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City Again Considers Staging a Comeback for Historic Theater

December 06, 1990|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Glendale's historic Alex Theatre, left in the dark on the city's agenda of important projects for more than two years, is coming into the spotlight again.

At the incessant prodding of the Glendale Historical Society, city officials said they are ready to revive the question of what to do with the Alex. Only this time, Mayor Larry Zarian said, he hopes to find answers to the question without the controversy that has dogged the subject for years.

In the past, the controversy centered on whether to preserve the Alex and its neo-Greek architecture as a grand, single-screen theater; convert the bulk of the building into a performing arts center; or demolish most of the old building to make way for a new arts facility.

The question has never been settled.

Now, even before the issue again is officially raised, it is generating an undercurrent of controversy.

The historical society, which staged a fund-raising extravaganza in September to launch its drive to save the Alex, planned next to name a task force to plot the theater's future, said Andrea Humberger, society president. But Zarian called off the plan last week, saying he would appoint a mayor's committee on the Alex within a few days.

Zarian's action left leaders of the historical society a bit miffed, because they said the composition of the task force will determine the outcome of the theater--the leading role they were prepared to play.

"It is really crucial to the project that we involve expertise in the restoration of a historic theater, through representation on a city task force, as well as a consultant who is ultimately hired," Humberger said.

But Zarian said he plans to appoint a committee that "will not be a power-grab group." Referring to earlier conflict surrounding the issue, he said: "I want to appoint a group that is going to work together toward the same goal--that is the Alex Theatre for all people. I don't want any one person or any one group to take credit for its viability, because it is going to be a community attraction."

City officials dropped discussion of the Alex several years ago because of a din of disagreement over how the theater should be used. Rather than get caught in the fray, council members backed out of the discussion, saying the city had no funds available for a costly restoration.

Since then, the various factions--historians, cultural groups and business leaders--have worked quietly to resolve their differences and pool their resources. Their efforts came to fruition in late September when a committee of the historical society--the Alex Theatre Revitalization Project--raised $15,000 by staging a two-day, Broadway-style show at the Alex.

City Manager David Ramsay said the show demonstrated widespread community support for the Alex and rekindled the interest of city officials. "The sense I get from the community is not if the Alex should be restored, but how it should be restored," Ramsay said.

Humberger credits the success of the Alex extravaganza for the city's quick action in October in attempting to acquire the famed Lanterman theater pipe organ from neighboring La Canada Flintridge.

Although the Glendale City Council has taken no official action to purchase the organ, its members unanimously support a proposal to purchase the rare Wurlitzer and move it to the Alex, Ramsay said.

Zarian said the city is particularly interested in acquiring the Lanterman organ because the Alex once had its own pipe organ and because the previous owner of La Canada's instrument, late Assemblyman Frank Lanterman who was a professional organist, played at the Alex the night it opened in 1925.

Negotiations are expected to be completed within a few weeks, Ramsay said.

"It was a very nice coincidence that the organ came up at right about the same time as the extravaganza," Humberger said. "The organ happened because of all of the excitement."

Even though historical society members say they are disappointed that the city has preempted their plans to appoint a task force, they say they are encouraged by the city's interest. "Our purpose is really to get the dialogue going, to move the Alex up on the city's agenda," Humberger said.

Jeanne Armstrong, Glendale redevelopment director, said a proposal for studying the Alex will be submitted to the Glendale Redevelopment Agency within a few weeks.

Zarian said he hopes the team he names will finally settle an issue that has been debated in Glendale for more than a decade--how and where to establish some sort of a cultural arts center. "I want a group that can work together to accomplish a goal that I have, and that is the survival and completion of the Alex as a cultural arts center with the Lanterman organ as a part of it," he said.

Humberger said Zarian's action "is a positive sign that the city is ready to take steps on the Alex."

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