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Reading L.A.

Sixty-Five Comfortable Chairs Inspire Bottomless Gratitude

May 23, 2001|ALLAN M. JALON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is a fine spring morning as Fred Dewey guides us in my red Honda to a Dumpster in front of the Santa Monica Courthouse from which he recently spirited 65 old seats on a journey to a new life. As a result, the small theater at the Beyond Baroque Literary Center, where Dewey is executive director, is finally doing comfortable justice to the writers who give and audiences who hear readings there each year.

As Angelenos who have heard the work of fiction writers, poets and playwrights there know--and that means a lot of people over the years--the seats' predecessors for decades were criminally uncomfortable folding metal chairs. Some local art saints may have taken secret delight in those sit-down equivalents of a bed of nails. I once taught free writing workshops at Beyond Baroque and have attended readings I will never forget. But through it all, I loathed those chairs.

Comfort is competitive in Los Angeles these days. The city is in the middle of a mini-boom in the number of gorgeous places to hear writers. The Getty Center, the Skirball Cultural Center and the Los Angeles Central Library downtown all have halls for literary readings. Audiences in the many plush seats have been impressively large.

They're all far better funded than Beyond Baroque, those places. And getting comparative comfort without paying for it has been Dewey's fantasy for a long time. "I was the Don Quixote of chairs," he says.

"There!" he screams, pointing to the spot where he got lucky one morning not long ago. "Stop!"

We pull up near a green, low-walled Dumpster just in front of the courthouse. "I knew the moment I saw them," he declares, gravely exuberant, as if he were Picasso describing his famous instant vision of the future muse upon first sighting Marie-Therese Walter outside a Paris Metro station. "The light gave the woven cushions a golden shimmer," Dewey continues. "I saw their laminated backs. The courthouse has been in the process of renovating. And in that Dumpster were the seats on which people had sat waiting for trial, waiting to testify. I've had parking tickets. My butt remembered those seats.

"But I was supposed to leave town that day. I had a plane to catch. I didn't have time to collect thrown-out seats, no matter how beautiful." We sped up, and he showed me how he prowled downtown Santa Monica, searching for a pay phone. He reenacted his frantic call to Art Lust.

Some may find it almost unbelievable that the theater of a nonprofit institution devoted to writing should have as its technical director a man named Art Lust. Welcome to the club. It's a name that could have been invented by a self-styled artistic visionary or a porn star. It is his real name, he says, German, Arthur Lust. He is a manically perfectionistic sound-and-light designer whose day job is working for a company that sets up speeches for companies and politicians. His labor of love is Beyond Baroque, and he exults in telling his part of the seat saga:

"When Fred called, he shouted at me, 'Art! If you get those chairs you'll be a hero to literary Los Angeles!' So, what could I do? I got a van from a friend and picked up the seats. They were in pretty bad shape."

The armrests of gray metal and wood were bent and twisted, barely attached in some cases. Some of the beautiful wooden backs (fiction writer Curtis Baruth, Beyond Baroque's volunteer carpenter, says they're maple) were etched with names, linked hearts and other misdemeanors of boredom before the law. Dirt encrusted the dense brownish fabric of the thick, springy cushions. It took Lust three weeks of steady work to unbend, clean and polish the chairs. Finally, he lit them softly with the lighting system he tinkers with endlessly. He swept the room.

Dewey returned from his trip, and he was stunned by what he saw.

The seats make the place look like the ghost of an old small-town movie theater. And they do something strange to Dewey. Peering, at 42, through ever-present glasses and a shifting curtain of longish gray-blond hair, he broods a lot about comfort and literature in America. "It's posed a crisis for me, getting these chairs," he says. "I think people should sit on hard, uncomfortable chairs when they listen to poems and short stories. This is not the movies. This is art. Movies are there to enable you to sit on over-comfortable chairs, to sink into a morass of sleep. Writing is supposed to wake you up. We live in a time of too many comfortable distractions. Art is about the truth."

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