The sudden end of the relationship between the late James A. Doolittle's Southern California Theatre Assn. and the Los Angeles Music Center leaves the county facility without any resident dance-presenting organization: the status quo for most of the last decade. Indeed, dance at the Music Center would scarcely have existed in the '90s if not for Doolittle's sporadic ventures there, and whatever you thought of his choices for 1997--mostly crossover rep from the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Cleveland San Jose Ballet, Houston Ballet and Ballet Folklorico--nothing that ambitious lies anywhere on the horizon.
As inevitable as the end came to seem, it didn't have to happen. Originally this last Doolittle dance season was supposed to be the first under a three-year agreement for the longtime locally based impresario to be the official dance presenter at the Music Center, responsible not merely for choosing the companies but also for assuming all the financial risks. And Doolittle was already looking beyond the three years and his own life span: Early in 1997, he told The Times and C.C. Conner, managing director of the Houston Ballet, that he wanted the SCTA to survive him. He also spoke of audience-building strategies, including reviving the low-cost voucher system that he had pioneered when running the Greek Theatre.
But he died of a heart attack on Feb. 1, leaving the season, and SCTA's future, in the hands of a new board made up of family members, friends and associates--a group loyal to Doolittle personally but without any background in arts management or production. That board gamely implemented Doolittle's short-term plans, then pulled the plug on the Music Center relationship late last month, citing estimated losses of $500,000 or more, critical brickbats (especially from this paper and this writer) and, most of all, a lack of creative vision.
The season represented "a 150% flop," according to SCTA board President Rosalind Wyman, who told The Times that the board never intended to do more than make good on Doolittle's final commitments. "Jimmy's leadership was irreplaceable," she said.
Well, yes, Doolittle was irreplaceable in at least one sense: Had he been alive when the 1997 season lost $500,000 or more, you can bet he wouldn't have picked up his marbles and quit the game. No, indeed: By now, he'd be announcing plans for 1998. Doolittle also told The Times that he'd expected to lose money on the Joffrey and American Ballet Theatre through the '90s but hoped eventually to build them--and the audience--enough to turn that situation around.
In any case, the losses for 1997 weren't nearly as "staggering" as Wyman insisted. Doolittle once said that when you present big ballet in a union house such as the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or the Ahmanson Theatre, "you can lose $100,000 a night." Multiply that by the five or six performances given by each of the five 1997 companies and you'll conclude that the projected $500,000 SCTA shortfall scarcely justified feelings of failure or alarm. With typically high start-up costs for each brief engagement, and not much time to amortize those costs or to generate audience-building word of mouth, what did the board expect?
In the words of Serena Tripi, SCTA general manager and the only dance professional working for the organization after Doolittle's death, "it's very difficult to bring a company in cold for only five or six performances and expect to make money." But that's how most dance gets presented these days in Southern California. And even if the seasons were longer, Tripi says, "not-for-profit dance presentation isn't a numbers game. It would be lovely to make back your money on everything you do, but it's just not possible." All you can hope for, most seasons, is making enough to stay in the game.
Nobody knew that reality better than Doolittle, who typically subsidized his expensive high-culture bookings with commercial pop attractions. Unfortunately, his leadership proved irreplaceable in a less admirable sense: By running SCTA largely as a one-man operation, even after he turned 80, he arguably caused the crisis after his death because no viable organization or successor existed to keep his plans for dance presentation and audience development on track.
However, there was a choice available to the 1997 SCTA board other than Doolittle or Do Nothing, although admittedly it's a choice harder than either producing another SCTA dance season in 1998 or quitting the game.
The board could have elected to set up the professional, long-term SCTA that Doolittle wanted, including a new board consisting of arts and fund-raising specialists--and then stepped aside to watch his legacy bloom in a new century.