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Duarte Theater Triumphs in Offstage Drama : Finances: Community playhouse averts closure over past-due rent with the help of 'angels' in the wings.

January 27, 1994|JOE DONNELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Duarte Center Theatre staged a nail-biter last week.

The action, however, took place offstage and threatened the future of the fledgling community theater. Fortunately for Duarte theater, a dramatic rescue enabled the show to go on.

Even as the theater's director, Mary Bowman, was taking ticket orders last week for her company's season opening adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Ruddigore," she wasn't sure she had a venue from which to stage the satire. Bowman and the Duarte Center Theatre were locked out of the theater, at 2160 E. Huntington Drive, all week after being evicted for not paying rent.

Bowman, who is in her 60s and has been staging shows for 15 years, had not paid rent for the theater since she brought it to Duarte a year ago. She said that money has been tight because public support for the theater was building slowly. Bowman's attorney, John Blackburn, said she had spent money improving the facility and that there was also a dispute, now resolved, over how much the landlord should pay of the improvements' costs.

"Our biggest problem is being undercapitalized," Bowman said.

There was no question that Duarte Center Theatre owed landlord Harry Nazarian money. Municipal Court proceedings determined that the theater owed $18,708 in rent. "They never paid rent. They just kept giving excuses," said Diran Afarian, Nazarian's son-in-law and real estate agent.

Hopes were raised when Nazarian agreed in September to give Duarte Center Theatre another chance to enliven the Duarte arts scene. The compromise called for the theater to begin repaying a modest chunk of its debt on a payment schedule before resuming regular rent. "We worked out what we thought would be an exceptionally reasonable plan for them, but they haven't been able to comply," Peter E. Ronay, Nazarian's lawyer, said last Tuesday.

With the opening date fast approaching, it looked like curtains for the Duarte Center Theatre's 1994 season. Then came the white knights.

One was Kevin Kaufman, the 43-year-old executive director of Broadway on Sunset, a North Hollywood-based theater company. "We are the only West Coast theater exclusively producing originals," said Kaufman, whose group is also sponsored by the Songwriter's Guild of America and features two-time Tony award winner Grover Dale as creative director.

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Kaufman had planned to launch five original shows this year on the Duarte theater's cabaret stage. Two more were scheduled for the 99-seat main stage, including "American Twistory."

The partnership with Duarte Center Theatre elevates the status of the community theater, Kaufman said, while allowing him to reach new audiences. "We are interested in areas that are not saturated with theater and are interested in original musicals," Kaufman said.

By the time Kaufman heard that Duarte's 1994 season might be lost, he had already sent out fliers and releases touting the partnership. To help save the season, Kaufman and his managing director, Ron Gaiser, lit into a frantic fund-raising drive that netted a couple of thousand dollars. Kaufman would not give an exact figure.

"We did it for Duarte because of our interests," Kaufman said. But they were still short of the more than $8,000 that Duarte Center Theatre needed to get back the keys to the theater.

Finally, the city of Duarte pitched in. City Manager Jesse H. Duff authorized advance ticket purchases of $4,000 to aid the theater. Duff said the city will resell the tickets later. "We think they bring enough of value to the city to support them," Duff said.

The combined efforts of the city and Kaufman, along with last-minute donations Bowman was able to obtain, raised enough money to get the theater back in the door. The final hurdle was to resolve some lingering animus between Bowman and Nazarian--which their lawyers were finally able to do late last Thursday--in time for a rehearsal or two before the weekend's preview shows.

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