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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Facing the Music : Some are no longer singing the praises of Torrance's arts complex, which has failed to establish a clear-cut niche.


When the curtain first rose on Torrance's city-built arts center, patrons hailed the emergence of a new cultural maturity in the South Bay.

Guests in evening attire hobnobbed outside the center on that cool October evening in 1991, murmuring admiringly about the glistening glass-walled lobby, the plush maroon theater seats, the Japanese garden where tangerine-hued koi glided through shimmering pools.

Yet when the opening hoopla subsided, the $13-million Torrance Cultural Arts Center and its 500-seat theater seemed to fade from public view. Although performances continue and guests keep coming, the center has never achieved the front-and-center prominence that many in Torrance believe it deserves.

Now, its low profile has come to haunt the center, as recession-bruised Torrance seeks to cut spending. With an annual deficit of $700,000, the center budget is an easy target for critics. City officials, meanwhile, are finding that running an arts center can generate more headaches than curtain calls.

Many in the South Bay arts community speak in glowing terms of the 64,000-square-foot complex, which includes the theater named for former Mayor James Armstrong, a community meeting hall, a music room and eight dance and arts studios clustered around an open-air plaza and stage.

But the center has been faulted for failing to establish a clear-cut niche for itself.

Even its location is obscure, perched behind City Hall with its back turned to busy Madrona Avenue, reached via a blur of parking lots, marked by hard-to-see blue signs, its address--3330 Civic Center Drive--hard to find even for Torrance residents.

"The biggest problem has been that Torrance has not found a way to make the James Armstrong Theatre known as a place to go," said Robert Guest, president of the South Bay Light Opera Society.

"I can't tell you how many people say to me, ' What Torrance Cultural Arts Center? There's a new theater?' " said Diane Lauridsen, director of the South Bay Ballet.

Center supporters remain confident that the complex will fulfill its early promise. They hasten to note that fully half the $700,000 deficit can be blamed on the recent transfer of costly parks and recreation classes into the center budget. The theater alone, they report, is nearly breaking even.

Even so, center spending is now being scrutinized by the city manager's office, with recommendations due out in May on how to shave the deficit.

The debate unfolding in Torrance reflects the national tug-of-war over government involvement in the arts. Just as some in Washington are questioning the role of the National Endowment for the Arts, some in Torrance wonder whether a cash-strapped city should support a stage for local arts groups.

While no one is suggesting the center close its doors, some assert it should be self-supporting.

"We call it the white elephant, because it just isn't generating any money," said Detective Ed Estrada, president of the Torrance Police Officers Assn.

Others, however, talk optimistically of the new foundation formed to raise money for the center, of recent management changes, of tentative plans for better promotion and for a summer arts series to spotlight the complex.

"The total center is in need of marketing. It has tremendous potential," said former Mayor Katy Geissert, who championed the project and now heads the new foundation.

Indeed, some arts supporters hope the debate will actually aid the center by forcing the city to actively advertise it and make it more accessible to local groups, even if that means investing more funds.

Artists praise the theater's acoustics, its lighting system, the dance studios' sprung wood floors that are specially constructed to absorb the shock of dancers' jumps and leaps.

Yet some fault the city for setting its sights too low and not seeking the outside professional talent such as now featured on new city-owned stages in Cerritos and Thousand Oaks.

Others insist the theater was intended to showcase local talent, not glitzy professional shows. Even so, leaders of several local arts groups report that for artists operating on a shoestring, the center is too pricey and bureaucratic.

This tension was highlighted on the center's opening night when some guests questioned the choice of Susan Anton as the gala's headliner. Some dismissed the singer as too minor league; others labeled her an out-of-towner supplanting local talent that should have opened the center.

One difficulty with building a public theater is making all the players happy. Some say the Armstrong Theatre is too small. Others say it is too large.

With only 500 seats, the theater is too small for major road shows like those frequently featured in Cerritos, Thousand Oaks or the Los Angeles Music Center. (As one artist put it: "Cerritos built the performing arts center that . . . we wish Torrance had had the courage to build.")

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