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Groundbreaking for Theater Center Marred by Protest

Redevelopment: The founder of historic Ebony Showcase is present to criticize city handling of project to build replacement.

December 12, 2000|GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were handshakes, broad smiles and warm words Monday at the groundbreaking in Los Angeles' Mid-City district for a new $8-million performing arts center on the site of the historic Ebony Showcase Theater, but not everyone shared in the joy.

Nick Stewart, who with his wife, Edna, founded the Ebony Showcase, which he said was the first theater for African American performers in the city, held placards decrying the new arts center. At the same time, a dozen others accused city officials of funneling public funds to their friends instead of using the money to help save the old theater.

Some city officials were caught off-guard by the protests that caused awkward moments at the ceremony at Washington Boulevard and Harcourt Avenue to mark the beginning of the new Washington Boulevard Performing Arts Center. "People should have their say, but I was disappointed," said Thomas Knox Jr., a spokesman for the Community Redevelopment Agency, which is heading the project.

Mayor Richard Riordan and City Councilman Nate Holden, who represents the area, downplayed the opposition as they spoke glowingly about what the new facility would mean.

"The center will give the area an economic boost while allowing residents to enjoy the splendor of the performing arts," the mayor said.

Holden refused to criticize Stewart when asked about his opposition to the project. "He has done a lot for the city and for African Americans," the councilman said.

Stewart, who is 90 and uses a wheelchair, was recognized for his role in starting the Ebony Showcase at the ceremony. But his feelings were clear as Holden and Riordan spoke to the more than 100 people in attendance. Stewart was in the background of the stage, holding a sign, aided by his son Christopher, that said, "Ebony Rip-Off."

CRA officials said the new facility is intended to carry on the tradition started in 1950 by the Ebony Showcase, where such black legends as Sammy Davis Jr., Eartha Kitt and Isabel Stanford gained valuable experience.

The new center, scheduled to open in 2002, will feature a 400-seat live theater complex and four loft units for artists. The center will also include a 1,150-square-foot multipurpose room, 400 square feet of office space, 2,000 square feet for a restaurant and 1,200 square feet for retail space. A 75-foot fly tower to move sets off and on the stage is included in the plans.

Stewart and his family have opposed plans for the new facility since the mid-1990s. They lost the Ebony Showcase building and two adjacent buildings in a foreclosure sale. They also lost two homes they had used as collateral for a loan they took out to save the theater.

They tried to raise money to buy the property back, but the debt of about $800,000 was too high.

In 1996, the CRA bought the property from the new owner for $475,000 and developed plans to build a theater, in part to continue the Stewarts' work.

But the Stewarts wanted no part of that, said their daughter Valerie. She said the family's financial problems were tied to their effort to comply with city seismic codes in 1992, and she faulted the CRA's role in the new facility, charging that it used federal funds earmarked for other uses for the new center. She contended that the funds should have been used to support existing businesses like the Ebony Showcase, which was closed in the mid-1990s. The structure was demolished in 1998.

The family also opposed the new center's design plans, saying that the 75-foot fly tower was not consistent with other structures in the area. The city Board of Zoning Appeals agreed, rejecting the CRA's plans.

But the 15-member City Council, which has the final say over the project, reversed the decision, giving approval for the fly tower. It also gave approval for the performing arts center.

The family's anger is such that it will not allow the city to use the Ebony Showcase name, saying that is the name of the theater's offices on La Brea Avenue although the structure no longer exists.

At Monday morning's groundbreaking, Stewart shook his head "no" when asked whether he supported the project. His son, Christopher, chimed in, "No!"

Across the street, Edward Scott, a supporter of the Stewarts, said the new proposal "was an insult to the African American community."

Approached after the groundbreaking, Lula Washington, the director of a dance theater group that performed at the Ebony Showcase, sympathized with the family, but added that there were positives.

"Their lives were in that space," she said. "To have that taken away . . . you can't put a dollar value on that. [The new facility] will have the things Nick and Edna wanted to have and [those things] will be taken care of."

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