WOODLAND HILLS — The 18-year history of the Warner Park Pavilion that debuted last week as the city of Los Angeles' only modern, open-air venue for free concerts, plays or dance performances represents a retreat from far grander plans to provide for the performing arts in the San Fernando Valley.
But the facility itself--elegant, functional and democratic--still stands as an uncompromising realization of the ambitious goal of building a professional stage that shows off rather than overshadows the park setting.
Modest compared to outdoor amphitheaters such as the Greek Theater or Hollywood Bowl, the pavilion and its 3,000-square-foot stage nonetheless is an impressive centerpiece for the free summer Concerts in the Park series, which provides an all-too-rare opportunity for Angelenos to gather without regard to the class distinctions imposed by steep ticket prices.
The musically conservative series features such name performers as the Kingston Trio, Les Brown and his Band of Renown and former Tonight Show musician Tommy Newsome's band. Also featured are ethnic dance troupes such as the Aman International Music and Dance Ensemble.
Prior to the $1-million facility's opening, artists readied themselves in tents, had to stand in line with patrons to use portable toilets and performed on a rickety platform that folded out from two flatbed trucks parked side by side. Now, they can gather in the spacious indoor wings that flank the stage, use well-lit dressing rooms and restrooms and make entrances from any of four doorways.
Nonetheless, the pavilion is but a shadow of the ambitious dreams for a regional cultural center that were formulated nearly 20 years ago. As recently as 1987, there were plans for a 1,200-seat concert hall, a 650-seat theater and a 150-chair performance room to be built in Warner Park, a 20-acre green rectangle at Topanga Canyon Boulevard between Califa and Marylee streets.
It was to be one of two such centers in the Valley. The other was to be the still-stalled Arts Park L.A. in the Sepulveda Basin. An amphitheater at the basin site has been eliminated, making the Warner Park stage even more important, arts aficionados say.
But the dream for Warner Park was far too expensive and its scope met deep opposition from nearby homeowner groups.
Those groups objected to the traffic and noise such a facility would create and to the loss of scarce parkland. A lawsuit filed against the project in 1979 was settled with assurances that the volume of the performances would not exceed an agreed-upon decibel level, off-street parking would be provided, events were not to go past sundown and had to be free to the public. In addition, any such arts complex could only occupy 49% of the park area.
Rosalyn Kane is a member of the board of directors for the concert series and an active participant in the homeowner association at Warner Village, one of the townhouse developments across the park from the stage. She said members of her organization were apprehensive about the traffic and noise the stage would bring.
But, she said, "the quality of the actual performances has won them over."
"Most people are proud of it and feel it is adding to their pleasure, maybe even to their property values," she said. "I think it enhances the area and the pleasure of living here. So far, it is one big plus."
Project architect Jeffrey M. Kalban works in Westwood but lives in Sherman Oaks and has come to the Sunday concerts at Warner Park with his family for years. He said preserving the informality of the concerts, where families gather for picnics under umbrellas or on blankets, children dance and dogs mingle freely, was one of the key goals of his design.
"I was trying to achieve a sense of always being in the park," Kalban said. "I didn't want to have a building in the park."
To do that he designed what he considers an "anti-building," an object that provides a space for showcasing the performers but does not itself intrude.
The stage is surrounded by a U-shaped, blocky structure that houses the backstage support areas and the outdoor public restrooms. In a sign of the times for public facilities, which are often a target for vandalism and graffiti, the restrooms are equipped with damage-resistant fixtures adapted from those designed for prisons.
A grassy berm that provides a smooth transition from the stage to the park lawn, four feet below, allows performers to mingle with the crowd, especially those at the 4 p.m. children's concerts.
The berm also adds to the intimacy and the casualness of the setting. While traditional stages elevate and separate musicians or dancers from their audience, all that stands between the watchers and the watched here is a gently sloped moat-like area and a semicircle of yellowish brick, set into the ground.