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The cubs are the most ferocious beasts

October 29, 2002|MARY McNAMARA

Raul Jauregui has been house manager for the Pantages Theatre for almost five years now and he had long thought of himself as a patient man. Two years ago, however, he realized he had not quite grasped the full dimensions of the word "patient." Two years ago, "The Lion King" came to Los Angeles.

"Every day, every show, there are kids," he says. "And it is great to see, most of them love the show, but there are things we have to deal with ... " he pauses for a diplomatic moment " ... differently."

"The Lion King" differs from other theatrical performances in many ways. The giraffes and hyenas, for instance, the 28-month run and, of course, the merchandising -- funny how there's never been a gummy worm tie-in to "The Cherry Orchard." But the biggest difference is the sticky-fingered, never-quite-silent, chair-kicking-kid factor.

In the lobby before a recent Saturday matinee, the high piping voices of children sailed above the roar of adult conversation like seabirds. Little girls in party dresses, little boys in creased trousers and button-down shirts clutched parents' hands and programs or darted through the crowd. "There must be a thousand kids here," said one middle-aged patron, gathering her skirts about her like a woman threatened by a rampaging mouse.

Perhaps not a thousand on this particular day, but 2 million people have seen "The Lion King" since it opened two years ago, and at least a quarter of them were, and continue to be, children. In a town where every financially strapped cultural venue is constantly nagging families to expose their children to art early and often -- apparently an early understanding of Beckett and Van Gogh is a good predictor of high SATS -- a trip to "The Lion King," for those who can afford it, is a natural. It looks good on the parental resume and the kids might actually enjoy it.

And the whole point of "The Lion King" is to get the kids in the audience; why else faithfully re-create an animated movie hit?

"We suggest that the show is appropriate for ages 8 and up," is the refrain at the box office and among various Disney officials. "But of course you know your child better than we do."

Indeed, many of the accommodations Jauregui and his staff make are necessities for the under-8 set. Lower-priced lap tickets are available for smaller children, and booster seats, which one probably would not see during a run of, oh, "Chicago," are stacked beside the lobby doors. The Pantages has always allowed food and drink in the theater, but for "The Lion King," there is a new no-soda rule. "It's a new carpet," said Jauregui. "Kids, soda, new carpet ... not a good mix."

There are television monitors in the lobby, so parents who discover they have misjudged a child's attention span or hyena tolerance can sort of watch the rest of the show while the kid tears up and down the red-carpeted steps.

"Most kids are pretty good during the first act," says Matt Creek, head of guest services. "Because there are kids on the stage. But the show is two hours and 45 minutes, and that is asking a lot."

Creek has tapped the shoulders of hundreds of exasperated parents as they dragged children into the lobby for the second or third time and suggested that they might like to come back another time and actually see the show, as his guests. "Although that is becoming more difficult to do," he says, "as we get closer to the end."

Meanwhile, concession sales have skyrocketed. Creek sees plenty of moms stumble out during the performance, like junkies in an alley at 2 a.m., looking for "one more bag of M&M's, just to keep the kids quiet." But it's not just kids wolfing down the Rice Krispies treats and fudge-frosted brownies. "Usually during a show, you have a lot of people on dates," says Jauregui. "Women won't eat on dates. But now, they're with the kids and they just don't care."

While Jauregui and his staff sometimes have to act the heavies with the younger audience -- telling them to go to their seats, sit down in their seats, stay in their seats and be quiet -- Creek is the one who deals with the irate adult in the next row up. Yeah, he says, he's had to move some people who complained about their seats being kicked or the constant crinkling of candy wrappers. He's had to soothe a few patrons who wanted to ban children from the audience and possibly the Earth.

"I try to accommodate people," he says. "But in the end, it's a play based on a cartoon, so people have to be a little understanding. I figure anyone who's really, really upset came into the theater with a lot of baggage, and I can't fix that."

As the show enters its final weeks, the child-to-adult ratio will probably rise. Parents who have been waiting until the absolute last minute, in the hopes that their children will experience a sudden maturation spurt, are now handing over their credit cards and hoping for the best.

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