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Theater | THE THEATER BIZ

Westside revival in two acts

A pair of stage vets rescue the Brentwood and Wadsworth. Now comes the hard part.

January 15, 2006|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

THE new impresarios in town aim to prove that somebody besides the Nederlander Organization can do Broadway-level commercial theater in L.A. and make it pay. But they aren't being brash about it.

After 30 years of producing shows and running the smallest theater on Broadway, the Helen Hayes, Martin Markinson knows better than to trumpet and crow before most of the seats have been sold for his latest venture -- the tandem operation of the Brentwood and Wadsworth theaters on the Veterans Affairs medical campus in West Los Angeles. More than once, Markinson has put serious money into a play, only to see it die on opening night.

His younger business partner, Richard Willis, has learned the hard way that life's touchdown passes can be dropped in the end zone. It happened in 1990, against Yale, when he was quarterback for a Brown University varsity football team that won just four games in his two years as the starter. By then, he had dispensed with any notion that he might one day fill the spikes of Dan Marino, Joe Montana or even Dieter Brock. He caught the theater bug as a freshman and dreamed instead of performing, directing or producing the plays of Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and John Guare.

Markinson and Willis think they have the right timing and a winning strategy for turning the Brentwood and the Wadsworth, two aged but now restored theaters, into a diversified performing arts center for the Westside. But in their business, they'll tell you, there are no sure bets.

"We know the shows we have are good, but that doesn't necessarily make it successful," Markinson says. "It seems to be working, but this is a pretty big test for us."

The beginnings of an answer will emerge during a four-month opening gambit scheduled to start Jan. 23 with "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!" a one-man show at the 499-seat Brentwood by a former cast member of the satiric 1970s television series "Soap." Johnson's show about the art and lore of ventriloquism played off-Broadway in 2004 and won glowing notices from New York critics. Eve Ensler arrives at the 1,378-seat Wadsworth on Feb. 1 for a two-week stand with "The Good Body," her one-woman sequel to the feminist phenomenon "The Vagina Monologues."

Two comedies at the Brentwood by unknowns, seen only in Florida -- where Markinson until recently ran the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale -- round out the partners' first sequence of theater offerings. Also on the agenda are "Reel Talk," a Monday night series at the Wadsworth that screens and discusses new films on the eve of their release, as well as concerts by the Thousand Oaks-based New West Symphony.

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A whole new game

THINGS were not so promising in the mid-1990s, when Markinson and Willis first visited the Brentwood and found that it housed a veterans' bingo game. Built in 1942, the theater had a flat, concrete floor with no rise to it, so playgoers -- and professional plays were seldom done there -- would be forced to crane their necks to see past obstructing heads. For $2.5 million in mostly borrowed money, the partners have added a gradual 8-foot rise from stage-front to back row, installed carpeting and made interior and exterior restorations, complete with Art Deco light fixtures and gold trim.

An additional $1.5 million has gone into the Wadsworth, built in 1939 and familiar to many from its past use in UCLA's performing arts series. Special attention has gone to improving the hall's famously drab acoustics. The 20-year lease that the partners, doing business as RichMark Entertainment, signed with the VA in 2004 also gives them the franchise to book pop concerts and host film premieres and social functions in the theaters and elsewhere on VA grounds.

Markinson is a lean and tanned 74-year-old who is ever-alert to openings for a wry quip. He grew up in Brooklyn, made a nice pile in the insurance business, then ran away as a middle-aged man to join the showbiz circus. He began producing Broadway plays in 1975 and bought the 597-seat Helen Hayes in 1979.

Willis, 38, is earnest and friendly, with a husky build and an open face under long, tousled red hair. Raised in Texas, he landed in L.A. in the early 1990s and became involved with its 99-seat theater scene. After discovering the Brentwood, he decided that, with a little fixing up, it would make a nice home for a grass-roots theater company.

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