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Armchair Tourists Make Film Series a Hot Ticket : Travel: Some view them to choose destinations while others use the travelogues as an escape. The Ambassador Auditorium seems to have a hit on its hands.

February 28, 1991|RANDYE HODER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last weekend, Betty and Bob Knowles drove all the way from Camarillo to Pasadena's Ambassador Auditorium to see a film about the Andes. Next week they plan to return to see another, this one about the romantic city of Venice.

"I'm an armchair traveler," said Betty Knowles, 69. "I sink into a nice comfortable chair at the Ambassador and travel to wonderful places."

But don't get any ideas about following the Knowles' path--at least not this season. Tickets are sold out and have been for months. Already, there is a waiting list for the 1991-92 season.

In fact, tickets for the half-dozen or so travelogues shown at the Ambassador on Sunday afternoons are just about the hottest, hardest-to-get tickets at the 1,262-seat hall. Despite hosting such well-known acts as the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Mel Torme and Pinchas Zukerman conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, the somewhat obscure travel films are the only Ambassador series that sells out on subscription each year. Nearly 90% of the subscribers renew each year, leaving a small window of opportunity for new patrons.

"I can't really explain why they are so popular," said William Wiemhoff, booking manager for the Ambassador. "I think people who travel get ideas from attending the series and others just want a chance to do a little vicarious traveling."

Wiemhoff said former Ambassador director Wayne Shilkret started the travelogue series in 1985, but only after a lecture circuit featuring such names as Pearl Bailey, Hank Aaron and Abba Eban failed to lure a large crowd. "It seemed funny to us that we couldn't get people to come to the lecture series, because we had such illustrious people," Wiemhoff said.

Shilkret then tried a Jacques Cousteau series, which also sank. Finally came the travel series. "We've had a waiting list ever since," Wiemhoff said.

Bill Havlicek, at 43 one of the younger members of the audience, said the travelogues are popular because they are relatively inexpensive at $9 to $10.50 a ticket. The concerts usually cost twice to three times as much.

Woodland Hills resident Helen McGrane, 65, one of a group of five women who regularly attend the travelogues together, said the films make her feel "as if I've traveled someplace wonderful."

"Plus," she continued, while sipping cappuccino on the lawn during intermission Sunday, "the Ambassador adds to the experience. The flowers are always in bloom, the gardens are beautiful. It makes for a delightful day."

Said McGrane's friend Juel Pippin, 59: "The films are good because you see places that you would like to go or places you've been or, for that matter, places you might not want to go."

Added another friend, Betty Bjornsen, 55: "It's nice to see these places on the screen because you might not have the time, money or energy to go yourself."

Still, not everyone was satisfied with the film on the Andes mountains of South America, which was made in 1974 and accompanied Sunday with live narration by Thayer Soule, widely recognized as the dean of travel films.

Pablo Serrano, a 27-year-old Pasadena resident, said he was disappointed. "It has a strong tourist perspective," he said. "It points out the cliche things; it's not a sophisticated traveler's point of view."

Wiemhoff explained that the Ambassador tries to book a mixture of current films and older ones, whose narrators attract a loyal following. "People come out in droves to see them," he said.

Cecil Tyler, 85, of North Hollywood, rarely misses a show. In his lifetime he has traveled to more than 60 countries, and even uses his own cinematography equipment to make amateur travel films. Still, he enjoys watching the travelogues at the Ambassador. "In all the programs they feature, I've usually been there," Tyler said. "But I don't get tired of watching them."

Neither does Lefty Dunham, 78. "You see things in the films that you don't see when you travel," said Dunham, who traveled from San Bernardino Sunday to see the Andes film. "My wife and I have been to Hawaii twice, and we learned things in the films that we didn't see while we were there."

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