A little history was made at El Camino College this month.
At 10:22 a.m. May 1, the college's performing arts program got word that box office receipts had matched the $646,394 it cost to stage its most ambitious season ever.
It's the first time the arts program has ever broken even, and officials expect at least $15,000 in profits. Of the season's 88 attractions, 18 were sold out, in contrast with four during the previous five years. As of mid-May, the season had drawn 128,010 people.
But that's nothing compared to the coming season, which starts in September. The Torrance college plans the biggest lineup in its history--153 attractions, some in multiple performances.
Next year's budget will be $1.25 million, almost double the current season's. A concert series will include pops performances, children's concerts, country-Western shows and a classical series that will feature some of Europe's leading orchestras. The names include Tony Bennett, Cleo Laine, Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
Television humorist Andy Rooney will kick off a lecture series, something that Robert Haag, dean of community and cultural services, said is new for the college. Other speakers will include Dr. Ruth, Ann Landers and Pearl Bailey.
Change Threatened Program
Ironically, the rapid expansion of performing arts, and the financial security they are beginning to enjoy, grew out of a change in community college financing that, if anything, threatened to gut a program that El Camino had spent two decades building.
The 1978 property tax-cutting Proposition 13 sharply reduced the college funds available for the arts, El Camino officials said, and the college reduced its program by 50%.
"Ever since then, we've been working to make the production program self-supporting," Haag said.
Another blow came four years ago when the state community college system was faced with criticism in the Legislature that many college offerings were not focused on academics or vocational subjects. The system directed that such programs either be cut or made self-supporting through fees. Community service activities--such as concerts--were included, and this accelerated El Camino's drive to make the arts solvent.
"We would have had to cut the program if we could not make it self-supporting. And the loss of that would have been a disaster," said El Camino President Rafael Cortada.
Conductor and Composer
If Haag spent years building up the program, it was Cortada and Philip Westin, dean of fine arts, who put it on a business basis. "Bob brings tradition and history, and I bring the entrepreneurial approach," said Westin, a conductor and composer who once headed an ambitious performing arts program at Cerritos College until budget-cutting curtailed it. He came to El Camino in 1985.
Last year, they coined a name, South Bay Center for the Arts, for what goes on in the college's main auditorium, art gallery, campus theater and recital hall.
"Some of it was glamour," Westin said of the new name. It was also a way of putting what he called an umbrella over the fine arts program, which includes music and arts education and student performances.
Along with the new name came the decision to expand the program and increase audiences through a $100,000 advertising and publicity campaign.
The college ran advertising in The Times and the Daily Breeze, put out what Westin called "an enormous amount" of public service radio announcements and mailed 250,000 brochures within the college district and to people on the mailing list of the Music Center of Los Angeles.
Officials at El Camino, as well as arts observers in the South Bay, say the success of the college as a big-name performing arts center stems from having built the right-sized auditorium--2,054 seats--at the right time. No one in the South Bay has built a hall that large since, and no community college could do it today because of the cost.
The auditorium was built 20 years ago as a gamble by then-President Stuart E. Marsee, whose name it now bears.
"He didn't know whether it was something the South Bay needed, or whether it was a white elephant," Haag said. "But he decided the college's mission was to provide an intellectual and cultural center for the South Bay."
According to an anecdote, when the first artist appeared--pianist Artur Rubinstein, playing for the then-whopping fee of $7,000--one of the college's trustees wondered if they were going to lose their shirts. Another said that if it was a bust, they hadn't made a $7,000 mistake--they had made a $2-million mistake. That's what the auditorium cost.
It was no mistake, something Haag and Westin attribute to the auditorium's location. It is close enough to other arts centers--such as UCLA, the Long Beach Convention Center and Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena--to share in multiple bookings by artists appearing in Los Angeles, but far enough away not to have any real competition.