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How the Pasadena Playhouse Came Back Strong : Once bankrupt, the theater now is back in business

July 09, 1989|BARBARA ISENBERG

Susan Dietz, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, was sitting in her tiny basement office just after a staff lunch in honor of her 42nd birthday. There was a knock on the door, and in walked two smiling men with a huge present. She jumped to her feet and ripped off the wrapping paper to find . . . a fake window.

She'd always said she wanted a window, explained David Houk and Donald Loze, the real estate developers whose theatrical affiliate manages the Playhouse. And because the Pasadena Playhouse is one of the hottest properties around, what Suzi wanted, Suzi got.

The legendary Pasadena Playhouse, which produced 76 world premieres, 24 American premieres and every one of Shakespeare's plays between 1917 and 1943 alone, is back at it. Reopened just three years ago after two decades of neglect, the Playhouse already has 14,000 subscribers, a terrific renewal rate, and dozens of volunteers who do everything from mend costumes to serve hot meals to actors.

The Playhouse may be on its third management team in as many years, but Dietz and managing director Lars Hansen have obviously been paying attention to what worked and what didn't work for their predecessors. Four Pasadena Playhouse shows traveled either across the country or across town since 1986, and despite reviews so bad on the Broadway production of "Mail" that they billed it as the "abused new musical," Rupert Holmes' hit thriller, "Accomplice"--another Playhouse world premiere--is Broadway-bound this fall.

The 700-seat Pasadena Playhouse enters its 72nd season at a trot. Ninety-five percent of this season's $3.2-million budget came from box-office receipts, and its current show, "Stepping Out," could well run all summer. The '88-89 season pulled in three Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle awards and 32 Drama-Logue awards, and an impressive 60% of the audience is on subscriptions, nearly as high as the Mark Taper Forum's 66%.

Community spirit, entrepreneurial initiative and savvy programming have come together in Pasadena, turning the Playhouse into one of the most successful theater companies in town. "Good theater attracts audiences," says Taper managing director Stephen Albert. "What's good about it is that audiences that go to Pasadena will also go downtown, to the West Side or to Hollywood."

On April 19, 1986, the Pasadena Playhouse reopened with George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man," and Nikos Psacharopoulos directing such stars as John Rubinstein and Richard Thomas. Inside, the theater was beautifully restored to its earlier splendor, while outside, a red carpet led from the theater to the party tent across the street.

It was a long time coming. Gilmor Brown, the visionary who created a theater, a school and a legend, was less far-sighted about succession, and everything started falling apart after his death in 1960. The IRS closed the Playhouse down in 1965 over missed withholding payments. The financial situation became steadily worse until bankruptcy was declared in 1969. The Bank of America claimed the Playhouse land and buildings in 1970, and a few months later, the bankruptcy court auc tioned off everything else to pay creditors.

There were a fire, a few floods, and plenty of fizzled plans to revive the Playhouse. "The community rallied and rallied and nothing ever seemed to pull it together," recalls then-board chairman Peggy Ebright. "There was a constant cry for help. They loved the Playhouse and wanted it to be successful but had the feeling it was a white elephant, that you were kicking a dead horse."

Finally, in 1975, the city of Pasadena stepped in and bought the Playhouse from the bank for $325,000. Two years later, the federal Economic Development Administration came through with $1.3 million to renovate it. All that was missing was the right angel.

Enter David Houk, 43, a local real estate developer who has called theaters "good urban planning tools." He envisioned both the Philharmonic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles and the Playhouse as centerpieces in mixed-use projects, and enticed Stephen Rothman, who at the time was converting an old vaudeville movie house into the Paramount Arts Centre in Aurora, Ill., to come and renovate both institutions here.

The Philharmonic was later torn down--although Houk continues to develop the Pershing Square Centre that surrounds its old site--and Houk spent the next seven years negotiating with the City of Pasadena to acquire the Playhouse. Houk says he and his partners have already invested more than $5 million--$2 million in direct donations to the Playhouse, and another $3 million in refurbishment and carrying costs. Their rewards are still to come: Houk and others have been acquiring and optioning other properties on the block, with future possible plans for a hotel, office buildings, retail space and parking.

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