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Curtain Falls on L.A. Love Affair With 'Phantom'


The Lescher family had 1,772 chances to see "Phantom of the Opera"--and they waited until the last one.

A little luck and a sweltering three-hour wait at the head of the cancellation line paid off for the four Leschers, of La Crescenta: Minutes before the curtain rose, the family, clad in shorts and T-shirts, snagged four tickets to the final Los Angeles performance of "Phantom," the longest-running musical in West Coast history.

The Leschers joined a full house of people who paid from $60 to a few thousand dollars to bid farewell to what had become a Los Angeles institution. Many came in their Sunday finest, planning to bid farewell as if they were saying goodby to a dear friend.

After 4 1/2 years, Sunday's teary-eyed matinee belonged as much to the audience as the cast. Every major song, the opening of every scene brought on impetuous standing ovations and raucous applause more common to a sporting event than a Broadway musical.

And after a never-ending curtain call in which Davis Gaines--the last of three actors who played the Phantom here--gathered an armload of flowers and a heartful of gratitude from the delirious audience, the parting did indeed appear mutually bittersweet.

From its record-breaking $15-million opening in May, 1989, when the first of three Phantoms, the legendary Michael Crawford, donned the distinctive mask, there was every indication that this would be, as the trade papers call it, boffo.

Through cast changes--Robert Guillaume played Phantom No. 2--dips in ticket sales at the time of last year's riots and the final surge of "Phantom phanatics" haggling for $200 seats, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about a disfigured, heartsick former singer haunting the Paris Opera and the young diva of his dreams lived up to its expectations, and then some.

Though its reign at the Ahmanson put "Phantom" in the West Coast record books, its denouement has been just as historic--a fact recognized by its creator, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who showed up at Saturday night's curtain call to laud the company and the audience for making "Phantom" a huge hit.

The last applause that died away at the end of Sunday's matinee took with it a piece of musical theater that found its way into the city's cultural landscape, from children trick-or-treating as "Phantom" characters to groups of homeless men and women getting their first taste of theater at a special performance.

And all of this in a city New Yorkers still love to snub when it comes to theater.

Lilly Lee knows well the stories of first-time theatergoing families falling in love with "Phantom." She should: it happened to her.

"Phantom" was the first major Broadway musical that the Lees, of Thousand Oaks, ever saw. Sunday marked their 200th collective "Phantom"-going--most of it sitting front row center. For Lee, her husband, Bob, and their four children, ages 7 to 23, "Phantom" came to be a way of life:

"We sort of centered our celebrations--anniversaries, birthdays--around it," Lee laughed. "You can ask the cast; they know us. We think of them as our extended family now."

Why and how "Phantom" lured some 3 million L.A.-area theatergoers like the Lees probably had less to do with audiences' rabid love of musical theater than it did with the musical's curious mix of fantasy and reality, a stage performance within a stage performance, taking the audience on an excursion far from the Los Angeles of their real lives.

And it was indeed a good trip: The final take from 4 1/2 years at the Los Angeles box office was $155,765,470.

Yet while the dollars also rolled in for "Phantom" merchandising--just under $4 million over the years for mugs, sweat shirts, CDs and the like--some of the most meaningful money spent by "Phantom" fans never went to the production at all.

When the cast and crew were not onstage, they were highly visible, raising more than $650,000 for various charities.

They sold everything they could think of--including the costumes off their backs. The final Phantom, Gaines, rented himself out on dates to raise money for Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles, and members of the cast and crew often delivered meals to shut-ins after their nightly performances.

From backstage bake sales for the Los Angeles Mission to the auction of thousands of dollars in tickets for Equity Fights AIDS, the mostly out-of-towners in the "Phantom" production continually tried to give back some of what Los Angeles was giving to them.

On the other side, there has been no shortage of devoted supporters, though not all as extravagant as Dean Willard, father of Phantom-lover Emily Willard, who paid $27,500 to Equity Fights AIDS for two tickets to Michael Crawford's final performance.

But time after time, one name comes up as the "Phantom" fan of the Los Angeles run: Ann Lafferty.

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