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There Was Life Before 'Lion King'

November 05, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

The annual Ovation Awards ceremony paid lavish tribute to L.A. theater for most of its three hours Monday--from an opening number by Billy Barnes that used a series of clever rhymes to tout the glories of the local scene to later testimonials by Douglas Sills, Kathleen Chalfant, Patrick Stewart and others.

One oddly discordant speech struck a different tone, however. While introducing Disney chief Michael Eisner, who received a noncompetitive award for theatrical leadership, Falcon Theatre owner and big-time movie director Garry Marshall gave the impression that musical theater didn't exist in L.A. before the Walt Disney Co. decided to bring it here.

Recalling the '70s, when he was looking for musicals that might entertain his kids, Marshall said he had to rely on the Ice Capades. But Eisner, he said, had finally "taught Los Angeles that musical theater is more than a duck doing a spin on the ice."

Marshall overlooked the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, which for decades brought Broadway musicals here and in turn sent a few of its own productions to New York, relying on one of the largest subscription audiences in American theatrical history. He ignored the fact that Los Angeles hosted the U.S. premieres of "Evita," "Sunset Boulevard" and "Ragtime." The Ahmanson Theatre itself, where Marshall made his remarks, hosted "The Phantom of the Opera" for more than four years--long before Disney began producing theater.

Marshall neglected Long Beach Civic Light Opera, which took up much of the slack as its Los Angeles counterpart waned in the '80s, and the other groups that came to the forefront since Long Beach went belly-up--for example, the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, which is approaching its 10th season and has won the Ovation for best musical in a larger theater two years in a row. L.A. has also been the home of smaller musical theater experiments; the Ovation Award for best musical in a smaller theater is called the Franklin Levy Award after the late producer who often presented musicals on the 99-seat level.

Discussing Marshall's remarks on the morning after, one audience member said he was "squirming in my seat" over the way Marshall dismissed L.A. musical theater history. An Ovation voter said the presentation appeared to be an example of "pandering to Michael Eisner."

Marshall, who is shooting a movie, could not be reached for comment. Lars Hansen, president of Theatre LA, which sponsors the Ovations, agreed that Marshall's facts were "just wrong." But "he was probably sacrificing fact for humor in his effort to be a good stand-up comic."

In another footnote to the Ovations, one of the presenters, East West Players co-founder and former artistic director Mako, said that he didn't remember receiving one of the first Ovations--in 1989 when they were noncompetitive lifetime achievement awards--and he didn't know where the trophy was.

"I wonder if he would let us look through his garage," Hansen said the next day.

AND NOW THE ADAS: With the Ovations out of the way, awards season now moves on to the Valley Theatre League's seventh annual Artistic Director Achievement Awards, the ADAs, to be held at the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Ted Lange will emcee.

One recent development in ADA country is that the San Fernando Valley's biggest theater company, El Portal Center for the Arts, is on the verge of a "rapprochement" with the Valley Theatre League and is likely to rejoin the organization, said El Portal's new artistic director, Jim Brochu, who will present an ADA award Wednesday.

El Portal and the Actors Alley company from which it sprang had dropped out of the league as the result of a rift between league leaders and El Portal's former artistic director, Jeremiah Morris.

If El Portal comes back into the fold, the league might then turn its attentions to the company that is in line to become the Valley's second biggest theater--the Colony, in its new home at Burbank Center Stage. The Colony's producing director, Barbara Beckley, said last week that her group had not been invited to join the league, and she had never even thought about it. "Now, I will," she said.

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