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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Acting on a Dream

2 Groups Seek Place in Ventura for Professional Theater

November 18, 1998|MASSIE RITSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — An L.A. actor and a local businessman say their prayers for professional theater in Ventura have been answered--in a church.

Meanwhile, another professional company just sold out its inaugural weekend--of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Could this be Ventura's theatrical Great Awakening?

If so, it has been a long time in coming. Several groups have tried unsuccessfully to bring professional theater to Ventura, a city that struggles to support community theater.

But clearly, the newcomers see a more welcoming environment.

"The arts are burgeoning, and the community is ready to see itself as a cultural community," said Karyl Lynn Burns, whose Rubicon Theatre Company staged a concert version of "Superstar" last weekend before more than 2,500 viewers.

Rubicon will soon be joined by the New Ventura Theatre Project, which plans to stage its first production in February in what is now United Pentecostal church.

Ventura businessman Doug Halter and his partner, Joe Murray, recently purchased the 11,000-square-foot building at Main and Laurel streets for about $400,000. He hopes to get city approval to lease some of the space for offices and turn the rest into the home of a new production company being formed by actor Jack Heller.

As services continue until they are moved to a new location Nov. 30, Halter and Heller are making plans to convert the sanctuary into a 200-seat theater.

Heller, the artistic director for the New Ventura Theatre Project, plans to open Theatre on Main in February with a festival of one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. Running for as long as six months, the 17 plays would be preceded or followed by a play about Williams at the end of his career.

From the festival, which Heller hopes to turn into an annual event, the company will expand to five shows a year, including new works, political plays and American and European classics.

Heller said he hopes his attempt at bringing professional actors to a Ventura stage will succeed where others have failed. As it is, nearly all theater in the city features only community actors.

"The key word is professional . . . with names," he said.

Heller is not afraid to drop a few names if that will bring prestige to his fledgling company. Teri Garr, Dawn Wells from "Gilligan's Island" and Barbara Bain of "Mission Impossible" fame have all expressed interest in the Williams festival. Gregory Peck and Anjelica Huston are honorary board members but are unlikely to lend little more than their famous names to the effort.

Rubicon boasts its own star power. Broadway stars Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson headlined the weekend performances of "Superstar." Burns' husband and Rubicon's other artistic director, James O'Neil, toured with the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical.

Rubicon's series will continue in February--at the Theatre on Main--with Burns starring in "Shirley Valentine." The company will stage "Darrow" in May in the City Council chambers and "Romeo and Juliet" in the courtyard at the Bella Maggiore.

Lacking a home theater, Rubicon hopes eventually to move into the 700-seat Mayfair on Santa Clara Street.

Halter once had his eye on the Mayfair, too. Before he bid on the church, he tried to find investors to renovate the shuttered theater. Those plans are not dead, he said, just a lower priority.

His top priority now is getting approval for the Theatre on Main from Ventura's Planning Commission. Converting the church to a theater is not explicitly permitted because the building lies in a zone set aside for so-called "corridor renovation."

Most likely, Halter will have to secure a conditional-use permit to open the theater, a permit that will cost $3,400.

If Halter were looking to open a theater in downtown's core, he would have no problem. But zoning around the church encourages commercial uses geared toward the area's residents, such as hair salons, medical offices and insurance agencies.

The church's neighbors might object to its conversion because it would likely bring more nighttime activity, past the hour it is currently used by United Pentecostal.

But Halter says that turning the church into a theater will actually lower the use of the building. United Pentecostal uses the facility as many as four nights a week and until recently had a preschool there during the week.

Halter said a performance there might run only on weekend nights, with a possible matinee on Sunday.

Besides, he said, if city planners want to preserve the 70-year-old art deco building, they should expect heavy use.

"If it's not going to be used for theater, it's going to be used for some other assembly use," he said.

Then there is the parking problem. With the nearest public lot three blocks away, lack of parking at the building is one reason the United Pentecostal congregation is moving from its home of almost 20 years.

Ventura's Cultural Affairs Director Sonia Tower said her office is willing to work with Halter to get his plans for the Theatre on Main approved. The creation of these two companies will enrich the city's cultural life--both for residents and for visitors, she said.

"The thing that I like about both companies is they're both proposing to be professional companies, and the artistic principals who are involved in both of the companies are highly qualified and credentialed," Tower said.

United Pentecostal's congregation is also eager to see what becomes of their church. Nancy Oliver, who was married in the church and whose father serves as pastor, said she was sorry to leave the building that holds so many memories for her. But she said she is looking forward to a "fresh start" with a new home for her congregation in east Ventura and a theater in its place.

"It's going to be fun to see what it all looks like," Oliver said.

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