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Doolittle Plan Sets Stage for Latino Center

Theater: Conversion of Hollywood venue would be part of redevelopment.

July 30, 1999|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

An ambitious plan to convert the 1,021-seat Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood into a Latino-oriented performance center will be officially unveiled today. If the plan is realized, the theater would be operated by the recently formed Ricardo Montalban-Nosotros Foundation and may be renamed the Ricardo Montalban Theatre.

"This has national implications," said Al Pin~a, an official for the National Council of La Raza, the Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization that helped fund the development of the plan. There is no comparably large theater emphasizing Latino programming anywhere in the country, he said.

The Montalban-Nosotros Foundation signed an exclusive negotiating agreement Wednesday with Regent Properties, a real estate and investment firm that plans to redevelop the area between Sunset Boulevard and the Doolittle, on Vine Street.

If Regent's proposal is approved by the Los Angeles City Council, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency will buy the Doolittle from owner UCLA for $2.1 million and convey it to Regent. The deal would be part of a public/private partnership that would also build a Hollywood Marketplace shopping center in the block south of the Doolittle, offices and stores on the same block as the Doolittle, as well as adjoining parking structures and a 5,000-square-foot building for support of theater activities, just west of the theater.

Regent then would contract with the Montalban-Nosotros Foundation to renovate and run the theater. It has not been determined whether the foundation would pay rent, reimburse Regent for the renovation costs, or a combination of both forms of payment, according to Regent managing partner Douglas Brown. But the foundation hopes to raise as much as $4.5 million for the renovation, the full costs of which have not been set. The project would bring the theater up to modern construction codes, restore the theater's facade to its original 1927 appearance, and include "a bit of asbestos removal," Brown said.

During the renovation, theater operations would be restricted by the construction, with only a $250,000 budget projected for the first year's programming and operations, according to Duncan Webb, a consultant hired by the foundation and the National Council of La Raza. But four years later, the annual budget would rise to as much as $1.5 million, three-fourths of which would be recovered through earned revenues, according to the plan. Montalban-Nosotros also hopes to raise an $8.5-million endowment to support programming at the theater and eventually to launch an arts academy as a charter school in downtown Los Angeles.

The foundation is an outgrowth of Nosotros Inc., an organization that the Mexican-born movie and TV star Ricardo Montalban created nearly 30 years ago in order to promote Latinos in show business. For years, Nosotros ran a 60-seat theater on a side street in east Hollywood, staging a few modest productions each year, with a current annual budget of $390,000. It also sponsors the annual Golden Eagle Awards, recognizing Latino achievement in arts and entertainment. The official announcement of the Doolittle project is slated for a press conference preceding the presentation of this year's Golden Eagles, tonight in Beverly Hills.

Three representatives of Nosotros will be on the proposed 15-member Montalban-Nosotros board, but the two organizations will be separate. Nosotros productions are not expected to dominate the theater's programming, given the limited resources of Nosotros and the goal of making the building a more diverse theater. "It's important that it's busy all the time," Webb said.

Nosotros President Jerry Velasco said tentative talks have already begun with East L.A. Classic Theatre, Bilingual Foundation of the Arts and "seven or eight" other potential users of the theater. However, Carmen Zapata, producing director of the BilingualFoundation, told The Times her group probably won't participate because the theater is "too large."

Not all the programming will be Latino, Velasco added. "I don't want to see us discriminating" on any grounds other than quality, he said.

Occasional bookings of commercial productions like those that have intermittently occupied the hall, such as "Art" earlier this year, will probably be necessary, he said: "If we come in with 100% community productions, we'll close."

Webb and the foundation's attorney Joseph Avila said there had been no discussion yet of the union requirements at the Doolittle. Some local producers have cited the costs of the theater's stagehands and box office crew, who work on a union contract, as being prohibitively expensive. And nearly all of the productions that have played the Doolittle have operated on Actors' Equity contracts that are relatively costly, compared to the token fees that Nosotros paid actors in the past at what Velasco called its "small matchbox" theater, which operated under the Equity Waiver Plan and then Equity's subsequent 99-Seat Theater Plan.

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