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Beyond Disney Hall, There's Culver Theater

March 09, 1997|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Gordon Davidson is looking westward once again.

Center Theatre Group's artistic director/producer wants to build two theaters within the shell of the Culver Theater in downtown Culver City. One would be a mid-sized space that would seat 400-450. The other would be a 99-seater. They would make up the long-sought home for the more intimate or experimental productions that Davidson believes are too small for the Mark Taper Forum or the Ahmanson Theatre.

Last week CTG entered into an exclusive agreement with the Culver City Redevelopment Agency, the building's owner, to investigate the possibilities for the next 13 months. Probably the most important item to be considered: the cost and whether CTG can afford it.

A little more than a year ago, CTG was on the verge of clinching a deal for another Westside site, at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. But then the artist and philanthropist Hiro Yamagata, who would have bought the space and leased it to CTG for a dollar a year, pulled out, killing the deal.

Money matters.

In this case, Culver City is open to generous leasing terms and is willing to chip in $1.25 million if CTG can raise the rest of the money to convert and program the space, said Mark Winogrand, the city's director of community development.

An architectural study done for the city estimated the cost of converting the building into the sort of configuration CTG has in mind would reach $8.2 million. Then there would be additional programming costs.

No, Davidson doesn't know where that money might come from, he said. "We'll approach it very thoroughly, so we don't announce something and then can't deliver," he added.

He has pledged not to launch a public fund-raising campaign until enough money to complete the Music Center's Disney Hall is secured. He emphasizes, too, that "we're committed to downtown. I hope to build new audiences in Culver City who would also go downtown."

Still, he's "excited and hopeful" about his latest Westside option. "I find downtown Culver City charming and ready to be reborn."

CTG had considered the Culver in previous exploratory forays into the Westside. So had other theater companies. Five years ago, Theatre Corp. of America, which ran Pasadena Playhouse, held an exclusive negotiating agreement for the Culver for a year, but decided not to pursue it--for which Winogrand is now grateful, considering that Theatre Corp. declared bankruptcy in 1995. Danny DeVito then negotiated with the redevelopment agency over his idea to turn the Culver into a combined movie theater/99-seat live theater/workshop space. But that too went nowhere.

Bergamot Station diverted CTG's attention away from the Culver. After that proposal fell through, Davidson says, he "had to release myself of the excitement of the 26,000 square feet at Bergamot Station," he said. At the Culver, with its 14,000 square feet plus a 3,300-square-foot balcony, "we won't be able to do Ariane Mnouchkine-like theatrical gestures" (referring to the French director who became famous in L.A. during the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival for her Shakespeare productions on a large Hollywood sound stage).

"Our work at the Culver would be more compact. And maybe more doable."

The Culver is more attractive now than it was a few years ago in part because of the Northridge earthquake in 1994. Though the temblor caused no structural damage to the former movie theater, which was built in 1945, it did shake loose asbestos and parts of the roof, Winogrand said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency came through with $284,000 that repaired the building and removed the asbestos. In the process, the partitions that had split the theater into a movie triplex during the last years of its previous life (ending in January 1989) were taken down. "The fallout from the earthquake left it clean, and you see its possibilities in its raw state," Davidson said.

The Culver City City Hall, across the street, would provide plenty of parking for CTG theatergoers, Davidson said, at no cost to CTG. The theater site also includes a small single-family home next door, which CTG could use as an office, rehearsal space, loading docks, or green room.

What would Culver City get out of the deal? "This project is about animating our downtown," Winogrand said. His agency rejected proposals from organizations that would not have served as people magnets like the CTG might. "No other bid was competitive with CTG in terms of national reputation and the capacity to raise funds to complete the job."


S.T.A.G.E. NOTES: Varese Sarabande will record this week's S.T.A.G.E. (Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event) concerts. The Studio City-based company intends to release not only a double CD of this year's Cole Porter concerts but also a double CD of last year's S.T.A.G.E. tribute to Stephen Sondheim. Another company recorded last year's concerts but never released it.

The plan is for the Sondheim recording to be out in July and the Porter album in August, said Varese Sarabande's Bruce Kimmel. Fifteen percent of the album sales will go to the same charities--AIDS Service Center and Project Angel Food--that will benefit from the shows.

The concerts are slated for Friday through next Sunday at Luckman Theatre on the Cal State L.A. campus. Co-producer and director David Galligan said the event moved from last year's site, the Doolittle, because stagehands' rates there cost too much. The entire Luckman package costs less than the stagehands' wages at the Doolittle, Galligan said.

As of press time, the list of performers includes Davis Gaines, Betty Garrett, Joanna Gleason, Harry Groener, Jane Powell, Linda Purl, Dorian Harewood, the Plaids, and many more.

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