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Help Finally Arrives for the El Portal

October 08, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Last week's backstage drama at El Portal Center for the Arts, which focused on departing artistic director Jeremiah Morris, overshadowed some good news for the theater: A long-delayed grant to help finish the renovation of the North Hollywood theater recently arrived, after months of waiting.

The amount is $750,000. The original plan was for this money to come from the Community Redevelopment Agency. But opposition from a few community activists, who felt that too much public money was going into the El Portal, derailed that plan. Federal community development block grants, controlled by the city, filled in for CRA money, and the City Council approved the allocation April 12.

The money wasn't actually received until Sept. 18. In the meantime, El Portal obtained a $600,000 loan from the Valley Economic Development Center, in three increments of $200,000 each, which enabled the theater to pay some of its bills.

Theater officials said the extra expenditures were required because of federal codes that require access for the disabled, both in the auditorium and backstage--including a backstage elevator.

The company still awaits the final, $400,000 installment of its renovation money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which became involved because of the 1994 earthquake and ended up paying for most of the theater's reconstruction. That last installment should arrive in six to eight weeks, estimated the theater's development director, Cherry Hepburn.

Another source of federal money for El Portal was the Small Business Administration. It provided a $1.5-million loan, which the theater was supposed to begin paying off last May. However, El Portal arranged a one-year extension of the due date.

All of this may help explain the current El Portal penny-pinching. In fact, said managing director Pegge Forrest, the 2000 season ended up costing $1.5 million, compared to a projected $2.1 million.

The theater isn't completely reliant on federal largess. Forrest said the company expects to raise enough money privately to pay for the next season, just as it did for the last season.

A hopeful harbinger of the fall fund-raising came Wednesday, the same day the news broke about the decision of the board not to renew the contract of founding artistic director Morris. Theater patron Tom Smotrich, who had seen the company's satire on movie violence, "Popcorn," last weekend, walked into the theater and donated $5,000. The company promptly decided to name the building's old-fashioned box office after him and his wife, Iris, Forrest said.

El Portal expects to conduct a national search to replace Morris, although the job may not look especially attractive until the fall fund-raising is completed.

One potential candidate is Peggy Shannon, artistic director of Sacramento Theatre Company and former artistic director of Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre, where she was the first artistic director in the company's new $35-million complex. Shannon directed a play at El Portal's 99-seat space earlier this year, and she is the only person with experience as artistic director of a major theater who has worked with the company.

Reached in Sacramento Wednesday, Shannon said she had been contacted by an El Portal representative. "I have done some consulting for them, and I am aware of their concerns and problems," she said. "That gives me pause. But I am flattered [to have been approached] and interested.

Shannon recently signed a two-year renewal of her Sacramento contract, but she said it included an out clause. She had earlier tried to run both Sacramento and a fledgling Riverside company simultaneously, but the Riverside effort collapsed in 1999 after only a couple of years. She wouldn't try to repeat that kind of double duty with the El Portal, which arose out of the 30-year-old 99-seat company, Actors Alley. "El Portal is a small company that suddenly got much larger, and it needs somebody who can be very hands-on."

S.T.A.G.E. EXPANDS: Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event, known for annual benefit concerts for AIDS causes, will do one for the Actors' Fund of America on Nov. 4 at the Luckman Theater at Cal State LA. "Kurt Weill: The Centennial" will feature a slew of prominent musical theater performers. Information: (323) 933-9244, Ext. 33.

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