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Laguna Gives Its Playhouse a Long-Running Lease

After nearly losing two arts organizations, the city OKs a 40-year-deal for the county's oldest theater.

October 23, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The Laguna Beach City Council has approved a 40-year lease for the Laguna Playhouse -- an effort, some say, to show serious support for the arts in a city where two other major arts organizations have threatened to leave in recent years.

Richard Stein, the Playhouse's executive director, said he viewed the new lease as part of "an enlightenment" in the city partly because of the near loss of the Laguna Art Museum and Festival of Arts.

"I believe there's a desire to keep what's great about Laguna in Laguna," Stein said.

The Playhouse, the county's oldest theater, is more than 80 years old. First located closer to town, it has resided on city-owned land on Laguna Canyon Road since 1969 when it was named the Moulton Theater in recognition of its biggest benefactor, Nellie Gail Moulton. In recent years, the name was changed to the Laguna Playhouse.

A previous 40-year lease on the land expired three years ago and the Playhouse operated with extensions until the council unanimously approved the new lease Tuesday.

In recent years, the Festival of Arts -- a summer art exhibition accompanied by Pageant of the Masters, an annual stage production in which actors recreate great art works on stage -- nearly moved to San Clemente.

Laguna Beach kept the festival by agreeing last year to sign a 40-year lease in which the city drastically reduced its fee for use of the festival grounds in exchange for a provision keeping the festival in Laguna Beach.

The Laguna Art Museum almost merged six years ago with the Newport Harbor Art Museum to avoid insolvency, but abandoned the plan after members vowed to keep it independent.

Bolton Colburn, the museum's executive director, said he believed there was meaning behind the Playhouse's new lease.

"The city has big arts organizations and an arts presence and it seems that it is going through crisis after crisis," Colburn said. "Laguna's problem has been to keep its great arts organizations in town and not see them get bigger and peel off and move elsewhere. The meaning behind this is the city's helping to make a commitment to the Playhouse."

Under terms of the new lease, the Playhouse will pay the city $8,500 a year, annually adjusted for inflation.

The Playhouse has purchased an adjacent building, a dream in the works since 1988 when then-general manager Jody Johnston Davidson sought a second, satellite theater.

But Stein said fund-raising to refurbish the new facility slowed because potential donors had expressed concern about the permanency of the Playhouse.

"The major donors of the community were not ready with moving forward with the expansion," Stein said.

The plan is to build a theater center at the Laguna Canyon Road location consisting of what is now the Moulton Theater, a second, smaller theater in the new facility and an educational center with classrooms.

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