From the expansive backyard of the home of David and Roberta Haft comes the sound of tribal drums, the hollow thump-thumping getting louder as you approach a shed that's off to one side. Coming nearer you realize the noise is not coming from drums, but from two emus who share a pen with a full-grown llama.
"He loves it when you blow into his face," Roberta said, taking the llama's face into her hands.
It's an odd sight, this couple in business attire cooing to a llama as they pose for pictures. Their other habitat--the theater--seems more appropriate.
J. David Haft, 63, is the current president of the board of directors of the Center Theatre Group, which oversees the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson theaters at the Music Center. That's a volunteer post; his other time is spent dabbling in real estate and handling his own investments. Roberta Haft, 40, is president of the Center Theatre Group volunteers, a women's fund-raising group that has just over 100 members.
This working relationship in the Center Theatre Group has obvious merits. "Being privy to the financial aspects of the Music Center, their needs, strengths, it gives me a better opportunity to help run the support group," Roberta said. "It's a business, like the board is a business. I learn so much of what goes on with the CTG from David. I find that the goals I have for the organization can be implemented so much easier without having to go through the organizational procedure."
"David lives and breathes the Center Theatre Group," fellow board member Douglas Cramer said.
Sharing a chair with his wife in the living room of their West Los Angeles home, which is tastefully decorated in an Architectural Digest way with antiques and original art, he talked about inviting the cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company over to the house before they embarked on their production of "Nicholas Nickleby."
"When they were coming to town I got the feeling that they were all petrified," he said. "They came up to the house and they were hanging onto each other. They finally loosened up and asked what Los Angeles audiences were like. I said, 'Don't worry. They're going to love you.' I got a call the next day (after the performance) from someone in the cast who said they had never seen a response from an audience like that before."
Haft was instrumental in bringing "Nicholas Nickleby" to the Ahmanson, specifically in getting funding from the Ahmanson Foundation and producer Aaron Spelling. The 8 1/2-hour-long production, which recently closed, won raves from the critics but didn't fare so well at the box office. Some reports say the loss could total $700,000, with the board losing $150,000 of that.
"I'm unhappy about that part of it," he said. "But everyone kept saying it was such a wonderful experience. But I'm a perfectionist. I thought we should have made money also."
Gordon Davidson, artistic director/producer of the Mark Taper Forum, describes Haft's style of doing business as "rough and tumble. He's a street fighter, which I think is OK. I come from the streets. . . . You have to be willing to take leaps of imagination and faith, and he's capable of doing that."
That rough-and-tumble style has caused Davidson and Haft "our share of wrestling matches," Haft said. "We didn't understand each other at first. . . . We were both used to running our own shows. We had to draw the boundaries. Those things are bound to happen, particularly with me because I don't wait for something to happen. When you're dealing with a board you have conversations about things that should be happening, and at the next meeting you have the same conversations again until finally everybody falls asleep. I can't sit for that."
Board vice president and TV producer Cramer said, "It seems that I'm seeing the board shaped into one that is actively and passionately involved. Before David became president, the board tended to be more intellectual and elite. David doesn't let up on you. If he wants something done he has no hesitancy in setting off the powder keg."
As David is street-wise (or, as he prefers to put it, has "very little fear") Roberta is refined, her careful diction contrasting with his Brooklynese-edged speech.
His father was a clothing manufacturer who was also one of the founders of the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. "My parents were well-to-do," he explained, "but I spent a lot of time in the alleys."
'Best Time in My Life'
He also spent nine years in London during the '60s and '70s and had "probably the best time in my whole life." He met Roberta while on a visit to Los Angeles, and the two carried on "a divine long-distance romance," as she put it, until they married and she moved to England with him.