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Randy Lewis

'Beetlejuice' Sprinkles Hope for Zany County Alternatives

May 08, 1988|Randy Lewis

A lot of the professional crystal-ball gazers in Hollywood seem caught off guard by the runaway success of "Beetlejuice," director Tim Burton's wacky, supernatural dark-gray comedy.

Evidently, few expected the man behind the thoroughly loony "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" to come up with a mass-appeal hit movie, especially one about yuppies in purgatory. But I find it strangely comforting: Like the New Coke/Classic Coke debacle of a few years ago, it is a rare instance of proof that the boys in corporate demographics haven't yet reduced all human existence to a series of statistical equations.

It is reassuring to see from time to time that there is still a ghost in the machine--especially when it comes to the most human of all endeavors, the arts.

Here in Orange County, that spirit has manifested itself lately in several haunts: at the normally staid Forum Theater in Yorba Linda for a rollicking concert by Cajun Queen Ida & Her Bon Temps Zydeco Band; at the even stuffier Orange County Performing Arts Center for a Johnny Cash show; at the Anaheim Cultural Arts Center for monthly dance-concerts with the Louisiana Cajun Trio; in the Bowers Museum parking lot for the Waiwhetu Maori tribal folk dancers from New Zealand, and most recently at the oh-so-conventional Edwards Cinemas in Costa Mesa for a Sunday morning series of rarely shown Japanese films.

Each has been an eminently worthy event that made its way into the county through oddball channels or circumstances.

Certainly the availability of top-drawer cultural activities here has grown dramatically in the '80s, with the opening of the Arts Center, the continuing growth of South Coast Repertory and the Newport Harbor Art Museum and the presence of two major pop concert amphitheaters, among other venues.

As the county's arts scene becomes more professional, better managed and more all-round legit, the bush-league reputation that has dogged it for so long is steadily being chipped away.

Let's hope it doesn't go too far--as well it could, given the county's propensity for carefree living in extensively planned, meticulously designed communities.

Happily, it seems that there is still room here for a zany, out-of-left-field experiment to succeed. It is not that either avenue is necessarily preferable to the other: While the high-powered pros may give our cultural scene its foundation, the arts-world mavericks supply the zip to make it vibrant.

Through the willingness to take a risk on the unknown now and then, the colorful music of Queen Ida wound up in the sedate surroundings of the Forum Theater, where booking officials usually stick with such middle-America performers as George Gobel (forgotten but not gone) and Anna Maria Alberghetti.

How did it happen? Someone saw Ida's name on a list of California Arts Council-supported touring attractions and signed her up, simply because she sounded interesting.

That same kind of willingness explains why the Maori group made its only county appearance earlier this year on a generic stage-on-wheels owned by Santa Ana and rolled into the Bowers parking lot. Too bad the Arts Center and even the local colleges lost out; seems they couldn't find the room or the time.

A bunch of Cal State Fullerton theater graduates hoped, but had no empirical proof, that Orange County people would be open to adventurous, out-of-the-mainstream plays. So they rented industrial office space in Santa Ana and opened their Alternative Repertory Theatre.

Johnny Cash strode into the Arts Center itself--albeit through the back door cracked open by an independent concert promoter who leased the hall, not via the main entrance with a booking by the Center's own people.

Because of the success of that first country concert in Segerstrom Hall, will Center officials be more likely to take the plunge themselves next time around? Let's hope so.

Experimentation implies risk--artistic, economic and sometimes political. So along with the occasional happy ending, we also have grim reminders--such as the vacant building in Huntington Beach that housed the always-unpredictable Safari Sam's nightclub--that such experiments don't always endure. If there were no failures, everyone would do it.

Maybe it isn't fair--in a perfect world all artistic undertakings would deserve, and receive, equal support.

But here in the real world, it is good to know that even the most ephemeral of artists still have a chance, even if it is a ghost of one, of showing up in Orange County.

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