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SCOPE

Civic Theatre director moved to La Mirada to be in charge of something, and found out he could do it.

October 15, 1987|BETTINA BOXALL | Times Staff Writer

What do you tell a friend when you don't like his show, but you don't want to lie and you don't want to be cruel?

You pat him on the back and emphatically declare, "You've done it again!"

It is a phrase that has been uttered by and to Thomas Mitze during his tenure as producing director of the La Mirada Civic Theatre, the city's enduring venture in professional theater. In charge of the operation since its opening season 10 years ago last month, Mitze has ridden what he calls the roller coaster of theater production, experiencing moments great and not so great.

"There's nothing worse than a comedy that no one's laughing at," said Mitze recently, sinking into a just-delivered couch in the newly redecorated lobby of the 1,300-seat theater on La Mirada Boulevard. "Some of the longest nights I've spent in theaters are comedies I've produced that weren't funny, and everybody you know is there. . . ."

The hours before curtain time can be nearly as bad.

"We had an unnamed actress who had a guru in the Valley who would call her every day to tell her whether she (ought) to play that night. We never knew if she was going to do the show. That made us very nervous." Happily, the guru always decreed that the show should go on.

It almost didn't on the opening night of the theater's first season of Broadway shows in 1977. The actress portraying one of the central characters, an elderly woman who had no speaking parts but remained on stage most of the performance, took a tumble backstage less than two hours before curtain time.

Frantic Search for Replacement

Mitze rushed back to help. He took one look at the toppled woman and "I knew, I just knew it." She had broken her hip. Mitze and his colleagues had an hour to come up with a 70-year-old actress to play the part.

Resorting to the audition list, they starting calling: "Can you come to La Mirada tonight and go to Broadway in two weeks?" They found someone who said yes, and "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" started only a few minutes late.

During a musical revue called "Perfectly Frank," Cloris Leachman did her toppling on stage, only she did it so gracefully that the audience had nary a clue that she was slightly hurt. While Leachman launched into a torch song, Mitze called the local paramedics.

"Two fire engines came with their sirens and their lights. Guys came out with their axes and rain coats like the place was burning down. We had 15 firemen and paramedics backstage.

"We got her offstage at the appropriate time. We propped her up and were wrapping her leg up. Halfway before they finished, her next number came up so two chorus boys carried her on stage. She sang that number. They brought her back off and gave her to the paramedics and they finished wrapping her up.

"La Mirada has excellent paramedics."

Cary Grant Provided Greatest Thrill

Mitze's greatest thrill was hosting Cary Grant's show of reminiscences, "A Conversation with Cary Grant."

"Cary Grant was just what you'd want him to be. He was suave and sophisticated and debonair and charming. I've never met a nicer man." Members of the audience were of the same mind. "One lady stood up and said, 'I've always been in love with you. I had to marry Fred and here is Fred.' He's sitting right next to her. . . ."

La Mirada lured Mitze from Wisconsin, a land of winters so frigid he used to thaw out his car lock with his cigarette lighter. He was assistant director of the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, and before that ran the discount ticket program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He came to La Mirada to "be in charge of something and find out if I could do it."

It seems he can. With an annual budget of more than $2 million, the theater earns most of it through ticket sales for its own season of Broadway shows as well as touring productions, and by renting the performance hall for local events. The theater, a renovated movie house next to La Mirada Mall, is dark only about a dozen nights a year.

The city chips in $200,000 a year to pay staff salaries, utilities and other operating costs, and a six-member community board oversees the enterprise. Mitze says he has only once locked horns with the board, and it was over the color of the new lobby carpet. He preferred red. They wanted--and got--blue. He's learning to like it.

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