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Performing Arts Going Dark

Theater* The monthly publication handed out before show time is folding on Sept. 1. The scramble to find a replacement is on.

July 02, 2002|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California theatergoers accustomed to receiving their program packaged inside a glossy copy of Performing Arts magazine will be in for a surprise as of Sept. 1, when the 36-year-old publication goes out of business.

The closure of Performing Arts, a monthly publication that has served California theaters since 1965 with Northern and Southern California regional editions, is collateral damage from a recent East Coast publishing coup. In early June, Playbill magazine, the 118-year-old program publisher for most Broadway theaters, acquired its longtime archrival, 75-year-old Stagebill.

Stagebill had purchased Performing Arts magazine last year, so the California publication went to Playbill as part of a package deal.

"They've been caught in the cross-fire of two New York publications fighting it out," said a source close to Performing Arts. Although Playbill may exercise its right to use the Stagebill or Performing Arts names for new publications, observers of the situation say that Playbill's primary goal is not to revive those publications but to prevent another publisher from capitalizing on its trademarks.

Officials of Playbill and Stagebill did not return calls for comment.

The demise of Performing Arts--offering articles about the regional performing arts scene along with each theater's own program pages--has left performing arts venues throughout the state in a scramble to find another publisher for their 2002-'03 season programs. Theater officials say a decision must be made within a few weeks to get programs prepared for September openings.

Performing Arts, supported by advertising, has been provided free of charge to theaters, except for minimal charges for additional program pages or other special requests by individual venues. The magazine is handed out to patrons at between 40 and 50 venues statewide, about 15 of those in Southern California--including the L.A. Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson theaters, the Hollywood Bowl, Pasadena Playhouse, Orange County Center for the Performing Arts and Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts.

Taking over the costs of self-publishing a program or contracting with another publisher is "not something that's in a lot of theaters' budgets," said Pasadena Playhouse General Manager Brian Colburn.

"This is exactly the wrong time; it's as bad as it could be," said Catherine Babcock, director of marketing and communications for the Los Angeles Music Center. "We have been doing quite a lot of calling to our counterparts in other Southern California arts organizations, and all of them are about in the same place we are, trying to get over the shock and move on to what we are going to do."

The acquisition of Stagebill and Performing Arts by Playbill is reverberating across the country, as theaters in New York, Chicago and other cities that used Stagebill consider their alternatives. In light of the changes, representatives of performing arts venues from around the country are organizing a July 8 meeting in New York to discuss their options, including self-publishing or negotiating new contracts with other publishers. At least one alternative publisher, Seattle-based Encore Media Group, has come to Los Angeles to talk with leadership at area venues, including the Music Center.

Theaters may also end up striking a deal with Playbill. Some Los Angeles-area theaters already use Playbill, including the Pantages, Wilshire and Canon theaters. But some administrators are concerned about Playbill's size--approximately 5 inches by 8 inches, versus the approximately 8-inch-by-10 1/2-inch Performing Arts magazine--and, more important, whether Playbill will offer West Coast performing arts stories, rather than a generic product.

Although Playbill officials have met with leaders at some of the larger Los Angeles venues--including the Music Center and Orange County Center for the Performing Arts--officials of those centers as well as others say Playbill has not offered any specific contract proposals to date, nor a promise that the company would be prepared to provide Playbill to them by September.

"A lot of theaters have been told that Playbill is 'going to get back to them,' " said Pasadena Playhouse's Colburn. "Well, we're not going to wait around for them to decide. We have some ideas."

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