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NoHo Festival Casts Its Spell

Increasingly popular two-day event promises 30 free performances at seven theaters plus entertainment, crafts, food--and crowds.


The first time the players from the NoHo Arts District gathered, it was a cold and rainy December day in 1992. About 100 people huddled in a park in Universal City, trying to stay dry. Actors from a handful of theaters staged scenes, sometimes drowned out by the thunder.

It would be months before the city of Los Angeles would officially dub the area around Lankershim and Magnolia boulevards "NoHo." But as unofficial NoHo historian Fred Bower remembers it: "That's where the spirit of NoHo came. It was there with the thunder."

This weekend, thousands of people are expected to descend on NoHo for the fourth annual Theatre and Arts Festival. A two-day event, the festival will include eight hours of music and dancing on an outdoor stage, an arts and crafts fair, an international food court, and more than 30 free performances at area theaters each day.

From the wrong angles, NoHo doesn't have much curbside appeal. From the right angles, it's only slightly better. But the Chamber of Commerce and area theater owners have much to celebrate. Earthquake repairs are underway at the El Portal Theatre Center, the largest theater project in the area. The handful of theater companies that gathered in 1992 have multiplied to about 20 in the region.

And, finally, Red Line construction--which wreaked havoc on traffic and parking--has moved off the street and underground.


NoHo is ready for a party.

Theater is the main event here--and, ironically, the one least visible from the street. Last year, festival organizers tried staging the plays in a tent along Lankershim. That limited the number of shows that could be staged, and made theatrical lighting or sets impossible.

Then, festival noise drowned out the actors, said Debra Sakacs, executive director of Universal City-North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "And," she said, "it was 105 degrees last year."

So this year the actors have returned to their smaller, but air-conditioned, theaters. More than a dozen companies will give free performances at seven area theaters.

To avoid overcrowding--most theaters seat 50-90 people--patrons will pick up free tickets at a booth near the Television Academy. Most of the theaters are near the festival--a block of Lankershim between Magnolia and Weddington Street that will be closed to traffic. A red London-style double-decker bus will shuttle people to the theaters farther away.

Fran Montano, co-artistic director of Actors Workout Studio, said, "What we're hoping to do is introduce people to theater in the NoHo district so they can get the idea that we're here, that we're very much alive, and that there's a great variety of shows going on here."

Also toward that effort, the Valley Theater League again will sell its Valley Expo '96 discount tickets. A passbook of 10 tickets, good at any Valley Theater League show, costs $35 and will be available only at the festival. Play tickets typically cost $15 apiece.

Montano, who scheduled the theater performances, said the long-term goal of the Valley Theater League is to develop the event into a national festival for small theater. "We have the place to do it, we have the capacity. We're doing 12 to 6 p.m. now. If we went 10 a.m. to midnight, we could do twice as much."

Sakacs has similar expansion plans for the non-theater part of the festival. She'd like the food court to grow into a "Taste of NoHo" to coincide with the theater festival.


Festival organizers have been more selective when it comes to the arts and crafts fair this year. The booths along Lankershim are reserved for artists selling hand-crafted wares, nothing mass-produced. The result is fewer booths than last year, Sakacs said, but higher quality merchandise.

"We see this as being a signature event for the community from here on out," said Sakacs. "We want the image to be really upscale as far as the crafts and the artists."

At the main stage--at Lankershim and Weddington--there will be shows about every hour, starting with Bob Baker's Marionettes at 11:30 a.m. Saturday and noon on Sunday.

The performances have an international flair, with the Turkish music and belly dancing of Experiencia Fantastica and the South American music of Viento de los Andes on Saturday afternoon. The Jimmy Santos Band will play Caribbean music, and Roberto Estrada's Mariachi Express will perform Sunday. Other performances include the Martin Dancers (both days), the Joe Tremaine Dancers (Sunday), and Art of the Dance Academy.

The Chamber of Commerce estimated 5,000 people in attendance last year--despite the heat. This year, it hopes to draw 7,500. Said Sakacs, "A lot of it depends on the weather. "


Schedule of Events

Times are for Saturday and Sunday, except where noted:

11:30 (Saturday only) Bob Baker Marionettes, main stage.

Noon (Sunday only) Bob Baker Marionettes, main stage.

Noon "Story Time" by Synthaxis Theatre Co. at Lankershim Arts Center.

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