welcome there.

The Nederlanders may end up delighted to have CLO under their own roof at the Pantages. Their ability to book shows won't suffer--only the Shuberts have more clout in the theater marketplace--and they'll have more flexibility when it comes to scheduling them. The change could also bring more shows to their other big house, the Wilshire, not often lit last season. Meanwhile, the Pavilion gets the chance to prove that it can be a full-time concert hall, which was the hope from the beginning. If the Music Center can raise the money--where's the tragedy?

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