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Taking a Big Step Up

Venues* In a major revamping, the historic Wiltern Theatre loses its floor seating but gains a new and versatile floor arrangement.


Bob Dylan is pretty much guaranteed a standing ovation when he plays at the Wiltern Theatre on Oct. 15.

That's because for the first time since the ornate Art Deco house opened at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue with the 1931 premiere of the movie "Alexander Hamilton," most of the audience won't have seats.

Dylan's concert will kick off a series of events inaugurating the historic facility after a reported $1.5-million makeover that was begun July 1. Dylan will also play the next two nights, with the Cult, Underworld, Ryan Adams, Ani DiFranco, Jaguares, Badly Drawn Boy and an already announced Nov. 4 show by the Rolling Stones among the other acts booked for the opening run.

With the about 1,200 fixed seats removed, the slanted floor has been sculpted into five tiers rising away from the front of the stage. Each level is fronted with a waist-high wall and can be set up either for a standing, general-admission format, with tables and chairs nightclub style, or with seats placed in rows. It can also be configured in different combinations--the first two tiers with tables and chairs, the back three general-admission standing, for example. The balcony will retain its fixed seats for nearly 1,000 people, with the main floor holding from about 900 to 1,400, depending on the setup.

The work is being done with care to preserve the details of the theater, which had fallen into disuse but was saved from the wrecking ball by the Los Angeles Conservancy and in 1985 was reopened as an officially designated historic landmark. The lobby is also getting a face-lift to provide for better bar service and to accommodate full food service.

Brian Murphy, chief operating officer of Wiltern owner Clear Channel Entertainment's Los Angeles music division, began the push to remodel two years ago after surveying the changes he saw coming in the region's concert theater landscape.

"We were meeting with the Music Center people and looking at the Disney Hall plans, and we were being shown what was coming with the Kodak Theatre," he said, noting that without L.A. Philharmonic and other events, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion will have 120 nights a year open for bookings.

Murphy foresaw the Wiltern competing against the Chandler, the Pantages Theatre (after the run of "The Producers" concludes) and several other conventional-seating facilities, not just for rock and pop concerts, but also dance performances, awards shows, television tapings, stage productions and corporate events. He also had noticed the Wiltern losing out on acts preferring general-admission shows, which turned to the smaller Palace, House of Blues and El Rey Theatre, as well as the larger Hollywood Palladium.

"I felt, 'We gotta become something different,' " he said. As a basic model, Murphy and his team looked at a renovation done in the mid-'80s at San Francisco's Warfield Theatre, which is now also owned by Clear Channel. The Warfield, though, ended up with a flat, open floor. The tiered arrangement was proposed for the Wiltern to make for better sight lines and to allow for the versatility of format.

Conducting a recent tour of the Wiltern, longtime production manager Reid Bartlett stressed that every change was subject to approval by the city's Cultural Heritage Commission, right down to the new carpeting.

"We took a sample of the lobby carpet and were able to find a loom that could reproduce the pattern," he said.

And contingencies had to be made for the possibility of restoring the Wiltern to its original state.

"The seats are all in storage," he said. "It was a condition that we had to keep them in case we give up on this in a few years.... We have to restore it then."

The 1985 restoration of the Wiltern by developers Ratkovich, Bowsers and Perez Inc. and Bronco Ltd. was hailed both as a major victory for preservation efforts and as the arrival of a first-rate presence in the city's performance circuit. Housed in an office building marked by its distinctive Pellister green patina, the theater had a checkered history and had been dark since 1979.

From its reopening performance by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre through pop singer Pink's late-June concerts, it has been among the most prominent venues in town. Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Sting are among the performers who chose to give special, intimate shows there. In addition to Dylan's Oct. 15-17 stand and the Stones' Nov. 4 show, confirmed dates are Musiq (Oct. 18), the Cult (Oct. 19 and 20), Underworld (Oct. 21), Ryan Adams (Oct. 23), Ani DiFranco (Oct. 24), Art Garfunkel (Oct. 27), Jaguares (Nov. 1), Sinbad (Nov. 2), a Step Up benefit with Aimee Mann and Joe Henry (Nov. 5), Badly Drawn Boy (Nov. 8) and Filter (Nov. 9). Unconfirmed but expected are dates for Chris Robinson, Sigur Ros, Soft Cell, Thievery Corporation and Me'shell Ndegeocello.

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