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Civic Light Opera Name Rekindled

August 13, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

The Los Angeles Civic Light Opera is about to be reborn--on paper, if not on stage.

For many theatergoers in the mid-20th century, theater in L.A. was the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. At its height, the organization had more than 100,000 L.A. subscribers (plus thousands more in San Francisco). A few of its original productions went to Broadway. It was a role model for similar musical theater series throughout America.

After founder Edwin Lester retired in 1977, the LACLO waned, presenting fewer original productions, becoming simply a presenter of Broadway tours. The Nederlander Organization acquired the subscription rolls in 1981 but officially shed the LACLO name in 1996, replacing it with a sleeker moniker, Broadway/LA. At the time, the Nederlanders' Martin Wiviott said the new name "clearly denotes what we are and who we are"--a presenter of Broadway musicals in the city of Los Angeles.

Nederlander wasn't alone in finding something musty about the "Civic Light Opera" designation. Groups in San Gabriel, La Mirada and San Jose also dropped "Civic Light Opera" from their names in the '90s.

But James Blackman--executive director of the Redondo Beach-based Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities and the Hermosa Beach Playhouse--thinks that was a mistake. Blackman's parent nonprofit, hitherto called Educational Music Theatre, has been freshly dubbed the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera.

The group's two current venues will continue to use the existing names for their particular subscription series, but Blackman hopes that his organization will soon expand into parts of Los Angeles County other than the South Bay--perhaps in a partnership with the new El Portal Center in North Hollywood, for example--and will then be able to popularize the LACLO name once again.

Blackman, who attended LACLO productions as an impressionable teenager some 30 years ago, said he was casting about for a name for his countywide efforts and asked his pro bono attorneys to check the status of various names. When they reported that the LACLO name was available, "it was like being a car collector and finding a Tucker," Blackman declared.

Except that it didn't cost nearly as much as a rare car. The fees to register the title with the state were about $160, Blackman said. "It's an excellent buy."

Blackman scoffs at anyone who disapproves of such an old-fashioned name: "We've modernized ourselves into a sterilized existence. There's no soul left. Newness is like a virus. Every 12 seconds, your computer becomes 12 years older."

"Mr. and Mrs. South Bay" frequently approach him in stores, he said, to express how much they enjoy the "Civic Light Opera." As for potential newcomers to his shows, they're attracted more by the show titles than the name of the organization, he said, so he doesn't think the CLO in the name should intimidate anyone. No, the use of "light opera" doesn't mean a lot of shows from the '20s or '30s, he said (the LACLO name was first used in 1938).

Blackman acknowledged that the for-profit Nederlander company "needs to be responsible to the bottom line all the time" and therefore might not be able to put up with a name that could be misinterpreted by newcomers. However, as someone who runs a nonprofit, "I prefer to educate people about the original art form."

The South Bay group's cross-county counterpart, Music Theatre of Southern California (which presents shows in San Gabriel and Glendale), is one of those nonprofits that dropped "Civic Light Opera" from its name in the '90s. Artistic director Bill Shaw doesn't regret that decision. "It's a term a lot of young people can't relate to," he said.

However, he expressed mild chagrin about Blackman's use of the LACLO name. Shaw, too, grew up on LACLO shows. The original LACLO "was a major force in my life. . . . I'd hate to see any other organization pick up that moniker, because I don't know if they could do justice to what it was."

Shaw wished Blackman well but added: "Mr. Lester was a god. Mr. Blackman will never be a god."

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