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Theatre West Has Friends in Sacramento

September 24, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Deep within the state budget, in the parks and recreation section, is a list of local recreation projects that are receiving grants this year. In between amounts for the restorations of Mission San Jose and the Manzanar War Relocation Center is an allocation for Theatre West.

The Cahuenga Pass company is the only professional theater on the list, which includes more than 200 grants. Theatre West will receive $115,000: $80,000 for physical renovations and $35,000 for its children's productions, including $10,000 for buses to help bring students from low-income areas to see the shows.

How did Theatre West manage this singular feat of grantsmanship?

"It's like sausage," said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), one of the grant's two sponsors. "You might want to eat it, but you don't want to see how it was made." When asked specifically how the grant landed in parks and recreation, instead of an arts-specific arena like the California Arts Council, Hayden simply repeated his joke.

Hayden became interested in co-sponsoring Theatre West in Sacramento not from his own theatergoing experience--he has never attended a Theatre West production, he said--but rather from attending community meetings at Theatre West, particularly when he was active in the fight to prevent subway tunneling through the Theatre West neighborhood.

Also, "I'm constantly looking for ways to support community-based theater," he said. "I wish the state budget could include a block grant" for such institutions.

The other sponsor of the grant, Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Los Angeles), has not only seen Theatre West in action, but even acted there, filling in for Steve Allen as the narrator of "A Christmas Carol" at a performance last fall. A group of middle school and high school students attended that performance. "I was very impressed by [the theater's] connection with the public schools," said Wildman, a former public school teacher.

Wildman, who--like Hayden--is running for a City Council seat, was a bit more specific about how the Theatre West money landed in parks and recreation. "My staff manipulated the budget to find a place to put it," he said. "We decided parks and recreation would be the easiest way to identify it."

Chris Woods, chief consultant for the Assembly budget committee, said that the parks and recreation budget is "pretty broad. It could have gone to the Arts Council too." When told that other theaters might want tips on how to get similar results, he replied, "It's just a matter of lobbying."

Theatre West executive director John Gallogly estimated that legislators and Gov. Gray Davis received at least 150 letters from Theatre West supporters. Applying for California Arts Council grants can require just as much work, but the likely results are much smaller, he said. The company is installing new seats (but only 160, two fewer than before), carpets, lighting and sound equipment, and renovating dressing rooms with the major part of the grant.

Theatre West's next season for adults will include "Glad to Be Unhappy: The Lyrical Life of Lorenz Hart" (Nov. 24-Dec. 17), a revue with Gogi Grant and Bill Hayes; "Bicycle Man" (Jan. 18-Feb. 11) by Edward J. Moore, best known for "The Sea Horse"; the new farce, "Algerian Romance" (March 15-April 8), by Kres Mersky; and a revival of "The Threepenny Opera" (May 10-June 10) that attempts to duplicate the famous off-Broadway staging from 1954. The director of this revival, Charles Rome Smith, and two of the anticipated cast members were also in that New York production.

DISNEYFICATED: When the Walt Disney Co. became active in theater during the '90s, a number of critics complained about the "Disneyfication" of Broadway, which was becoming a theme park, they said--too kid-oriented. In Los Angeles too, some of the locals sniped at Disney, the biggest locally based commercial theater company, for not doing much for L.A. theater.

Last week, however, Theatre LA announced that it will award Disney and its chairman, Michael Eisner, the Doolittle Award for outstanding leadership at this year's Ovation Awards ceremony on Oct. 30.

"The Lion King" changed the theater community's attitude about Disney, said Theatre LA President Lars Hansen. "It was a very artful experience." And although most Disney shows may still be suitable for all ages, Hansen praised the company "for introducing the stage to thousands of new theatergoers."

In a Times interview in 1998, Peter Schneider, then head of Disney's theatrical wing and now Disney Studios chairman, ruffled a few feathers with his remarks on L.A. theater: "The pinnacle of success here is being in a movie. Theater is always secondary. . . . We can't embrace something until after it comes from New York. . . . It's not as much fun to go to the theater here."

"I don't know that he feels that way anymore," Hansen said. "The advances for 'The Lion King' here are liable to change his mind."

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