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The Play's Their Thing : Kentwood Players Have Stayed in the Spotlight for 40 Years

December 06, 1990|GERALD FARIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It started with a handful of PTA members at a Westchester elementary school who wanted to put on a show.

One play whetted their appetites for another, and a little local publicity soon swelled the group's ranks to 30 or 40 people.

That was in 1950, and the Kentwood Players--a community theater group built on the love of being on stage and hearing the applause--is still going strong.

"We're pure community theater. No one is paid. Most never ask how many hours we put in because it would scare us," said Hal Fisher, a photographer who has been a Kentwood member for 25 years.

The company often fills its 109-seat Westchester Playhouse, especially for popular musicals such as the current attraction, "Annie Get Your Gun," with its story of Wild West cowboys, Indians and townsfolk. About 1,200 people, largely from the South Bay and Westside, are regular subscribers to Kentwood's six-show season.

The theater group itself has a dues-paying membership of 200 people who do everything from acting and singing in the productions to building sets, making costumes, ushering or helping with the business side of theater production.

About 60 people have been Kentwood members for more than 25 years, and players who move away don't necessarily leave the group.

"I'm now in Tarzana, which doesn't mean a thing," said Irv Rosen, a retired CPA who, with his wife, Michelle, joined Kentwood 33 years ago when they lived in Culver City. "I just did a show with half the cast from the (San Fernando) Valley. The trip down there is worth it."

Jon Abramson, a North Hollywood medical administrator and president of the Kentwood board of directors, said the group has survived and grown because it identified a purpose at the very beginning.

"We wanted to have fun doing productions, but we also wanted to serve the community and give it what it wants, not just do plays or productions that make us happy," he said.

Kentwood's three-member play selection committee strives for a balance between meaty plays that please actors and popular fare that delights audiences, according to Fisher. One musical is done each season.

After "Annie Get Your Gun," which will run through Dec. 15, Kentwood will round out its season with "Isn't It Romantic?," "The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" and "Steel Magnolias."

Comedies and musicals are audience favorites, but Fisher said: "It was decided by the original founders that we would not operate on pap or pop. It's like eating sugar all the time."

So to balance out the Neil Simon comedies, the popular chestnuts like "Arsenic and Old Lace" and the musicals like "Sweet Charity," Kentwood also has done things like "Equus" and "Pippin." When it tackled "Death of a Salesman," the box-office results were a little like the title--50 or 60 people a night.

A theatergoer in every seat, obviously, is preferable. That's because Kentwood runs entirely on memberships and box office receipts. "There are no grants, no parks and recreation backing, no angels or corporate support," Fisher said. "It's strictly self-supported."

While courting audiences, Kentwood tries to give its members enough variety to keep them coming back year after year. Abramson said many people don't want to act, so they have the opportunity to produce plays, work backstage or take part in managing the theater.

There also are membership meetings, cast get-togethers, opening- and closing-night parties, annual awards and group jaunts to other community theaters where Kentwood members are performing. Recently, the destination was Las Vegas, where a Kentwood couple had moved. The theater there was dubbed "Kentwood East" for the night.

Said Abramson: "We're a close-knit group, almost like a family."

Housewives, real estate agents, businessmen, aerospace engineers and a smattering of professional actors make up the Kentwood ranks. "They'll star in one show and in the next one will be playing a bit part, or maybe building sets or swabbing out the back area. It's pretty democratic," Fisher said.

When a small warehouse near the Westchester-Inglewood boundary was converted into the Westchester Playhouse nearly 30 years ago, it was a group effort. "All the members got together and put in a lot of Sundays and weeknights," Fisher recalled. "They brought hammers and saws, crowbars and sledgehammers and gutted the inside out to the walls."

But it is the love of theater and the thrill of the stage that keeps them going.

Said Rosen: "After a tense moment, when something goes wrong on stage, we say, 'This is something we do for fun?' But it's the exhilaration and excitement of being part of a show. When it's a successful show, we're very proud. . . . You can't get the same thrill out of collecting stamps."

The playhouse is located at 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. For information call (213) 645-5156.

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