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Theatre Corp. of America Scales Back, Cites Economy : Theater: 'Lack of community support' in Fresno, Santa Barbara, San Diego is also given as a reason to retrench.

May 27, 1994|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Theatre Corp. of America, which has been exporting its Pasadena Playhouse and Alex Theatre productions to four other California venues, is retrenching.

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The Pasadena-based company will no longer send its shows from the Alex in Glendale to the Spreckels Theatre in San Diego or the Warnors Theatre in Fresno. Nor will the Playhouse-bred productions move to the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. The cutbacks follow last week's sudden cancellation at the Lobero of the Pasadena production of "The Fourth Wall" on the eve of its opening.

The current Pasadena show, "Special Occasions," may travel to the Poway Center for the Performing Arts, near San Diego, to complete the current season for Poway subscribers to the Pasadena series. But its run probably will be moved up and condensed into fewer weeks. A meeting was being held late Thursday to discuss these details.

Theatre Corp. also has withdrawn from a plan that would have brought the Alex shows to theThousand Oaks Civic Auditorium, starting next fall. Although a deal hasn't been signed, Thousand Oaks plans to substitute shows from the Theater League, an organization that already presents musicals at Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

A Theatre Corp. statement released late Wednesday quoted president David Houk saying that California's economic conditions "and the lack of community support by way of attendance in San Diego, Santa Barbara and Fresno have forced us to temporarily scale back to a two-theater operation. Our first obligation" is to Pasadena and Glendale.

"We have a loyal, base audience of 20,000 subscribers in Pasadena," and an "encouraging" response in Glendale--14,000 subscribers, he said. "At this time, we choose not to expand our base if it means compromising the quality of productions in Pasadena and Glendale. We are in the process of reorganizing and right-sizing our business in order to meet the many financial challenges that lie ahead."

Houk wasn't available for further comment Thursday. But a Theatre Corp. spokesman said that layoffs or reduced hours in the company's telemarketing office in Pasadena is likely.

Subscribers in San Diego, Fresno and Santa Barbara are being offered tickets to productions in Pasadena, Glendale or Poway. Fresno subscribers also will be offered tickets to other Theatre Corp. presentations in Fresno. At the Lobero, each subscriber has been offered two tickets--and a similar policy is likely in San Diego and Fresno. Or current tickets can be held as vouchers for later refunds or for a possible 1995 season, should the Theatre Corp. muster the resources to resume touring.

That's unlikely. At the Lobero, for example, subscription figures for the Pasadena series dropped from 5,604 in the initial three-play half-year season to 3,232 in the current season, the fourth. Single-ticket sales weren't doing well either, said Nancy Moore, executive director of the Lobero.

Theatre Corp., which paid the Lobero an undisclosed rent plus a small percentage of the gross, still owed the Lobero money for a run of "Sweet, Smart, Rodgers and Hart" last winter, said Moore. And the contract had been renegotiated twice during two years. The number of performances had dropped from an initial 22 to 15 and would have been cut to 11 next fall.

The withdrawal of "The Fourth Wall" one day before its opening night, forced a layoff of the theater's stagehands and janitors, and the rest of the Lobero staff was reduced to part-time hours, Moore said. However, the show's actors will be paid for the entire run, according to an Actors' Equity official, because Theatre Corp. failed to provide enough advance warning of the cancellation.

Theatre Corp. would have gone on with "The Fourth Wall" if the Lobero had postponed the rent and helped pay for advertising, Houk said in an interview on Tuesday. But "we're not in any position to be the banker for the Pasadena Playhouse," Moore said.

Moore said she heard many complaints about the Theatre Corp.'s telemarketing. The president of the Lobero board, for example, received repeated phone calls urging him to subscribe, though he had already signed up. "We kept begging them to let us monitor the telemarketing."

"That's normal everywhere," said Houk, when asked about the telemarketing. "Nobody likes to be telemarketed, including me. But it works." But he said that Santa Barbara may be too small a market for the practice.

In San Diego, Spreckels owner Jacquie Littlefield contended that Theatre Corp. "needed stronger marketing. They thought they were doing it through mailings and subscriptions. But they underestimated the economy and how much competition there is for the dollar."

"They have a regional mentality," said Littlefield. "But this is a very commercial area. It needs more of a Nederlander approach"--a reference to the commercial theater company that books tours into San Diego Civic Auditorium, as well as several theaters in Los Angeles.

At the Spreckels, Theatre Corp. was honoring the subscriptions of the failing Starlight Musical Theatre. While total attendance at the last show, "Mame," was a respectable 11,623, 4,810 of those were Starlight subscribers who provided no additional revenue. Littlefield criticized the Theatre Corp. decision to take on those subscribers for free instead of giving them two tickets for the price of one.

In Fresno, sales were reported to be dropping for the upcoming "Fame," compared with the first two Alex shows--"Sayonara" and "Mame." As of Wednesday, only 740 seats of 2,164 had been sold for the June 9 opening.

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