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The Music Center . . . What Lies Ahead?


From his law firm's 49th-floor downtown office, F. Daniel Frost has an impressive view of the Los Angeles Music Center. And what the 65-year-old Music Center chairman and chief executive officer sees is a cultural institution wrestling with increased competition on all sides, management changes, a drought of theatrical fare and even its own success.

At the three-theater complex, Music Center Executive Vice President Esther Wachtell grapples with the biggest problem of all: money. Her huge coterie of volunteer and professional fund-raisers has to come up with nearly $2 million by June 30 to meet the fund's goal this year of $12.3 million--the largest ever set by the Music Center Unified Fund, 29% greater than last fiscal year.

The fund helps pay for productions and community projects of such Music Center resident companies as the Center Theatre Group, Joffrey Ballet, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Music Center Opera. Without it, the Music Center's performing arts companies would face serious cutbacks because box-office income rarely covers total costs.

"Every house in the Music Center is in trouble," actor and longtime Center Theatre Group board member Charlton Heston said at a generally upbeat 20th anniversary ceremony for the Mark Taper Forum in early April. "We have to find a way to get more money."

Heston and others saluted the past, wrung their hands over the present and talked about expansion in the future. Several plans are in the works to ease crowded conditions by building one-to-three more theaters. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion alone wedges in 420 events annually.

Like other arts groups around the nation, the Music Center and its resident companies are pinioned between increasing costs and decreasing access to philanthropic dollars. Nobody knows the impact of tax law changes on arts patronage, but dancers and actors are already jostling with hospitals and universities for donations.

The 53-year-old Oakland Symphony last fall became the first major American orchestra to declare bankruptcy, while the San Francisco Opera has canceled its next three summer seasons.

Problems are not strictly financial, either. At the same time the Music Center is launching a major opera company, the Metropolitan Opera's artistic director, James Levine, is confiding to New York Magazine that "this is a terrible period for opera . . . an art form in decline." And at the same time that the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson has 13 weeks of stage time this summer to fill, theater producers around the country are wailing that there are fewer and fewer plays they can produce.

Among the 23-year-old Music Center's immediate concerns:

Getting the bicoastal Joffrey Ballet back on its feet financially. (See story on Page 6.)

Meeting increased competition for funding dollars, audiences, plays and performers. Dozens more theater organizations have begun since the Mark Taper Forum opened 20 years ago. And the new Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, which has already hosted such prestigious attractions as the New York City Ballet, is offering an attractive alternative to the Music Center.

For instance, when it became known that the Joffrey's new production of "Nutcracker" could not be booked this December at the Music Center, Orange County center executives approached the Joffrey. But Joffrey general director Penelope Curry says she told the Orange County center that the Joffrey thought it was important for the West Coast premiere to be in Los Angeles, so the ballet would wait until Christmas, 1988, to perform "Nutcracker" locally.

The Civic Light Opera, once a dominant and self-sustaining producer of musical theater, will play only 12 weeks this summer, then leave the Music Center for good. At one time its combined playing weeks at the Pavilion and Ahmanson numbered 32 and its subscriber base was reportedly as high as 160,000. (It is about 50,000 today.)

Center Theatre Group for years was able to generate enough money via the operation of the Ahmanson Theatre to help support the Mark Taper Forum's less mainstream projects. This year, however, the Ahmanson is expected to lose at least $1 million.

The Music Center "family" has expanded to include two expensive new siblings--the Joffrey and the year-old Los Angeles Music Center Opera.

Many of the artistic and administrative leaders have changed. Francis Dale last year was named to the newly created position of Music Center president, succeeding the Performing Arts Council president, the late Michael Newton. Sandra Kimberling this month assumed the long-vacant presidency of landlord Music Center Operating Co.

Martin Manulis has joined--and will succeed--Robert Fryer as artistic director at the Ahmanson, and John Currie last September took over direction of the Los Angeles Master Chorale from founder Roger Wagner.

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