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Pasadena Playhouse : Heat Is on Theater for Hit Season

February 15, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

It's a rugged pillbox of a building, with foot-thick stucco walls, a tiled roof, a shady stone courtyard, a squat stone fountain and an arcade in the Spanish style. But walk through the front doors on South El Molino Avenue, and you're transported into a less distinct space, vast and shadowy, with stone buttresses curling into baroque flourishes near the ceiling and a proscenium stage stretching airily toward the back.

Solidity seems ready to give way to illusion there in the dark interior of the 70-year-old Pasadena Playhouse, which is about to embark upon its second season since undergoing a $4-million refurbishment.

Though the season's first curtain will not be raised for three weeks, the place already bustles with activity.

The heat is on Susan Dietz and Stephen Rothman, the theater's two new producing co-directors, who were brought in three months ago after a lackluster first season left both critics and creditors disappointed.

Backstage 'Catacombs'

The two are conducting a tour through the playhouse, nosing through the backstage "catacombs," pulling doors open, edging past workmen and, finally, sauntering across their broad stage to look out at the 700-seat house. Dietz and Rothman, each a stage-struck producer/director with a decade or so of experience in the theater, are apparently still a little awed by the playhouse, where such actors as William Holden, Gene Hackman, Agnes de Mille, Lee J. Cobb and dozens more got their starts.

"Look at that," says Dietz, standing upstage and surveying the tangle of theatrical equipment stretching high above her. "It goes up forever."

Backstage, 20 feet away from her, stands Jerry Colker, co-author of a play called "Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down," which arrives at the playhouse on March 17. The comic/playwright, something of a rising star, sidles over to Dietz from backstage and looks up.

"This'll be perfect for the catapult number," he says.

Dietz frowns. "Catapult?" she says.

"Yeah, we have this hydraulic device that'll cost maybe twenty thou . . . " Colker begins.

Dietz laughs. Even without elaborate stunts, the playhouse's operating budget of $1.8 million is already stretched thin, with a four-play "main stage" season scheduled to begin on April 24 with the opening of John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves," as well as a series of six "great performances," each for a one-week run, beginning

March 3. The latter include one-person performances by such established performers as Kevin McCarthy (playing Harry S Truman), Ray Stricklyn (playing Tennessee Williams), Jack Guilford and Peggy Lee (playing themselves).

Money is tight, and Dietz and Rothman are facing what they acknowledge to be a "critical" season. "It's not that we feel crisis-bound," said Rothman, a smiling man with a furry, neatly trimmed beard. "But we don't have 20 years to build an audience the way some regional theaters do. We're not of the opinion that artists are best served by not having eaten for three weeks."

By most accounts, last season got the playhouse off to a shaky start. After all the hoopla preceding the reopening last year after a 20-year hiatus, the 1986 season was something of a critical and financial disappointment. The critics were less than lukewarm to such productions as George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man" and Stephen Parker's "Spokesong," and the organization was left with a $160,000 deficit.

Developer David Houk, chairman of the board and the playhouse's chief financial backer, denies that last season was in any way a failure. "We got the theater opened and started from scratch with almost 8,500 subscriptions," he said. "In addition, we sold 5,000 single tickets for each of the three plays we produced. For a first-time theater, I don't know anybody else who's done that well." Subscriptions entitled buyers to a seat at each of the theater's three productions last year.

Not Designed to Make Money

Besides, the playhouse was not designed to make money, insisted Houk, whose company owns the theater but, under an arrangement with the city, leases it back to the nonprofit Pasadena Playhouse State Theatre of California Inc. "All theaters lose money," he said. "Who cares?"

Houk's company, Historical Restoration Associates, also owns the rest of the theater complex, including a soon-to-be-leased restaurant, the 99-seat Balcony Theater, a four-story office building and the now defunct Pasadena Playhouse Actors' School, which Dietz and Rothman hope to restore to its former glory.

The pair's predecessor, Jessica Myerson, who either quit or was fired last August, depending on whom you talk to, has blamed last season's disappointments on the company's failure to do "long-range planning" before she got there and on a shortage of funds.

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