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Theater | Theater Notes

Pasadena's Long-Playing Production

May 14, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

"PLAYHOUSE IS TRIUMPH"

--headline in the Los Angeles

Daily Times, May 20, 1925

*

The story was a report on the opening two days earlier of the new Pasadena Community Playhouse. Five of Edwin Schallert's seven paragraphs were in praise of the building and what it symbolized: "the growth and power of the community idea as applied to the theater."

"In this respect the present playhouse is one of the most remarkable achievements that has been carried out anywhere in the country," Schallert wrote. "Something about the atmosphere of the theater captivates one almost immediately."

The last two paragraphs were a review of the opening comedy, "The Amethyst," by Victor Mapes. It wasn't exactly a "money" review: "Though it is of the light and conventional sort, built on misunderstandings between a husband who is a playwright and a wife who desires a career as a social butterfly, it suffices as an opening entertainment . . . one or two of the acts seem talky."

"The Amethyst" hasn't been seen in decades, but the theater is still there. Despite a dark period in the late '60s and '70s and financial turbulence in the mid-'90s, the Pasadena Playhouse (minus the middle name "Community") is around to celebrate its 75th birthday this week.

The party will take place on Thursday. At 6 p.m., the public is invited to the playhouse for free birthday cake, remarks and reminiscences. On Thursday evening, people who can prove they were born in 1925 can see "The Glass Menagerie" for free. If anyone is out there who was actually at the May 18, 1925, opening night, he or she would certainly be a welcome guest as well, but as of last week, no one in that category could be found.

The festivities continue with a Tennessee Williams symposium Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., also free, and slated to feature actors Charles Durning, Dylan McDermott, Shirley Knight and Karen Kondazian.

Actually, this is the second 75th birthday celebration for the playhouse. In 1992, the playhouse commemorated the 1917 founding of the company that raised the money to build and open the playhouse. That company, however, was long gone even in 1992.

Today, the playhouse is still owned by David Houk's Pasadena Playhouse Associates, an organization that revived the playhouse in the '70s but went into bankruptcy in 1995. The programming on the main stage is provided by the nonprofit Pasadena Playhouse State Theatre of California, which uses the theater under a long-term arrangement with the building's previous owner, the city of Pasadena.

Houk and the nonprofit have been on opposite sides in court in recent years, but last week Houk was hopeful that this acrimony may end soon. Although he declined to disclose any details, he foresees a coming era of "peace between the the city, the nonprofit and the property owner."

Meanwhile, the nonprofit's artistic director Sheldon Epps--who saw his first professional theatrical production at the playhouse in 1964, when he was 8 years old--also was talking about the future. The search for a mid-size second stage in the heart of Old Town continues to focus on a location just south of Colorado Boulevard and "remains a priority," he said. Auditions are continuing to find a star for next fall's pre-Broadway production of "Bells Are Ringing," to be staged by experimental director Tina Landau. And Epps wants to bring "Blue," a play he directed at Washington's Arena Stage last month, to Pasadena early next year with its original star, Phylicia Rashad. Stay tuned.

EVIDENCE ROOM: Not to sound Chekhovian, but perhaps people 75 years from now will look back on the May 20, 2000, opening of the new Evidence Room at 2220 Beverly Blvd., which artistic director Bart DeLorenzo believes is the largest theater space (4,480 square feet of possible playing space) to operate under Actors' Equity's 99-Seat Theater Plan.

The space fills one side of a L-shaped structure that began in the '30s as a brassiere factory, DeLorenzo said. A group called Billygoat, laden with Evidence Room board members, bought the building and gave it to the theater company. The opening production is "The Berlin Circle" (see story on Page 44).

The new Evidence Room is a "black box," though DeLorenzo doesn't like that term, pointing out that the walls aren't black--"they've got great texture, beautiful wood and brick." He also noted that the lobby is "Wagnerian--entire theaters can fit in our lobby."

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