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A New Home for Early Americana

July 15, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

A group led by a former executive producer of "Cheers" has launched a new theater company that hopes to stage early American plays at the 721-seat McKinley Auditorium in Pasadena.

Named the Arroyo Heritage Theater in memory of an arts movement that was active in early Pasadena, the company has subleased and is restoring the 1922 Gothic revival auditorium of the former McKinley Junior High School, near the intersection of Lake Avenue and Del Mar Boulevard, not far from the Pasadena Playhouse.

TV producer Phoef Sutton, a former "Cheers" executive who also co-created and produced the Bob Newhart series "Bob" and the short-lived series "Thanks" and "The Fighting Fitzgeralds," is president of the Arroyo Heritage board.

He's also set to star in the first multi-week production at the facility, "Edgar," his own solo show about Edgar Allan Poe, scheduled for September.

But first the group will present a concert on July 28 devoted to the work of singer-songwriter Randy Hale and the Blue Stem Band. Hale, who's also on the Arroyo Heritage board, and Sutton were among the creators of a recent musical, "Songs From the Tall Grass," which closed last month at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., and might eventually find its way to the McKinley Auditorium, Sutton said.

Most of the Arroyo Heritage board members are residents of the Pasadena area and came from theater backgrounds, Sutton said.

The group wants to focus on early American drama because "it's often a poor second cousin. There's a tendency to look to England for classics. And we wanted to do something no one else was doing." A Noise Within, in neighboring Glendale, could serve as a structural model, he said.

Then again, A Noise Within operates out of a 144-seat house--so it needs to fill far fewer seats than Arroyo Heritage would.

Sutton said that the company may need to lower the capacity by roping off parts of the auditorium. The group has not yet entered negotiations with Actors' Equity but hopes to mount a full production sometime during the coming year, alongside a fund-raising campaign.

CULVER CHAT: When Center Theatre Group takes over the Culver Theatre, under the terms of an agreement approved by the Culver City Council last month, what will it be called?

If you want your name on it, you may already be too late. CTG artistic director Gordon Davidson said that the naming opportunity--in which CTG is seeking a donor to contribute a substantial chunk of the $7 million to $8 million needed for the conversion into 350-seat and 100-seat spaces--is going on right now and "we're getting close to having something," although he then defined "close" as "months"--as opposed, presumably, to years.

The official releases that went out after the City Council approval mentioned CTG's big theater, the Ahmanson, as often as its smaller sibling, the Taper--although the Culver City project has usually been viewed as an extension of the Taper.

The new theater's primary uses will be developmental and educational, which have traditionally fallen under the jurisdiction of the Taper, Davidson said. "It's a bigger leap" to put newly developed work in the Ahmanson. Fledgling playwrights "don't tend to write for that league," he added.

However, he definitely wants to develop musical as well as nonmusical theater at the Culver. "There's no question that a big portion of the Ahmanson audience wants to see musicals, and I can't rely on New York to produce them in sufficient quantities." So it's conceivable that something developed in Culver City could wind up at the Ahmanson. *

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