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STAGE WATCH

Can Larsen Repeat His End-of-the-rope Trick?

September 18, 1986|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

Milt Larsen must know what it felt like at the siege of the Alamo. Periodically through its nine-year history his Variety Arts Center at 9th and Figueroa streets (he's president of the Society for the Preservation of the Variety Arts, which owns the building) has withstood one financial crisis after another and he's managed to pull through every time.

His most recent 11th-hour rescue had come at the hands of the Community Redevelopment Agency, which helped with the structural rehabilitation of the building. It also bought an adjacent parking lot and loaned the center money. But now the agency is pulling out. It voted Sept. 3 to go ahead with a foreclosure action, which means the building will go up for sale.

Larsen says he'd like to see the building sold, but on terms that mean he could lease it back and keep the center going.

"The CRA made it quite clear three months ago that they'd just as soon have their money ($1.1 million) back, " Larsen said. "Quite honestly, I think one of the reasons is that vaudeville and burlesque don't fit into the same plan as Bella Lewitzky and avant-garde theater." The latter was a swipe at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, whose survival is crucial to the CRA downtown experiment.

"We've had the building appraised at $8 million but we're willing to sell for $4.5 million, which we think is a pretty good deal," Larsen said. "Of course the real estate values in this area are astronomical, and a cultural center amidst all these business buildings does not offer an economic optimum.

"On the other hand, there's so little for people to do down here. We have plenty of entertainment to offer, and we've got a new chef, so the food has improved. What people forget also is that the center is the best variety arts museum anywhere--it's the Smithsonian of show business. We have files, volumes, films, kinescopes and memorabilia of people like W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Earl Carroll and Ed Wynn you just can't get anywhere else.

"It'd be a shame to see all that carted off. The irony is that we've never done better business. We have more bookings this year through December than ever before, and we have several shows on tap through October. One is Gene Casey's 'Familiar Faces,' a revue that features TV performers whose faces are familiar but whose names are not. Another is 'Gangs,' an anti-violence play that will have real gang members as performers.

"The countdown has begun: As of Monday (Sept. 15) we have 20 days. We're not asking for money, just time. I think we've created a miracle here on Figueroa Street. We need another one now."

An even greater cultural archive is the Institute of the American Musical, whose glories and parlous fates have also been noted in this column. Miles Kreuger is its founder, its president, its sedulous caretaker, its night-and-day watchman and its guiding spirit. What Kreuger doesn't know about the American musical theater and related matters is not worth knowing.

But he's no expert on fund-raising. When Kreuger came close to losing his Detroit Street venue, where the institute's materials are housed, the Judge Roy and Dene Hofheinz Trust made a $100,000 donation and arranged a $160,000 bank loan. But Kreuger still can't meet his operational costs, and a huge balloon payment on the loan looms down the line.

"The horror of all this is that I have to do everything alone. I'm hoping to fix up the building so everything can be properly indexed and shelved, so somebody can come in and punch up a subject on the computer and have everything cross-referenced, like the Museum of Broadcasting. But I feel like I'm at the beach shoveling sand with a dixie cup."

Kreuger has entered into what he calls "an unofficial consortium" with the American Center for the Musical Theater (formerly the Musical Theater Workshop of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera) and California Music Theater, which will have its first season at the Pasadena Auditorium next spring. Cooperation among the three means that the world of musical theater in Los Angeles would be augmented to include scholarship, training and performance.

"In the meantime," said Kreuger, "I'm looking at $4,000 in bills on my desk that I don't know how I'll pay."

As rumored, the James A. Doolittle Theatre has snagged Lily Tomlin's one-woman show, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," for the fall. It will open Nov. 5, after four previews (beginning Oct. 28). Written by Tomlin's partner, Jane Wagner, "Signs" has run for a year on Broadway. Information: (213) 462-6666.

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