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New Center Cuts Into Rentals : Hopes Linger For Old Concert Hall

May 26, 1987|CHRIS PASLES | Times Staff Writer

A bleak future was predicted for Santa Ana High School's auditorium last fall when local performing arts groups abandoned the 52-year-old facility for the glamorous new $70.7-million Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

And so far, those predictions have been accurate.

"It was pretty quiet around here all year," said Fred Sutton, stage manager for the auditorium. "We had Mozart Camerata, which was the only music group that we picked up.

"We had a couple of local dance groups, plus a number of regional junior and senior high school music festivals. And we have a number of groups associated with dance education coming up in June," Sutton said in a recent interview.

"But in terms of revenue generation for the school district (which approximated $30,000 in 1985-86), it pretty much went down to nothing."

Now, Sutton says, most of the groups using the 1,578-seat auditorium are either school groups or are sponsored by the Department of Education at little or no charge.

"We've become co-sponsors and pretty much provide the hall for free," he said.

Still, there may be signs of stirring life for the aging auditorium widely praised for its superior acoustics:

--Ami Porat's Mozart Camerata, which played two of its four concerts this season at the high school hall, will book all four of its 1987-88 concerts there.

--South Coast Symphony conductor Larry Granger has booked two of that orchestra's four concerts next year there.

--Additionally, an ambitious three-year renovation project for the campus is scheduled to begin this summer. While no changes are planned for the auditorium itself, Sutton believes that it will become a more desirable place for performances because the renovation project "is going to improve the whole area considerably."

In the case of Granger and the South Coast Symphony, however, while the high school facility is generally preferred for its acoustics and larger size, the arrangement appears to be only temporary and a matter of convenience.

"Two days we needed (for next season) were not available" at the orchestra's usual venue, Orange Coast College's Robert B. Moore Theatre in Costa Mesa, Granger said. "We also felt that those particular programs would draw a bigger audience." Granger's orchestra will appear at Santa Ana on Nov. 14 and March 12.

"We're obviously looking forward to playing in an acoustically superior hall," Granger said. "Many people feel that for orchestra concerts, that may be the best location. I may get into trouble for saying that."

"One of the problems at OCC is that if we move (the orchestra) forward as we have done, the strings sound much better, but the winds sound much worse. They're in what I call the 'black hole' of the stage. The sound radiates upwards, tending to lose the core of the (woodwind) sound, although it sounds fine on tape."

But while acoustics may be better in Santa Ana, Granger says the orchestra has no plans to make a permanent move from OCC.

"Our main purpose is to maintain our alignment with the City of Costa Mesa, which has been our biggest supporter."

Porat, founder of the Mozart Camerata, on the other hand, couldn't be happier with the high school facility, which he says has enabled his group to attract larger audiences and led to a doubling of subscriptions for the orchestra's upcoming season.

"I'm very pleased," Porat said. "The acoustics are truly unbeatable. It is a hall in which, in my humble opinion, the music and the hall act as lovers--one enhances the other."

Porat has scheduled all four of the orchestra's concerts at the high school. Dates are Oct. 24, Jan. 9, March 5 and, tentatively, April 16.

"(The auditorium) is a little bit large from an audience point of view for a chamber orchestra," Porat said. "So it presents a challenge to fill the hall with an audience. I'm sure it makes a noticeable difference when it is (somewhat) empty."

Porat likes the price, too.

"It is one of the most reasonable auditoriums as far as cost is concerned--under $1,000 a concert," he said. "Compare that to $10,000 at the (Orange County Performing Arts) Center, which has only twice the number of seats."

According to stage manager Sutton, the district will not aggressively promote the auditorium as a concert site during the three-year renovation "simply because the place is going to be so much like a construction site for the next couple of years."

Sutton says the project will add parking, a new approach to the auditorium entryway, a new elementary school on the campus and an addition to the high school.

Discussions also have been held regarding improvements to the interior of the auditorium within three to five years, including air conditioning, amenities for artists and patrons and additional rehearsal space. None of these efforts are expected to impinge on the fabled acoustics of the hall.

Sutton calls such a renovation only "a remote possibility."

"I've been down that road before, and I'm not holding my breath," said the stage manager, who has held that post since 1979.

But with the improvements that the school district has decided to make, Sutton says he feels that the site will become "very, very appealing. It's really a very creative plan, which should enhance the whole downtown area. That's sort of why I've hung in here so long."

Still, it would be nice if the venerable old hall were to get a similar face lift and a few modern conveniences, according to Sutton.

"This building is important to the city, and it can be important to the community in general," he said.

"But trying to get it all put together in terms of a funded project where there are actually workmen here banging away with hammers and saws--it seems that there's always been some derailment," he said with a sigh. "But hope springs eternal."

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