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Staging Area for Actors

Granada Theatre gives many a chance to perfect their skills while delighting audiences.

August 25, 2000|PAMELA A. RICHARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tucked away among three auto repair shops, the Granada Theatre has been producing community theater for 21 years, launching actors' careers and providing entertainment to hundreds of San Fernando Valley residents.

At the request of subscribers, the theater's season will be expanded from four to five productions next year, said Jo Erickson, the theater's founder and executive director. The theater's $300,000 annual budget is derived from subscriptions, donations and fund-raisers.

Through the years, the theater--which offers mostly dinner theater productions--has attracted many actors who want to work on their skills, Erickson said.

"When they come to a small theater, they get to play leads," she said.

Bryan Cranston, who plays the father in the Fox comedy series "Malcolm in the Middle," said the Granada Theatre helped him learn more about the craft of acting when he performed there as a 24-year-old in 1980. He played a young warlock in "Bell, Book and Candle" and the lead in "Barefoot in the Park."

Cranston, who grew up in Canoga Park, said he looked at his theater experiences as a gym, allowing him to work out and become familiar with the process of acting.

"I was grateful to the theater for providing a space for me to work," he said.

Erickson said open auditions draw a healthy response from local actors.

"Community theater is hopefully a mix of talents who are both professional and amateur, especially in Los Angeles," Cranston said. "Outside of Los Angeles, you could have a theater that is all amateur. It is all about the experience."

Cheryl Mercy, one of the lead actors in the current production of "Noises Off," said her day job as an executive legal administrator for St. Jude Medical in Sylmar pays the bills and the theater feeds her soul. She has performed at the theater since 1990 and, when not performing, works at the dinner theater as a resident costume designer, serving on the board of directors and also serving drinks to patrons.

Her enthusiasm for the theater has also spread to her husband, who acts occasionally, works as a stage manager and also serves drinks.

Julia Rogers, a reporter for KVEN (1450 AM) radio in Ventura, performed in "Solid Gold Cadillac" in 1995 and "Lend Me a Tenor" in 1998, doing five shows a week.

"I enjoyed the experience," Rogers said, "but it's community theater, which is a lot of hard work for no money."

Edmund Gaynes, president of the Valley Theater League, said he thinks the Granada is the only live dinner theater in Los Angeles. "Noises Off" ends Sunday and "Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz," ends Saturday. It will take almost four weeks to rebuild the set for the next show, "The Sunshine Boys," which opens Sept. 29. Mike Eaton will direct "Treasure Island" for the Saturday program beginning Oct. 7.

From the outside, the 4,000-square-foot building looks small, yet it houses the double-sided rotating stage, dining space for 120 and dressing rooms, which are also used for storing props. Every inch of space is used, including the ceiling. In the prop room, lamps and light fixtures dangle in clusters from the ceiling and hats of all types form a sculpture in the Theatre Threads room, which is stuffed with costumes.

Anxious to use the live theater training she received as a student at UCLA, Erickson was enticed to join the Granada Hills Woman's Club in 1956 because it had a drama section. After her first production in 1958, she raised funds for the Woman's Club for 20 years by directing plays.

As attendance increased and men were added to the all-female volunteer casts, people started telling her she should start a theater of her own.

Their encouragement led to the formation of the theater in Granada Hills. A two-year search for a location finally resulted in a rental agreement with the Woman's Club building. Fund-raisers and donations helped the Granada Theatre open in 1980 with the production of Neil Simon's "A Prisoner of Second Avenue."

The company bought its own building in 1985 after six months of holding fund-raisers and dealing with city bureaucracy; the structure was then gutted and rebuilt. That season opened in the new 80-seat theater at Balboa Boulevard and Chatsworth Street.

More growth, poor parking and the possibility that the lease would not be renewed resulted in the theater's move in 1991 to its present location at Lindley Avenue and Chatsworth Street. Formerly a karate studio, the building was three times larger, but renovations, improvements and equipment cost nearly $500,000.

A bank loan and donations from 1,600 supporters helped build the theater from scratch under the guidance of an architect. Despite the use of volunteers, there is still an outstanding balance due of $100,000.

The volunteer casts, crews and food servers have worked to keep the community dinner theater performing. The chef receives a small salary and Erickson receives a stipend for taking reservations.

When the shows were first held at the Woman's Club, Erickson performed as an actor twice. "Stage fright made me too nervous," she said. "I started directing and I liked it. You have all the power as a director."

BE THERE

"Noises Off" through Sunday, and "The Sunshine Boys" Sept. 29 through Nov. 19. Thursdays at 8 p.m., $17-19.50, and Saturdays at 7 p.m., $30.50, Sundays at 11:30 a.m., 12:30 and 5:30 p.m., $27.50 and $29. "Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz" through Saturday; "Treasure Island" Oct. 7-Nov. 18, Saturdays at 1 p.m., $8 for adults and children, $3 lunch. Granada Theatre, 18167 Chatsworth St., Granada Hills. (818) 363-6887.

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