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A new stage for a star architect

Frank Gehry signs on -- pro bono -- for an expansion and redesign at Pasadena Playhouse.

February 19, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Celebrated Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry will begin a two-phase design project for the Pasadena Playhouse that will include a new 300- to 400-seat theater to expand the Playhouse campus, as well as redesigning the interior of the Playhouse's existing balcony performance space, the Carrie Hamilton Theatre.

The new theater, to be built across the street from the Playhouse on a lot that is now home to a former furniture store, will also be named in memory of Hamilton, the daughter of Carol Burnett and late producer Joe Hamilton. Carrie Hamilton, an actress, writer and musician, died of cancer in 2002 at age 38.

Work on the Playhouse is expected to begin within a year. A timeline has not yet been established for fundraising and construction on the new theater.

Gehry, designer of downtown's Walt Disney Concert Hall, the interior of Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, will undertake both projects pro bono due to his longtime friendship with Burnett. The two met 24 years ago when both served on the board of the Santa Monica-based Hereditary Disease Foundation. Burnett recently joined the Pasadena Playhouse board.

In an interview Friday at his Los Angeles offices, Gehry called the redesign of the existing Carrie Hamilton Theatre, a sub-99-seat performance space, the "warmup" for designing the new theater.

Because the Playhouse, which opened in 1925, is a historic landmark, the architect, who was joined by Burnett and Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps, said he will be limited in what he can do in that space.

"We are going to try to do something to the interior to make it better as a small theater. We have a few options: We can turn the seats, play with the lighting," he said. "It's pretty modest. It's a historical jewel box, and having Carol's daughter's name on it is a big deal."

Epps said the Playhouse has undertaken an $8.5-million capital campaign and about $7.5 million has already been raised or pledged. That fund includes about $3 million for Gehry's redesign, which includes new lighting and sound equipment. The rest of the money will be used to refurbish the Playhouse's exterior; L.A. architect Ron Frink has created a master plan for that project.

"Even though it's beautiful, it's an older grande dame, and older grandes dames need a little help now and then," Epps said of the Playhouse. "There is old stucco and old cement, and the flagstone in the patio is both aged and a little bit of a hazard."

Epps said he hoped that the new project could be part of a "five-year strategic plan" for the Playhouse. Epps added that no budget has been established for the new theater but that it would most likely be "in the two digits -- $10 [million] to $90 million." He said the Playhouse is working with a developer on plans to acquire the old furniture store, which would be razed to make room for the new venue.

Gehry and Epps see the relationship of the new theater and the Playhouse as similar to that of downtown's Gehry-designed Disney Hall and its stripped-down, black-box performance space, REDCAT, which tends to present experimental work.

"It shouldn't be a pretentious building," Gehry said. "What I'm always into is the kind of relationship between the audience and the performance that we were able to do in Disney Hall. It's kind of a magic trick, and you can miss it -- a lot of designers miss it."

Epps said that having a new theater designed by Gehry may bring new audiences to the Playhouse, in the same way that Disney Hall has lured new audiences to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

And, he added, a new venue will provide the Playhouse with "the opportunity to create a new season, with more cutting-edge works, more new works; Carrie was very, very interested in new playwrights. And also more work for young people on a more sophisticated level. We shouldn't treat young audiences with condescension.

"Our main theater is beautiful but rather old-fashioned," Epps said. "I am talking about both phases, but certainly the second phase, we could come up with something that's a little less traditional, a little less proscenium-oriented."

Said Burnett, "The whole idea of it would appeal to Carrie so much -- to be part of a theater that is really interested in young people, in doing new stuff."

Burnett said the new theater will bear her daughter's name in some form, but the specifics have yet to be worked out. "It could be the Carrie Hamilton Balcony Theatre and the Carrie Hamilton Theatre, or if we get a big old sponsor, it's a naming opportunity," she said. "It could be the Carrie Hamilton Theatre in the so-and-so building."

Burnett, who lives in Santa Barbara with husband Brian Miller, said she would like to perform in the future at any of the three theaters that will eventually exist as part of the Playhouse campus. "Maybe all in one day, I could go from one to the other, a matinee, an early show and then a late show," she joked.

"And I'll direct," Epps cracked.

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