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Backer Bets House On Arts Center

August 27, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — Joel L. Chambers has mortgaged his house as a down payment on the North Park Theatre to house the California Performing Arts Centre. Unless you've been in the theater, he says, such a passionate action might seem strange. "The average person wouldn't understand why I would do such a thing," Chambers said.

"It's a damn good theater, and I wanted to turn it into a theater again and so did Martin." That is Martin Gregg, executive director of the Performing Arts Centre.

Chambers saw the North Park's opening mixture of films and music in 1929 when he was 6 years old, he said, and has spent most his life as a projectionist or stagehand, working with the likes of Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, Boris Karloff and the Marx Brothers.

At 64, Chambers is the linchpin in a complex financial deal to purchase the 1,186-seat theater, 2891 University Ave. Since 1976, it has been used as a church. Chambers took out a $50,000 mortgage on his house, valued at $200,000, as a non-refundable cash deposit to activate a lease/purchase option for the Performing Arts Centre, an amateur theater group.

The Performing Arts Centre needs to raise $1.3 million to buy the building. Besides rental income from office and storefront space, Gregg hopes to arrange a series of concerts with name performers such as Whoopi Goldberg, Itzak Perlman and Joan Rivers, using partial ownership of the building and land as compensation.

Chambers says he is not well-versed in the Performing Art Centre's plans to pay for the theater and for his mortgage payments. That's their problem, he says. But what if the worst should happen, and the mortgage payments aren't made, or the total mortgage isn't paid off in five years as required? Chambers, who is retired, said he knows "some other people I could contact" to pay the mortgage if things don't work out.

NEA GRANTS: Saturday is the deadline for institutions and individuals to apply for the first round of COMBO grants, which are part of a local test program awarded to the city by the National Endowment for the Arts. Although a one-to-one match is required for the grants, which go as high as $5,000, in-kind time spent on the project counts toward the match. That's a rare deal for artists.

IT'S BROKE: Despite strong denials last week that the suspension of all operations does not signal the demise of the proposed San Diego Art Center, the vital signs are weak.

Director Sebastian (Lefty) Adler's resignation leaves the center without an artistic visionary, and there is no money in the bank. In fact, the center is $650,000 in debt, not including about $270,000 sunk into the project by the Centre City Development Corp.

Moreover, the Art Center's first nine months in its temporary gallery space and bookstore in Horton Plaza did little to raise hopes for success should it move into a renovated Balboa Theater. Few visitors found their way to the gallery despite the crowds that thronged the shopping center.

Although a marketing study indicated a modern art museum next to the shopping center would attract 244,000 visitors a year, questions arose about whether the Art Center was the right choice.

Basically, the Art Center tried to duplicate the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art's coverage of contemporary art, design and architecture. Does San Diego need two such contemporary art museums and, more importantly, can it support them? Perhaps in 10 years. The La Jolla museum is not exactly the hot ticket in San Diego. Based on its performance in the temporary space, neither was the Art Center.

Seen from the purely economic view that CCDC and Horton Plaza officials must take, a modern art museum seems at best a second choice to the alternative use of the Balboa as a theater. Recent lawsuits by restaurants in Horton Plaza against the shopping center management have pointed out the drop in attendance at night. A theater would at least be drawing potential restaurant users at night.

What San Diego needs more than another modern art museum is a municipal art gallery or municipal arts complex specializing in regional art. Perhaps the Art Center will become a force in developing such a museum, with a permanent collection devoted to such artists from the past 50 or 60 years.

It's possible, but unlikely, that the Art Center will remain a serious contender for the Balboa Theater. Whether the Balboa Theater is renovated as a museum or a theater, however, depends partly on CCDC. CCDC is exercising its exclusive bargaining agreement with developer Chris Mortenson.

ART BEATS: Diners at the elegant Gustaf Anders restaurant will be treated to some particularly gritty images of Marilyn Monroe. From mid-September through mid-October, the La Jolla eatery, in association with the Museum of Photographic Arts, will exhibit 30 images from Bert Stern's now-famous "The Last Sitting" photo session. A gala benefit for the museum opens the exhibit Sept. 18. . . .

The San Diego Symphony's radiothon over the weekend yielded slightly more than $50,000, a good bit less than the $133,000 raised last year. Symphony officials did not push for record donations, citing the $206,000 the community contributed in a telethon during its March financial crisis.

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