Does Robert Redford have plans for the last Saturday in January?
Recalling his L.A. boyhood for The Times in 1990, the actor-director and Sundance Institute founder said that when his family moved from West Los Angeles to Van Nuys for his high school years, it was "like … being tossed into quicksand. There was no culture, it was very oppressive."
Half a century on, at long last there's something afoot that might lure Redford and other arts lovers to the San Fernando Valley — or at least make it worth their while to check the cultural listings and consider that, on a given night, Cal State Northridge may have the most happening arts palace in town.
The difference-maker is the new Valley Performing Arts Center, a $125-million, 1,700-seat answer to one of America's longest-running geographical put-downs. Tyne Daly, Gillian Murphy, Ethan Stiefel and Dave Koz will highlight the gala opening Jan. 29. Then it's down to business — if not quite business as usual. Taking a deliberately gradualist approach to presenting in a major hall after years of booking only a 500-seater, the university will offer 14 performances in a four-month spring season.
Classical attractions are the China Philharmonic Orchestra (April 16) and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (March 12). For Broadway fans, there are concerts by Joel Grey and Marvin Hamlisch (Feb. 26), Brian Stokes Mitchell (April 30) and Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin (May 21). Dance offerings are the Russian National Ballet's "Swan Lake" (Feb. 8), Parsons Dance (March 4) and Aszure Barton & Artists (March 26). Arianna Huffington lectures on Feb. 19, and Joan Rivers jests on March 1. Shirley MacLaine performs May 7; pop music performers are Shawn Colvin and Loudon Wainwright III (Feb. 5) and Rosanne Cash (March 19). Mexican brass quintet Metales M5 plays a free Cinco de Mayo concert on the plaza framed by the three-sided performance center, where the reflective glass and tile exterior changes colors as each day progresses.
Tickets are $15 to $55, or $25 to $70, with subscriber discounts of 10% to 40%.
Instrumental soloists are not represented in the first half-season but will be a staple of seasons to come, says Robert Bucker, whose job as dean of the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media and Communication places him in charge of the new venue. But runs of touring Broadway shows — a key component and money-maker for many multipurpose performing arts centers — will not. Bucker doesn't want to duplicate or compete with the existing Broadway series at the Pantages, the Ahmanson and the Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center. "Our idea was to do something different." Only Parsons Dance, in Long Beach, and Rivers, in La Mirada, have other engagements in Los Angeles County during the same time frame they'll play Northridge.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who joined fellow supervisor Mike Antonovich and lead donor Mike Curb among the dignitaries getting a preview of the center on Wednesday, noted that the county's $2.5-million share of the cost comes with a "memorandum of understanding" that the county-owned Music Center will send some of its programming to Northridge "when possible." The initial spring season doesn't include any sharing.
The Valley center is about 24 miles from both the Music Center and the Thousand Oaks center, and about 17 miles from the UCLA Live series at Royce Hall. It's assumed that the realities of evening traffic in L.A. create a substantial buffer zone that will make 2 million Valley residents look to the new venue. Campus officials said that state funding will cover 78% of the $4.1-million annual budget, which also calls for $700,000 in box-office earnings and about $200,000 in donations.
Meanwhile, the campaign to pay for construction continues. State bond revenue covered much of the cost, but the university still has $17 million to raise toward its $50-million share, said Jolene Koester, the Cal State Northridge president who began pushing for the center soon after her arrival in 2000.
"We're very confident that when people see and hear this hall, other philanthropists will step forward," she said. Among its attractions are adjustable acoustics in which movable wooden canopies can be positioned according to a given show's needs.
Visually, the Valley Performing Arts Center offers curving lines both inside and outside, with patterned quartz tiles dominating the view from Nordhoff Street, the main drag fronting the university, and painted steel and slightly green-tinted glass prominent from the campus. The lobby floor and staircases are travertine marble; blond Brazilian wood, gray steel mesh and grayish upholstery dominate the interior.
Koester says the new venue won't simply redirect Valley residents from other venues but will foster new fans for live performances and lead to a bigger pie that will benefit all the region's presenters. "This is long overdue."
The Valley Performing Arts Center instantly becomes the university's top attraction for the surrounding community, Koester said, and is likely to outdraw the varsity basketball games in a 1,600-seat gym.