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Stage Watch

Why the Nederlanders Are Out at Wilshire; Counting Down at the Back Alley Theatre

September 28, 1989|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

The news that the Nederlander Organization will no longer be operating the Wilshire Theatre is only partly surprising, given the record of down time the theater has had since the Nederlanders took over its management in 1981.

In fact, Tom Stagen Realty and Management Inc., which owns the 1,998-seat house on Wilshire near La Cienega, sued the Nederlanders in 1986 for breach-of-lease. (Terms of the lease were $12,500 a month against 1% of the gross, plus 50% of the profit, according to Nederlander attorney Neil Papiano.) But in an out-of-court settlement reached earlier this year, it was Stagen Realty that had to do the paying.

It agreed to buy out the balance of the Nederlanders' 34-year lease for $1 million, a figure later confirmed by both Papiano and Tom Stagen, president of Stagen Realty.

"I felt that I had a good case," said Stagen, "but it's difficult to prove a case like that. The theater was dark from September '87 to November '88. Utterly dark. But how do you prove that this is intentional or negligent?"

Why was the theater dark so much of the time? Nederlander vice president Stan Seiden reiterated his often-heard litany of explanations that "the Wilshire is a difficult theater to book. The stage is very shallow; there is no parking for weekday matinees. . . ."

"I don't buy all this business about lack of product or a shallow stage," Stagen countered. "Either (the Wilshire) was too small for a show that was too large, or it was too large for a show that was too small. You couldn't put 'The King and I' in there, but a lot of other big shows you could.

"The Nederlanders would deny this, but one might construe that they prefered to put things in the theaters they own (the Pantages and the Henry Fonda) so they wouldn't have to pay 50% of the profits to the landlord.

"The gut-wrenching part," he added, "is that, as we came closer to trial, the theater became the right size more often. They put Michael Feinstein, 'Oba Oba' and 'Steel Magnolias' in there. To me, these bookings only reaffirmed that the theater was bookable."

But Seiden casts a more jaundiced eye on the dispute.

"About two years ago," he said, "Stagen asked for a meeting. We offered him back the lease. His attitude was, 'Why should I take it? I have a tenant who pays the rent. But if you pay me, I will.' "

"Stan has a remarkable memory," Stagen said in response. "Selective. I don't remember. I'm just very disappointed in the turn the theater took under the Nederlanders. Jimmy (Nederlander) always said, 'I'm not in the theater business, I'm in the real estate business.' Well, I am in the real estate business, but from the time we opened the theater in 1980 until they took it over (1981), we had something in there about 40 weeks out of 52: 'Beatlemania,' 'The Oldest Living Graduate.' We also had some bad shows but, in retrospect, we were doing a good job, though I didn't think so at the time."

Stagen Realty has asked for a 30-day extension to deliver the $1 million, which means that the Nederlanders will not be out of the theater until Oct. 30.

Stagen then expects to either sell or lease the building to someone who "I hope would operate it as a theater and take full advantage of its potential, which I feel the present operators have not accomplished."

BACKING AWAY: The countdown has started for the closure of the Back Alley Theatre in Van Nuys-- not the organization, but the 99-seat facility. It will be vacated Oct. 31 when the lease is up, but this is not necessarily bad news.

"We bought this theater three years ago and sold it two years ago," said Laura Zucker, producing co-director of the Back Alley with her husband, Allan Miller. "We built the end of the lease into the contract ourselves. We knew we didn't want to stay in this theater indefinitely. We've outgrown it.

"We're producing some high-quality children's theater and touring the state with our adult productions. In our touring, we play much larger theaters. We feel the Valley deserves a bigger theater."

Will it get it? Zucker isn't sure. She said she and Miller will be moving the Back Alley offices to one of two locations in Van Nuys that she's "nailing down."

Beyond that, they'll be taking a hiatus from adult programming "for about six months," but plan to resume their acclaimed children's show, Will and Dion Alden Holt's "Max & Zoey, Zoey & Max" at the current facility Oct. 7-29, before moving it to another theater (as yet undetermined). They'll also be producing another children's show--David Pinto's "Be-Bop Sizzle Pop!"--and, in 1990-91, will do an extensive state tour of their runaway hit, "The Voice of the Prairie."

"The problem," Zucker said, "is that there is no professional theater in the (San Fernando) Valley of more than 100 seats. To build or modify an existing building is a very expensive proposition. One of the things people in this community need to decide is how important theater, and the Back Alley in particular, is to them.

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