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THEATER

A bolt for L.A.

Michael Ritchie earned his calluses backstage before leading a company, experience he brings to Center Theatre Group.

October 26, 2003|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — When the movers cart Michael Ritchie's things west in a year or so, their load will be lightened by the lack of the sort of keepsakes you would expect to find among the possessions of a self-styled "theater rat." There will be very few posters, playbills or props -- few reminders of productions past -- in the boxes that Ritchie will bring along when he becomes the most powerful figure in Los Angeles theater.

At first it was "negligence," Ritchie says, that left him without such mementos as his career progressed from summer stock to manning spotlights on Broadway to stage managing and then to producing, that as head of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires. But he eventually realized it had become a pointed choice "to not collect things."

So there's only one theater poster in his Manhattan apartment, and it's not from any show he did, or any starring his wife, actress Kate Burton. It's from "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" and adorns the room of their 15-year-old son.

In Ritchie's office in the heart of Times Square, the walls display photos of Red Sox great Ted Williams and a vintage poster of the Who. True, there is one small theater poster across from his desk, and it's even from a play he stage-managed -- but from a horrendous production, he's quick to point out.

"The worst show I ever did," he says. "Everything about that show was right going in, the whole concept -- the people doing it -- and this is the only thing I keep up because I look at it every day and go, 'You can have the best idea in the world, and it could be a disaster.' You just gotta be ready for that ride.' It was horrible. People booed during the show. During the show!"

And where is that Tony he took home last year when the Williamstown festival became the first summer company to get the award for outstanding regional theater? Oh, that's stashed in a drawer, Ritchie says.

"I'm not much for memorabilia," he sums it up, fully aware of how odd that is in a profession in which you produce fantasy on stage for a couple of hours a night, for a couple of months if you're lucky, and then all you have are the memories. Ritchie has tried to understand his quirk, but the best he can do is to speculate that maybe "I'm afraid I would start to revel in the past.... It's sort of self-protection. I could be weak in that way -- I'd become self-satisfied."

He says that even as he admits that he is quite satisfied, at 46, and with good reason, whether for the career that seems so unlikely, given his nuts-and-bolts background -- literally a nuts-and-bolts background -- or for the family at home with that royal theatrical blood running through it, or for the job he just was handed. Ritchie will preside over Williamstown's 50th anniversary season next summer, then take over from Gordon Davidson, in January 2005, as artistic director of Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group, which oversees three venues with 3,200 seats among them: the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theatre in the downtown Music Center, and the new Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

Days after the Oct. 7 announcement that he had been picked for the post following an "international search" that considered 100 candidates, Ritchie was not able to walk a block in the Broadway theater district without someone stopping to offer congratulations or a quip -- like "You need to work on your tan," from a casting agent who grabbed him by the shoulders.

The evening before, at a fundraiser for the Westport Country Playhouse, he got a hug from its artistic director, Joanne Woodward, a booster of his for two decades, and unique congrats from her crusty husband, who has resisted California life to remain a Connecticut Yankee. "Traitor!" roared Paul Newman.

Of course, it's in part because of his roster of friends like these that Ritchie figures to fit easily into the other coast. He will arrive with clout also -- as the head of theaters with an annual budget of $48 million and attendance of 750,000 -- and with a style suited to A-list gatherings: tall, slender and casually chic, with a ready laugh. Even the spiky hair a la Samuel Beckett will work out there, though the film crowd may see it as the Brian Grazer look.

But if he remains the Mike Ritchie that friends here know, he won't be driving yet another Mercedes up to the valet parking stands along San Vicente. For if Ritchie's Quirk No. 1 is his disavowal of mementos, his Quirk No. 2 centers on his car. It's not the type or age -- a 5-year-old Volvo station wagon seems sensible for a family with two kids that spends most of the year amid Manhattan's bumper-car traffic. It's where Ritchie parks it, which is on the street.

Most people living off Central Park West who have the means to garage their cars do just that. The alternative is the "alternate side of the street" parking game, which requires you to get up at insane hours to move your car and search, with other crazies, for an open spot.

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