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Geffen Playhouse celebrates its renovation with a gala

The vintage Westwood theater is made more comfortable for both audiences and actors. A $25-million fundraising goal is set.

October 19, 2005|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

After more than a year of construction, the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood reopened Monday with an invitation-only gala.

"This renovation is extraordinary," said Jason Alexander, shortly before he sang a medley of "songs from shows and roles I wasn't right for" -- from "Jesus Christ Superstar" through "Man of La Mancha."

Alexander joked that when he and Peter Falk appeared in the play "Defiled" at the Geffen in 2000, they shared basement quarters with "rats like cats." Now the actors have ample upstairs dressing rooms and an airy green room with a view of the UCLA campus to the north.

Referring to the original 1929 building's textured brick wall at the back of the stage, Alexander added that "it's not easy to find carpet to go with that wall."

After the program, Kirsten Combs said she was delighted that key elements of the original structure were salvaged by architect Ron Frink during the face-lift. In the early '70s, Combs and her late husband developed the Westwood Playhouse, which became the Geffen Playhouse a decade ago. This latest renovation "protected the historical quality of the building," she said.

Frink and his firm, Ronald Frink Architects, expanded the main auditorium from 499 to 522 seats and added the adjacent 117-seat Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater. They created two entrances to the main auditorium and two interior aisles. They lowered the stage for improved sight lines, added backstage passages and wings, installed wider seats and expanded the restrooms.

Board Chairman Herbert Gelfand told the crowd that $16 million was raised for what was billed as a $17-million project, but the goal is to raise $25 million, which would pay for "the completion of the building and a small endowment."

The Geffen's original $5-million donor, David Geffen, was not on hand, but the crowd heard salutes to the new structure from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, City Councilman Jack Weiss and actor and Geffen board member Karl Malden.

Geffen producing artistic director Gil Cates will direct the first show in the facility, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which opens Nov. 16. On Monday, he was the emcee and, before and after the program, an unofficial tour guide.

"Now all we have to do is good shows," Cates said as he completed an impromptu tour. Then he resumed mingling with his guests with these words: "Now I'm going money hunting."

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