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Sleepy Stores Hope Plays Are the Thing : Ventura Harbor: Retailers and restaurateurs say a theater company may wake up business. The much-traveled troupe gets new life.


Officials at financially troubled Ventura Harbor hope a resident theater troupe will enliven slack sales and restaurant business when it opens its doors on New Year's Eve.

Theater-by-the-Sea, an enterprise that over the years has failed to take root at several Ventura County locations, will try again in a ground-floor space at Ventura Harbor Village, below Hornblower's restaurant.

Ventura Port District trustees recently approved a one-year lease with Elizabeth Harris, the theater's founder and director of the Ventura County Repertory Theater, which will supply its talent.

"Clearly the village is struggling," said Richard Parsons, general manager of the Ventura Port District, which acquired control of the harbor buildings through the bankruptcy of their developer. "We need things like the theater to draw people down there."

In the past year, the harbor's gross revenue increased by only $200,000, from $10.9 million to $11.1 million, said Parsons.

"That's not even enough to keep up with inflation," he said.

For her part, Harris sees the 2,000-square-foot space as the ideal spot--not only as a long-term home for her itinerant Repertory Theater, but also as a location that offers a real night out in Ventura: a live performance and late night supper, possibly with package discount deals she hopes to arrange with harbor restaurants.

"I'm so happy we're going to be there," said Harris, who will continue her children's theater classes in the new space.

Harris and Newman Properties, Harbor Village's property manager, this week were negotiating final details of a contract. In addition to regular performances paid for by patrons, the theater company will be hired by the harbor to provide free children's shows, Harris said.

For a small theater, the rent is a bit stiff at $1,979 per month plus 2% of gross sales, she said. But the contract for the children's performances will ensure a steady cash flow. Still, Harris admits to pangs of envy over Ventura's Plaza Players city-subsidized $200,000 move from a former church on Santa Clara Street, an area that is being redeveloped by the city, into new digs in the remodeled Livery Building on Palm Street.

"When I read about the extent of the help they got, I wept," said Harris, 39, a 10-year veteran of theater in Ventura. "They deserved what they got. But I was green with envy--I hated the position I was in."

Harris learned the theater trade in off-Broadway productions and character acting in Hollywood before she founded the Repertory Theater in 1979. She began with the original 40-seat Theater-by-the-Sea next to the Ventura Theater on South Chestnut. When the lease was up in 1983, the owners declined to renew and the company moved into what is now Art Deco, a women's boutique on East Main Street.

After only a year, city building inspectors said major repairs were needed there to meet safety codes, and the company hit the road again. This time the group landed at Bard Memorial Hospital, a Ventura hillside landmark that was the county's first hospital. But monthly rent of $2,600 drove them out, Harris said.

Harris moved to Oxnard, where she set up an office and teaching studios in a large Victorian house downtown. The troupe began performing melodrama in a building near the La Gloria Market, but that effort failed when cars were vandalized in the parking lot, Harris said.

Next, the company began performing at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium, but was edged out by another theater group. Last year, the company performed dinner theater at Ottavio's banquet room in Camarillo, but the limited menu lost its appeal to theatergoers quickly, Harris said.

"I look like some kind of Gypsy, flitting from one thing to another," Harris said. "The truth is I don't like change. I never wanted to move from the Ventura Theater location. But I'm a survivor. I go with the flow and I'll go wherever I have to to do the work."

The group recently signed a five-year contract with the county for Shakespeare and other classical performances at Foster Park in Ojai. Harris plans to continue to use Foster for large productions and its annual two-week summer theater camp.

She will reserve the 99-seat "equity-waiver" Theater-by-the-Sea for more intimate dramas and comedies. Theaters with fewer than 100 seats can use professional actors without paying union wages.

The reopening will be bittersweet, with the memories it evokes of lost leases and opportunities. But Harris hopes for the best.

"We think this will make everybody happy," she said.

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