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Temple Joins Arts Awakening


Orange County performing arts lovers take for granted that they can see name talent and the best local ensembles in classy, modern, immaculate surroundings.

Now comes a chance for that missing something: the special pleasure of sitting in a fine, old hall that has a burnished elegance and offers a sense of history.

A place that affords the smell and shine of well-preserved wooden floors, beams and banisters. A place where the ornamental work in carvings and painted filigree is an elaborate, enduring, don't-make-'em-like-that-anymore testament to the skills of artisans from generations ago.

The kind of place the new Santa Ana Performing Arts and Event Center aspires to be by choosing the 70-year-old former Masonic Temple at 505 N. Sycamore St. as its home.

Like much else in the awakening downtown that surrounds it, the renovated temple is a work in progress. But its potential appeal is undeniable.

There are few, if any, venues in Orange County that can approach its antique and idiosyncratic splendor: stairways lined with carvings of knights in armor and heraldic shields, an arched theater ceiling decorated with peach and green designs that have a medieval flavor and look like textured tapestries, and a facade that boasts four carved, bright-yellow lion's heads roaring from just under the roof line.

"It's one of the most exquisite buildings in the city," said Jim Gilliam, Santa Ana's arts coordinator. "It feels like an English hunting lodge. It's exactly what we need."

If all goes well for Santa Ana's hopes of reviving its downtown as a magnet for the arts and night life, history could look back at this month as a pivotal time when the vision took a huge leap toward becoming a reality.

This week brings the opening of the downtown campus of the Orange County High School of the Arts--and with it a daily infusion of more than 900 young dreamers, most from elsewhere in and around Orange County, who aspire to glory--or at least to careers--as actors, dancers, musicians and artists.

Then, on Sept. 22, the Santa Ana Performing Arts and Event Center opens. The evening will showcase two of the building's multiple spaces, with an art exhibit in the ground-floor lobby and a jazz concert in the main, third-floor concert theater.

The event kicks off a three-day annual municipal celebration, "Sights & Sounds of Santa Ana." It is meant as a preview, not a grand opening, of the arts center, which is still weeks or perhaps a month away from completion, according to Gil Marrero, the project's real estate broker and spokesman.

Marrero, a leading player in downtown redevelopment, said a partnership led by Michael F. Harrah, downtown's key developer, has poured $6 million into renovating the Masonic Temple.

The four-story, Gothic-revival building, topped by a fifth-floor tower, dates from about 1930, Marrero said, and has been vacant for 17 years.

"Thank goodness the building stayed locked and closed off to the public. It was never vandalized," Marrero said--unlike the Santora building, the badly damaged 1920s-vintage structure that Harrah renovated five years ago as the cornerstone of Santa Ana's plan to refashion a depressed sector of downtown into an Artists Village.

The new performing arts center has three theaters--the 700-seat main stage on the third floor and 250- and 50-seat halls on the second floor.

The center also will house a restaurant called Aphrodite's, Marrero said, and the large furnished basement will have a catering kitchen and facilities for meetings and banquets. The thrust has been to finish the renovation, Marrero said--a process that was delayed when Harrah suffered back injuries in a helicopter accident earlier this summer.

When the work is complete, the center's owners will focus on persuading prospective occupants of the building's charms, amenities and opportunities. Marrero said Harrah plans to hire a facility-management specialist to book and run the arts center.

Two crucial questions face the project:

* Can it book attractions that will draw crowds big enough to cover expenses and a mortgage? Orange County's other leading arts venues, such as the Orange County Performing Arts Center and South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa and the Irvine Barclay Theatre at UC Irvine, are nonprofits that can't make ends meet unless they augment box-office income with donations. The Santa Ana center is a for-profit venture that has to pay its own way.

* Can Santa Ana's lingering image in some quarters as a problem-plagued urban core be dispelled quickly enough to help the center take off? Santa Ana Police Lt. Dave Petko, district commander for the downtown area, said last week that the Artists Village neighborhood is "almost problem-free compared to what it was years ago," with police calls no more serious than for public nuisances such as loitering.

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