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Fund-Raisers for Arts Stay on Their Toes

April 05, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The evening had something for everyone.

Music.

Dance.

Drama.

And City Councilman Evan Anderson Braude prancing about in white tights and a blue velvet jacket.

The event's immediate purpose was to raise money for the Long Beach Ballet, which recently announced a $100,000 deficit primarily due to poor attendance at last year's tour of "The Nutcracker." In fact, the elegant $100-a-plate banquet--at which Braude gamely joined a team of professional dancers in a spoof of their art--kicked off what organizers described as an aggressive fund-raising effort and new attempts to attract broader community support.

"Until now we've concentrated on artistic excellence," said David Wilcox, artistic director of the 5-year-old company. "This is the other side of the coin."

Said Carla Gordon, a member of the ballet's board of directors: "We realize that we're now in a new phase. We have to broaden our base of support, develop new constituency."

In reality, the ballet is conforming to what seems to have become a pattern among Long Beach-based performing arts groups.

Four years ago, the Long Beach Civic Light Opera underwent a major reorganization after announcing a $900,000 deficit. More recently, the Long Beach Symphony canceled most of a season and almost went bankrupt following disclosures that it was more than $758,000 in debt. And last week, the Long Beach Opera--which has seen its operating deficit double since 1982 to $120,000 today--decided to forgo mounting a major production next fall to concentrate on fund raising.

What's going on here? Are local performing arts going the way of the horse and buggy? Is Long Beach destined to become a town without art?

Other Groups Struggling

People in the arts offer various explanations for the money woes. To begin with, they say, arts groups all over the country are struggling financially to overcome the vagaries of an uncertain economy, with major deficits becoming common. Beyond that, they say, Southern California--and Long Beach in particular--offers special challenges for would-be performers.

"The life style is not theatrically oriented," Wilcox said. "It's more backyard barbecue and leisure oriented. People would rather watch (a performance) on TV" than see it in person.

In Long Beach, he says, the situation has traditionally been made even tougher because of competition from Los Angeles and its more established and well-known arts groups.

But all that may be changing. After years of obscurity, many local patrons believe, Long Beach is finally coming into its own as a center for the performing arts. And it is that development, ironically, to which many attribute most directly the recent financial problems suffered by Long Beach performing groups. Caught in the shaky transition from small to large, they are having to spend more money to carve out competitive niches in an art community rapidly expanding beyond old parochial bounds of quality and appeal.

The single most significant factor contributing to that expansion, most agree, is the Terrace Theater, which opened in 1978 and now houses the city's four major performance groups.

Until then, Long Beach had the atmosphere of an artistic backwater, with resident groups performing in small-town fashion at local high school auditoriums or in the old Long Beach Municipal Auditorium. With the coming of the elegant 3,141-seat Terrace as part of the vast new Convention and Entertainment Center, however, sights were raised.

"The convention center is the common denominator," said Martin Wiviott, producer for the Long Beach Civic Light Opera, which used to perform at Jordan High School. "Here we are and here's this fabulous complex and now we have to do things to suit this gorgeous scenery. That theater demands production values because of its scope and its size."

Costlier Productions

For many groups, moving into the Terrace Theater meant spending much more money on much more elaborate productions than previously possible.

"We went in there with wonderful things in mind to do," Wiviott said, "and over the three or four years it took to put (them) in place (we overspent our budget). All of the huge costs associated with going into a huge complex like that catch up with you and you have to reorganize until you are able to do things that match your income."

To date, most of those reorganizations appear to be succeeding.

Since 1984, Wiviott said, the CLO has reduced its operating deficit from $900,000 to $400,000, and expects to break even within two years. That has been accomplished, he said, largely by relying on the interest income generated by an endowment set up in 1979--which now amounts to about $750,000--and by staging productions with broad audience appeal such as "Evita," "A Chorus Line" and other shows starring such well-known performers as Edie Adams and Kathy Rigby.

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