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Theater Notes

Stages of Confusion and Change

Some Taper subscribers forget 'My Old Lady' is at the Doolittle, where debate continues on a face-lift.

January 13, 2002|DON SHIRLEY

Almost every night, a few Mark Taper Forum subscribers show up at the Taper in downtown L.A. to see the current season entry, "My Old Lady," only to discover that "Flower Drum Song"--which they already saw--is still playing.

In November, when the hit "Flower Drum Song" was extended through today, the Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood was drafted into service as a substitute location for "My Old Lady." Letters to subscribers asked them to return their original Taper tickets for "My Old Lady" to avoid any confusion, but only 64% did so.

Regardless of whether the Taper tickets were returned, Doolittle tickets to "My Old Lady"--which opened Jan. 4--were sent out. But apparently not everyone got the message. Anyone who shows up at the Taper to see "My Old Lady" is offered the chance to rebook another performance.

It's not as if the Doolittle is terra incognita for audiences of the Center Theatre Group, which runs the Taper. The group co-owned the Doolittle with UCLA in 1985 and 1986, presenting shows there that included Taper season offerings. After UCLA assumed sole ownership, Center Theatre Group returned as a tenant, sending its Ahmanson Theatre subscribers there from 1989 to 1995, while the Ahmanson was occupied by "Phantom of the Opera" and renovations.

In 2000, the Doolittle was bought by the Ricardo Montalban Nosotros Foundation, which is turning it into a Latino-oriented theater. Last year, the Doolittle hosted a production of "Selena" that paid rent but lost a lot of money. Other tenants who are willing to risk an extended run in the 1,000-seat theater have been hard to find.

So when the Taper looked for an alternative site for "My Old Lady," a move to the Doolittle looked mutually advantageous to Center Theatre Group and Montalban Nosotros.

It was helpful in more ways than Nosotros President Jerry Velasco initially envisioned. The Taper brought technical staff members who knew the facility well and spotted some improvements that needed to be made: painting, patching, cleaning, carpeting, plumbing. They replaced an unsafe pipe that crossed the stage, Velasco said. "Instead of them asking me where things were, I was asking them."

Nosotros paid for a few of the improvements, and the cost of new carpeting was split, Velasco said. But he estimated that Center Theatre Group spent at least $40,000 on the improvements. That organization's general manager, Douglas Baker, said only that the cost was "significantly more than a few thousand dollars." The foundation gave Center Theatre Group a discount of one-third off what it hopes will be its eventual rental rate.

A brief run of "Paquito's Christmas" at the Doolittle was moved from Dec. 14-24 to Dec. 7-17 to accommodate the "My Old Lady" schedule, Velasco said, but in return "Paquito's Christmas" was able to use some of the Taper's lights.

After "My Old Lady," the foundation hopes to renovate the face of the theater back to its 1927 appearance, when it was called the Vine Street Theatre. Then the plan is to rename the venue after Montalban, in time for what Velasco hopes will be the grand opening of a new production of Luis Valdez's "Zoot Suit" later this year. But "Zoot Suit" is still just in the talking stage at this point, Velasco said.

Taper artistic director Gordon Davidson disputes the necessity of redoing the current facade, which dates to the UCLA/Center Theatre Group takeover of the theater. It provided an improved marquee and, with its high-tech metallic look, was "a nod to modernity," he said--even though it drew some critical brickbats.

"I had hoped that if I scraped the walls back, I would find the look of a wonderful 19th century theater," Davidson said, "but it isn't there."

"I don't like all that metal," Velasco responded. "And some people feel that the original is still there, plastered over." He said that a new facade might cost $400,000 but said he is confident the sum could be raised. However, Velasco said the foundation is also considering a proposal "to put neon on the pipes for an Art Deco look" that would cost only about $40,000.

PANTAGES FOR "PRODUCERS"?: All current signs point to the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood as the future home of the L.A. run of "The Producers."

The producers of "The Producers" refuse to comment, perhaps because they don't want to appear to be rushing "The Lion King" out of the Pantages.

However, Center Theatre Group producer Davidson said the Pantages won the bid over his own Ahmanson Theatre because the grosses would be higher at the 2,700-seat Pantages than they would be at the 2,100-seat Ahmanson. He said the current desire of the producers of "The Producers" is to play 30 weeks here--a chunk of time that would pose some problems not only for the Ahmanson, which has a subscription season to manage, but also for the 3,500-seat Kodak Theatre, which is programmed primarily around shorter runs.

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