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Park Arts Center to Rise From Ashes, Supporters Vow

March 12, 1987|LARRY GORDON | Times Staff Writer

Kathy Herbert says she hopes one day to produce a video documentary about the destruction and rebirth of the Los Feliz Performing Arts Center in Griffith Park.

Herbert, the center's coordinator and drama coach, has television news footage of the arson fire that destroyed the theater 11 months ago and she intends to film the demolition of its charred ruins, which is expected to take place in a few weeks.

But a happy ending to her video, with scenes of rebuilding, is not guaranteed to be in the script.

City architects announced last week that reconstruction of the theater could cost $5.15 million--a figure that apparently caused some wide-eyed response around Los Angeles City Hall and raised the question of when, if ever, the rebuilding would begin.

'Big Chunk of Change'

"That is a big chunk of change. It would be a challenge, to say the least, for us to find that kind of funding," said Rodney Punt, assistant general manager of the Department of Cultural Affairs, which runs the center and its classes in drama, music and dance.

Nevertheless, Punt insisted that his department wants to rebuild the theater, located at 3224 Riverside Drive, south of Los Feliz Boulevard in the park's southeast corner. "We are simply aware there are many, many other things on the city's capital agenda. We have to be realistic and say we are not going to get it rebuilt overnight," he said.

City Councilman John Ferraro, who represents the area, also said he wants the center rebuilt but is not sure the full council can be persuaded.

'We Haven't Given Up'

"I think it's going to be very difficult at $5 million. That's pretty expensive. But we haven't given up on it," Ferraro said.

Herbert said she would be surprised if a new center is completed in less than five years, but hopes for something sooner. "I can't let myself be pessimistic, especially since I know we have the support of the community to rebuild here," she said.

"It is really hard to fight the City Council when it amounts to $5 million, but I hope it doesn't have to be a fight. I hope they realize the need for some kind of theater here."

City property is self-insured for fire damage, meaning there is no insurance money to rebuild and all appropriations must be approved by the council.

To help persuade the council, the center's hundreds of students and supporters might try to raise as much as $1 million in donations for the project, Herbert said. In addition, building costs might be cut by dropping some amenities, she said.

The $5.15-million estimate is about half the cost of an earlier and fancier plan, according to city officials. In the latest version, planners omitted such expensive items as a hydraulic orchestra lift and a large "fly space"--an area above the stage--for elaborate scenery rigging.

The current proposal calls for a 20,000-square-foot building, including a stage, a workshop, lighting, sound system, rehearsal space, a projection booth, offices and a kitchen. The auditorium would have 300 seats, about twice the number in the burned building, which opened in 1963.

'Not a Gold-Plated Program'

Jay Oren, a staff architect for the cultural affairs department, said that the $5.15-million plan is "not a gold-plated program," but that he understands how some people have been surprised by the estimated price. "It doesn't shock me because I'm used to building construction costs," he said.

For 25 years, the center was a beehive of theatrical activity. Children and adults studied acting, ballet and singing there. Tuition recently was only $2 an hour, much cheaper than the cost of similar classes at private schools. Six to eight shows were staged every year, with audience members asked to donate $3 a show.

"I know it sounds fishy, but this place had meaning for a lot of people," said Harold Brown, the school's musical theater teacher. "We are hoping they will preserve what we had going here for so long and so well."

Seated in front of a piano, Brown spoke during a break in a lesson being held in what used to be a costume storage building. That annex next to the main theater was not damaged in the April 20 blaze and has been since converted into office and classroom space. But the center now offers only three classes a week, a sharp cut from its schedule before the fire.

There are no classes for youngsters now because the annex is considered unsafe for them. It has deep floor wells and catwalks designed to aid in costume hanging, but which might be dangerous if children should try to play or roughhouse.

Most upsetting is that there is no stage in the annex, Herbert said.

Next door, the theater is still standing. The building, a large, squat angular structure with enormous wooden beams, is now a charred shell. The beams that arch up from the ground to form the six-sided structure were weakened in the blaze and cannot be repaired, officials said.

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