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Around the Foothills

Now what was it that the Alex Theatre needed saving from?

October 05, 1990|DOUG SMITH

A few months ago, a willowy Hollywood type who had recently moved to Glendale had a mega-vision for his new community.

He saw sleepy Brand Boulevard awakened by searchlights and limousines. He saw Hollywood celebrities mingling with Glendale's movers and shakers, gathered to witness the story of the city's most treasured cultural artifact and, in the same act, to commence its rebirth.

There would be a cast of 50 on the stage of the Alex Theatre, where live performances hadn't been seen for 50 years.

In a Broadway-style revue, they would sing and dance the story of the Alex itself. It would be a two-night sellout at $50 a ticket.

Paul Shipton, the man who foresaw all this, said he would write the script himself, choreograph the dance routines, direct the show and do it all with volunteers, so the Alex would get the money.

Oh, there was one more thing, Shipton said, immune to self-doubt: Bob Hope would be there in person.

Anyone who would fall for a line like that has got to be some kind of sap. But, at the appointed time last week, it turned out exactly as Shipton said. He had neglected only one detail, that Hope would deliver a monologue just for the Alex.

"I think it's a shame the way they're turning big, beautiful theaters into cold complexes with multiple screens," the comedian said. "It's like the Japanese buying the White House and turning it condo. . . . I think Glendale, the state, everybody should get behind this campaign and try to save this very valuable landmark. And I'm happy to help."

When Bob Hope speaks, Glendale listens. To ask around town this week, it's hard to find anyone who remembers just what the 65-year-old vaudeville palace and movie hall was being saved from--certainly not the wrecker's ball.

City Council members, four of whom missed the show while touring dams up north, remember with absolute clarity that they were always for saving the Alex.

"My support of the Alex Theatre is non-wavering," Mayor Larry Zarian said Tuesday. "I feel strongly that the Alex Theatre is not only historic, but it is a part of Glendale and it must remain."

Even the Glendale Historical Society, the civic group that started the "Save the Alex" movement, became vague on just what the danger was.

"I have always felt the City Council wasn't sure what they were going to do with it," said Andrea Humberger, president of the society, soft-pedaling the case.

The enemy, then, was indifference, indecision, uncertainty. Those crept into the picture, all agree, some years ago when an Orange County arts consultant advised the city to replace the Alex with something better--a municipal theater built for the performing arts.

The report became gospel for some in City Hall, but the Glendale Historical Society--the same group that has single-mindedly battled the city to a standstill over a dilapidated Victorian house--thought nothing could be better than the Alex.

Two years ago, the historical society issued a position paper saying the Alex could be restored for performing arts at much below the cost of rebuilding.

"The next phase was you had to go somewhere from issuing a position paper," Humberger said. "That's how we came up with the idea of a show."

The historical society proved better at fighting City Hall than producing shows, however.

The plan languished until Shipton, a former New York dancer then directing in Hollywood, came looking for a way to become involved in his new community.

In volunteer organizations, those who say they can perform get the chance. Shipton's objectives were clear: prove that the Alex can handle a large live show, demonstrate that the community cares and raise, say, $50,000 to pay for a renovation and marketing plan.

With no budget for talent, Shipton put together a volunteer chorus line that looked as ragged as an elementary school class photo. Through months of rehearsals, he molded the short ones and the heavy ones, the tall ones and the awkward ones into a dancing machine that focused on a few good voices and a few good legs.

His story was devilishly good. Ostensibly, the history of the Alex, it was more subtly a nostalgic look at life in Glendale through the tumult of the last six decades.

The community cared. For a moment after Hope arrived Thursday night, a near stampede enveloped the city's top financiers, developers, commissioners, school trustees, society matrons, a county supervisor and state senator. The only person who wasn't ecstatic as the bodies kept squeezing into the already packed foyer was a worried-looking fire marshal.

No one went away displeased. What the show lacked in dazzling athletics, it made up in warmth, verve, schmaltz and, of course, numbers.

"We put a 50-member cast on the stage and it was sensational," boasted David L. Smith, a member of the historical society.

When it ended, there was a standing ovation, at least partly inspired by the 20-foot-wide doughnut-shaped galactic starship that floated out from the balcony during the "Star Wars" scene.

And, this week, there is no indifference or uncertainty to be found about the Alex.

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