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A Timely Entrance : Irvine Barclay Theatre Debuts on Schedule, on Budget and on Solid Ground

September 27, 1990|JAN HERMAN | Jan Herman covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

When the $17.6-million Irvine Barclay Theatre is unveiled on Sunday, Sept. 30, the public may be surprised to discover what it houses. Pleasantly surprised.

The huge, fortress-like building that has sprung up over the past 18 months on the edge of the UC Irvine campus guards a 756-seat theater with the seductive ambience of a beautiful jewel box.

The interior walls, which embody a community dream nearly two decades old, are painted deep rose and evoke a pleasurable warmth. Though sleekly modern, they suggest with their many vertical moldings a stripped-down rococo elegance whose feminine intimacy could never be guessed from the building's cool, masculine exterior of concrete and glass.

But perhaps best of all, no seat in the house--whether in the orchestra or the balcony--is more than 60 feet from the stage. The expression "nosebleed seats," which so aptly describes the stratospheric third tier at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, will never be heard here.

Standing the other day in Cheng Hall, as the Irvine Barclay auditorium was dubbed recently to honor a benefactor, Douglas Rankin surveyed the rows of amethyst-colored velvet seats with a certain pride. He couldn't help noting that the theater's unveiling will come exactly four years to the day that he took the job of shepherding the building into existence.

His pride is understandable. When Rankin arrived from the Midwest, where for a decade he had headed the century-old Woodstock Opera House 55 miles outside of Chicago, construction was still a long way off. Final architectural plans had yet to be drawn. Engineering contracts had yet to be put out for bid. Eleventh-hour political skirmishes had yet to be won.

Moreover, large sums of money still needed to be raised in addition to the larger sums already invested by the venture's three partners--the city of Irvine, which appropriated a total of $11.3 million; UC Irvine, which provided $1.8 million as well as the 2.3-acre site; and the nonprofit Irvine Barclay Theatre Operating Co., which has solicited $4.8 million from corporate and individual contributors.

But all of that is history, especially now that the facility is about to open "on time and on budget"--a record "for almost every new theater we've ever heard of," said Rankin, 41, who is the Irvine Barclay's president and chief operating officer.

If there were any surprises, it was that there were so few of them. "You always expect the unexpected with a construction project as complex as this one," he noted. "But once we worked around the foundation, it was business as usual."

In fact, the little-known story of how that foundation was laid illustrates both the determination to erect the building on schedule and the ability to improvise. Basically a mammoth slab of concrete as much as 12 feet thick in places, it anchors the 55,000-square-foot building to a rocky underground ledge. Nothing short of an apocalypse could budge that slab, Rankin said, but it wasn't in the original plans.

What happened was that bulldozers preparing the site for construction unexpectedly ran into the ledge, which was not supposed to be there, forcing the engineers to rethink their blueprints in a hurry. They could blast away the ledge with dynamite--a risky, time-consuming option--and sink concrete pylons as planned, or they could change strategy and pour a slab as deep and wide as the hole they'd been able to dig.

So they poured. And poured. And poured. Until Rankin began to wonder whether all other construction in the county had been halted because of the seemingly endless procession of concrete-mixing trucks that had been called to the site from miles around. He also found himself wondering how to pay for the added concrete, a major unanticipated expense of about $500,000.

"The exact amount is still being negotiated," Rankin said. To help compensate for that cost, the builders (Los Angeles-based Swinterton & Walberg) achieved savings in other aspects of construction. In the meantime, Rankin added, he more or less had to empty a contingency fund that he had hoped to hold in reserve for start-up expenses.

The irony in all of this is that Rankin's real job--the one that will decide the cultural fate of the theater--has just begun. Although he is the ultimate arbiter of the programming, Rankin must run the theater according to an agreement that allocates a third of the performance schedule to UCI offerings, a third to local organizations' performances and a third to the operating company's own presentations.

Just how Rankin executes that mandate will determine whether the Irvine Barclay Theatre will become a model institution fulfilling artistic goals at all levels of participation or whether it will become a glorified community arts center that might just as well have been built at a fraction of the cost.

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