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Armenian Artists Stranded in Glendale

February 06, 1999|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GLENDALE — Armen Gregorian, lead dancer of the Armenian National Ballet, will never forget the finale of last weekend's performance at the Wiltern Theater.

One moment he was gliding across the stage as if his feet were on wheels, drawing a thunder of applause and a standing ovation. The next minute, behind the curtain, another dancer was whispering in his ear that they were stranded in America because the show's promoter had run out of money and couldn't buy their tickets back to Armenia.

"I was hysterical," Gregorian said.

"Los Angeles is a good place to visit, but it's too rushed to stay here. And I'm not really into the whole hamburger thing."

Since that performance Sunday, Gregorian and 30 other ballet and opera performers have been marooned at a Days Inn in Glendale, waiting for well-wishers to raise money to send them home, with about 112 of their fellow artists scattered among private homes.

In an immigrant community that prides itself on being industrious and independent, many say they are embarrassed by what has occurred.

"These are the most talented, most famous artists from our homeland and they've been made to beg for a ticket home," said Armen Azizian, who is hosting three of the performers in his Glendale home. "'No one understands how this happened."

Of all places in America for Armenians to be stuck, Glendale may be the best. Home to many new immigrants and Armenian Americans, a quarter of its population speaks Armenian. There's no shortage of Armenian restaurants, bookstores or even Armenian barber shops.

To this community the stranded troupe turned for help, which came quickly. Armenian community leaders say they have raised $30,000 so far through a telethon on the all-Armenian cable channel, Armenian Wireless.

Dozens of Glendale families have taken in performers who had to leave the Days Inn because they couldn't pay their bills. And some dancers and musicians have already returned to their homeland, thanks to the generosity of strangers.

Glendale police said Friday they are investigating the promoter, Greg Petrosian.

Petrosian conceded in an interview that he planned the trip poorly. He said he is now without money, at least $70,000 in debt, and feels remorse about the outcome of the visit, the first to the United States for Armenia's National Opera and Ballet.

The State Department is also looking into a report that Petrosian may have smuggled nonperformers into the U.S.

The visit was based on a promising idea: Bring Armenia's top performing artists to the part of the United States with the most inhabitants of Armenian descent--more than 300,000 in Southern California--and book the biggest venues.

But Petrosian, a Van Nuys translator turned promoter, said he overestimated ticket sales and underestimated travel expenses for the 172-member troupe. Petrosian said he couldn't afford round-trip tickets and his credit wouldn't stretch that far, so he bought one-way tickets, presuming he could make enough on the performances to buy the other tickets later.

The first show at the Shrine Auditorium on Jan. 23 sold 3,800 tickets, a little more than half the seats. Petrosian, who counted on a sellout, was left $120,000 in the hole, he said.

"When I saw that the place wasn't full, I thought, 'This is the end, I can't go on,' " Petrosian said.

The next performance at the Wiltern Theater--on Sunday--drew less than 1,000, Petrosian said, just enough to cover the cost of renting the theater.

Petrosian, 36, an Armenian citizen who has been living in the United States for 10 years, knew he could no longer afford to pay hotel and food bills, let alone buy each performer a $500 airline ticket back to Yerevan, Armenia's capital.

"I try to borrow money from people, I ask sponsors to help me out, but no one wants to help," he said. "They say to me, 'You did this, now you must accept the consequences.' "

In an interview, Petrosian took full responsibility for the debacle, acknowledging he made a string of poor business decisions but denying he did anything illegal.

Glendale police officers interviewed several troupe members Friday "to determine if there are any criminal aspects or evidence of criminal intent," said Chahe Keuroghelian, a department spokesman.

American diplomats in Armenia are also looking into allegations that Petrosian may have smuggled Armenians into the United States, said State Department spokeswoman Maria Rudensky.

"We heard reports that people who are not performers came to the U.S. with the opera group," Rudensky said. "'We're in discussions with Armenian authorities about that and have notified the INS."

Rudensky said the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan issued members of the opera and ballet group standard tourist visas, which do not require proof of a round-trip airline ticket.

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