COMPTON — It houses the stage where actor James Coburn learned his trade and where countless numbers of this city's young people performed in school plays, concerts and Christmas pageants.
It survived the 1933 earthquake and maintenance cutbacks caused by shrinking school budgets. Then the Whittier earthquake damaged the ceiling last October, forcing it to close.
Now, city and school district officials are vowing to return Compton High School Auditorium to its former glory as a civic auditorium.
The City Council included $1.5 million for renovations in the 1988-89 budget approved Tuesday. The money, said Assistant City Manager Paul H. Richards, is part of an estimated $2.5-million renovation program that will take two years and ultimately include ultramodern lighting and sound systems for the 1,750-seat facility.
"We envision an auditorium that will be rivaled by none," said Richards, who is overseeing the project for the city. "I'd like to be able to see Ray Charles or Ella Fitzgerald. When you get these giants coming in here you change the (perception people have) of your community."
The city, Compton Unified School District and Compton Community College are participating in the restoration, although funding is being provided by the city's sale last year of $40 million in redevelopment bonds.
Restoration of the auditorium will help improve the quality of life for the people of Compton, said William J. Murray, associate school superintendent. "What we are looking for," Murray said, "is to make this a civic auditorium that would function for our schoolchildren during the day and in the evenings and weekends . . . (bring) artists and theater groups to this community."
At one time, the auditorium did attract big-name entertainment. Tana McCoy, the City Council liaison officer and a 1975 graduate of Compton High School, said she remembers attending a concert by the pop musical group Earth, Wind and Fire.
As in other urban areas, Compton's civic life has deteriorated in recent years as crime and unemployment rates have risen. The city does not have a movie theater. Downtown has only two sit-down restaurants, a Sizzler and a pizza parlor.
At one time, Compton's own civic orchestra and choir, as well as a children's orchestra, performed regularly in the auditorium, said Councilwoman Jane Robbins, a 1936 graduate of Compton High School. "We would have as many as 500 children on stage," said Robbins, who also remembers when the high school staged elaborate productions of "The Mikado" and "The Student Prince."
Drama and music classes once were held in classrooms and studios that took up an entire floor under the auditorium. For years, said Richards, also a Compton High School graduate, city schools produced musicians, dancers, artists and actors. Many students went on to join the Hall Johnson Choir, an all-black group headquartered in Watts, Robbins said. Dick Hanna of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon duo, is a Compton graduate, she said.
Dr. Edison O. Jackson, president of Compton Community College, said the restoration project represents "a real commitment that the City Council is making to the quality of life and the culture."
Though the college won't contribute financially, its performing arts department can use the auditorium, Jackson said. Once prospective Compton College students learn there is a full-fledged theater in the city, college enrollment will increase, he predicted.
The college's theater seats only 200 people, he said.
City and school district officials believe the auditorium has existed since 1927, the same year Compton College opened as a junior college. The junior college and high school were in the same school district and shared a campus, including the auditorium. Coburn was a junior college student, Richards said.
In 1953, the college organized into its own district and moved to its present site on Greenleaf Boulevard in the city's southeast corner. The high school district took over the old campus in the center of the city on Acacia Avenue.
The first phase of the auditorium restoration will include a face lift, the addition of a portico and new landscaping. Some new seats, ceiling repairs, dressing room renovations and painting are scheduled for the interior.
Preliminary checks found that the earthquake damage in October was limited to ceiling tiles and plaster, school and city officials said.
The first phase is expected to be completed by the end of the year and the theater will reopen for some uses, Richards said.
Richards said the City Council is committed to spending another $1 million next year to modernize the auditorium so it would be suitable for various kinds of entertainers--musicians, dancers, actors.
This summer a task force of school, city and college personnel will begin planning the auditorium's future, said the school district's Murray. The city and school district are to work on an agreement covering such issues as maintenance and operating policies.
The task force will also explore ways to draw major entertainment such as the Dance Theater of Harlem. Richards and Murray said they are confident there is an audience for such groups and equally confident that entertainment troupes will agree to come to Compton.
"Compton," said Richards, "is the largest black city west of the Mississippi River. Compton is well known across the country."
Richards and Murray agreed that it would be nice for the city and school district to break even financially on operating the auditorium. But the overriding motives, they said, are to uplift the civic and cultural life of the city.