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It's still all work, no play

L.A.'s Latino theater scene has a promising new venue but no major productions lined up, leaving backers scrambling to build support.

May 23, 2004|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

When the curtain finally went up this month on the Ricardo Montalban Theatre, the long-awaited debut spotlighted the hard-fought progress made by L.A.'s perennially struggling Latino theater. But at the same time, the clumsy unveiling ceremony also resurrected old doubts about its future.

The christening of the restored building, the former Doolittle Theatre near Hollywood and Vine, was billed as the culmination of a 34-year dream for Montalban, a lifelong advocate for greater opportunities for Latino actors. The arrival of the 83-year-old Mexican actor, lifting himself into a wheelchair, then flashing a handsome smile, drew cheers from a crowd that understood the perseverance it took to succeed.

For the first time in the U.S., Latinos own and operate a large, highly visible theater that provides the opportunity to stage major productions and showcase Latino talent, all under their own direction. For a community that represents half the city's population but has little control over its cultural institutions, creating a home for pent-up artistic aspirations has galvanized the Latino theater community -- at least for the moment.

"We need it. We deserve it. And we have to be there [to support it],"says UCLA drama professor Jose Luis Valenzuela, who directs the Latino Theater Company based downtown at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

The question is: Will Latinos, and the rest of Los Angeles, for that matter, actually come out to support a full season of plays at the new theater? And more importantly, will the Ricardo Montalban Foundation, which owns the 1,100-seat theater, be able to raise the funds and recruit the talent needed to mount the first-class productions they envision? To succeed, the Montalban takes on the herculean task of reversing the recent retrenchment of Chicano-Latino theater, which burst on the national scene during the 1970s with great vigorand promise.

"If we play our cards right, we are going to be able to influence the future of the American theater," says Jerry Velasco, head of the foundation and a prime mover in the acquisition of the building. "But at the same time, we have a big responsibility. If we want them to deal with us and respect us as a major theater, we've got to act and perform as a major theater."

Growing pains

To some degree, organizers missed an opportunity to establish that respect on opening night May 8. As drama, the unveiling was resoundingly anticlimactic.

To begin with, budget constraints forced organizers to forego draping the front of the two-story, 1927 structure, depriving the moment of drama. The only part of the theater that was covered was the marquee, affixed to the building at the last moment by construction crews behind schedule by more than a week.

Velasco announced the grand opening from a narrow raised platform in the middle of the street, so crowded with standing celebrities and reporters that you couldn't see the guest of honor in his wheelchair. On Velasco's cue, workers lifted a red curtain from the marquee, but it had nothing written on it because the faceplate was missing, revealing just the fixture's exposed fluorescent lights.

The awkward moment was symbolic because beyond the hoopla and the speeches, the Ricardo Montalban Theatre, like Latino theater in general, is still very much a work in progress.

When the theater became available four years ago, the Montalban Foundation raised from private donors the $2.3 million needed to buy it, and did it in less than a month. But that was the only phase that moved quickly. The facade unveiling marks only the start of a total renovation that will cost an additional $2.5 million for improvements to the stage, electrical system, seats and roof.

All that without staging a single, full-blown production. The theater has tentative plans to launch a regular season in fall 2005 but still has no operating budget or full-time staff. The foundation, which also hopes to acquire an adjacent property for a theater training academy, supplements donations through fundraisers and by renting the theater to outside productions, such as the WB's "Steve Harvey's Big Time." Patrons paid up to $1,000 each for the unveiling, which also featured Chris Franco's hilarious musical tribute to Montalban, best known for his role in the long-running TV series "Fantasy Island."

The respected actor, recovering from back surgery, is a rare symbol of success for Latinos in Hollywood. After moving to the U.S. in 1939, he made his theatrical debut as a student at Fairfax High School and eventually appeared in more than 50 motion pictures. As a training ground for Latino talent, the new theater represents fulfillment of a long quest for Montalban, who was serenaded onstage by Robert Goulet's in-person rendition of "The Impossible Dream."

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