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Canon's final act

The Beverly Hills venue is closing to make way for a hotel, leaving many fond memories. But about that air conditioning ...

March 26, 2004|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

"The jackhammers were going from 9 a.m. to 2 the next morning," Rudy Solari said in a 1976 Times interview. The producer-director was recalling how he and a group of actor friends had personally removed 255 tons of concrete and dirt from beneath a Beverly Hills movie house to create dressing rooms under the stage of the new Solari Theatre.

They were converting the former Beverly Canon cinema into what the article went on to describe as "the only live commercial theater in the history of Beverly Hills."

Soon, the sound of jackhammers will resume in the neighborhood. This time, however, the theater and adjacent buildings will bite the dust. The area that houses the 382-seat Canon Theatre, for a time known as the Solari, will be the site of a new hotel.

The Canon's final show, a presentation of William Finn's theatrical song cycle "Elegies," opens tonight and closes Sunday.

Last week, Calendar assembled half a dozen people on the Canon stage to share their memories of the theater. Solari, who operated the theater only through 1981, died in 1991. But Susan Dietz, the venue's primary producer from 1983 until now, was there, as was Joan Stein, her producing partner during most of the '90s.

The other members of the group:

* Beatrice Arthur of "Maude" and "Golden Girls" fame, who appeared at the Canon in "Bermuda Avenue Triangle" and "Afterplay."

* David Engel, an original member of the "Forever Plaid" quartet, who performed "Plaid" at the Canon for 20 months in the '90s.

* Steven Banks, a performer who was the warmup act for Dick Shawn during Shawn's nine-month Canon run of his solo outing "The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World" in 1985. While he was offstage -- during most of the show -- Banks retired to the theater's booth, where he wrote his own one-man show, "Home Entertainment Center" -- which he brought to the Canon in 1989.

* Philip Himberg, artistic director of the Sundance Theatre Institute and director of "War Letters" at the Canon in 2002. He's staging "Elegies."

Himberg has a longer history with the Canon than any of the others. On his first trip to the area in 1976, he recalled, "I got off the plane, rented a car and drove here because my one friend in L.A. had given money to Rudy to help convert the theater. There were all these bare lightbulbs. They were so excited that they were starting this major serious theater company in L.A."

Those plans for a serious company didn't last. True, Solari presented a few ambitious plays with starry casts, and when Dietz took over, she was running a nonprofit called L.A. Stage Co. that opened with Caryl Churchill's "Cloud 9." But by the end of the '80s, the Canon was known primarily as a place where shows -- seldom of the serious persuasion -- could sprout their commercial wings, including a handful of transfers from the Pasadena Playhouse.

In the early '90s, two of those Pasadena transfers, "Love Letters" and "Forever Plaid," took off for roughly two-year runs, clearly stamping the Canon as L.A.'s primary home for small-scale, locally produced commercial theater.

It had a "quintessential off-Broadway feeling," Himberg said.

"You mean, like, crappy?" Dietz joked.

"It's not a fancy regional theater that received zillions of foundation dollars," Himberg continued. "It reminds me of working at the [off-Broadway] Cherry Lane."

On the other hand, Banks said, "it's such a step above Equity waiver" -- the term once used to designate L.A.'s many sub-100-seat theaters. "This is like Xanadu compared to those."

When Stein began describing the Canon as "a dream of a space for performers and audience -- you have a unique opportunity to play to a house that feels substantial," she was interrupted by Arthur:

"Except when the air conditioning goes out. Which is often. Which is horrendous."

"The reason why," Engel offered, "is it has no real fly space. So there is nowhere for the heat to go and all the lights just cook it onstage."

"You have no idea," responded Stein, "how much money Susie and I spent on that air conditioning."

Later Arthur acknowledged that she, too, loved "the very fact that it was not state-of-the art. It was sort of like the Judy Garland 'Let's put on a show.' "

"But you just complained about the air conditioning," Dietz noted, to laughter all around the table.

Another feature that wasn't to Arthur's liking was one of the dressing rooms that Solari and friends had labored to build. When the subject came up, Arthur uttered "Oh, my God" -- twice.

The dressing rooms, as a post-conversation tour confirmed, are windowless and accessible only by steep stairs. When Arthur performed in her plays at the Canon, her son Daniel Saks -- who designed the set for the first, "Bermuda Avenue Triangle" -- built a small dressing room for his mother on the stage, behind the set.

Banks recalled how Shawn fell asleep onstage during the intermission of his show one night. "I remember standing in the wings. We were pounding the floor, going, "Wake up, Dick!"

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