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Cerritos Center's First Season: A Fine Performance


CERRITOS — Every pachyderm's trunk in "Elephant Chain," the symmetrical wall sculpture above Victor Gotesman's desk, curves upward. That, Gotesman says, means good luck, something he no doubt needed when he took command of the new Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts as its general manager 21 months ago.

With the venerable Music Center of Los Angeles County close by to the north, and the younger yet well-endowed Orange County Performing Arts Center a few miles south, did the region need another culture palace?

Cerritos, a former cattle ranch once called Dairy Valley, eventually claimed fame as the home of a giant car sales complex. Would its citizens plunk down dollars for ballet, Beethoven and Brecht?

And what's with this fancy-shmancy auditorium, which can be transformed via hydraulic, electrical and manpower into five configurations, from an intimate, 900-seat recital hall into a 2,000-seat setting for grand opera?

Who's this Easterner Gotesman, anyway?

Gotesman recalls that the naysayers bellowed as the $60-million, city-owned and operated center prepared for its christening in January.

"The (arts and entertainment) industry and maybe the market and maybe the media to a certain extent had a lot of doubts," he said recently. "There's no question about it."

The center--which ended its first season in late May and launched its second two weeks ago--is still in its infancy and still may be experiencing the sort of encouraging-though-ephemeral honeymoon that typically greets such new ventures.

But several early signs seem to indicate that the heavenly direction of the sculpted elephants' trunks in Gotesman's tidy office may have done some good.

The center, with a first-year budget of $5.2 million (for the abbreviated five-month season), finished in the black. Paid attendance to all 35 inaugural-season programs--ranging from classical music to jazz, modern dance to a magic show--averaged 86% of capacity, center officials report.

(A spokesman for the Orange County Performing Arts Center says its average paid attendance last year of 89% was "a record," roughly five points higher than during its previous five years.)

Advance sales figures for this season of $2.3 million--nearly half the available tickets--are "very, very good," according to Douglas M. Lauchlan, general manager of the Calgary Centre for Performing Arts and chairman of the Assn. of Performing Arts Centers (APAC), which represents about 25 major arts centers in the United States and Canada.

As for the center's flexible auditorium, each of five layouts has worked "exceedingly well," Gotesman said.

All this has pleased Cerritos city officials, who paid for the center's construction--the costliest public project in the city's history--with redevelopment funds. Like it did last year, the City Council has voted to give the center $2 million to make up the anticipated annual shortfall between expenses and revenues that is common to any similar arts facility.

The city has approved a total budget of $7.8 million for fiscal 1993-1994, when the center will stage its first full season of eight months.

Mayor John F. Crawley says that a few patrons have groused about their failure to snag prime seats but that otherwise the new center--with its sprightly geometric tiles adorning its pyramidal roof peaks--has received the community's kudos.

"Most people I talk to are very happy with the theater," Crawley said. "They like the programming, certainly they like the facility," designed by Barton Myers Associates of Los Angeles.

"People," the mayor added, "are very positive about the fact that they don't have to pay to park their cars there."

City Councilwoman Ann B. Joynt cast the only "no" vote in 1986 when the council opted for an arts complex instead of a community center. But, she says, she doesn't hear anyone complaining that the municipal funds going to the center should instead be going to feed the hungry or to meet other social needs.

"We are an upscale community," Joynt said, "and we don't have a lot of the serious financial problems (of) many surrounding cities."

Indeed, the center--focal point of Towne Center, a $35-million retail and business complex still under construction--has brought a hoped-for increase in area commerce and apparently has helped to establish a shiny new image for Cerritos.

A restaurant at the Sheraton Cerritos Hotel at Towne Center, within walking distance of the arts center, has extended its hours, and hotel occupancy has increased in the past year, according to Sheraton general manager Kathy Ray.

The center "is assisting in marketing the city and Towne Center," says city manager Art Gallucci. "I can't quantify that. I can just say that when I negotiate with (prospective businesses) to come into the city, they all know about the theater."

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