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BIG FISH IN NOHO POND EL PORTAL AIMS TO SET THE STAGE FOR SUCCESS OF VALLEY THEATER.

Byline: Reed Johnson Staff Writer

The air was spiked with construction dust that balmy November night. Patches of exposed brick and concrete had been camouflaged with twinkle lights, creating a temporary festive ambience for the black-tie crowd.

Look-alikes posing as Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne mingled with politicians and celebrities - an unusually soignee sight for this patchy stretch of Lankershim Boulevard. Only the building's semi-finished appearance raised a question mark about the 73-year-old El Portal theater at its November coming-out gala: Was this earthquake-shattered edifice finally ready to reclaim its place in L.A.'s cultural spotlight?

Two months and many frantic hours of preparation later, the new El Portal Center for the Arts in North Hollywood is hoping to answer that query in a way that will make all Los Angeles take notice.

Billing itself as ``the first comprehensive performing arts center serving the San Fernando Valley,'' the El Portal will cap a sometimes traumatic seven-year rehabilitation process Friday night when it officially opens to the public.

Raising the curtain on its 382-seat Mainstage Theatre, the El Portal will present the West Coast premiere of ``Over the River and Through the Woods,'' a romantic comedy by Joe DiPietro, author of the hit musical ``I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.''

But the potential significance of Friday's opening goes beyond the reclamation of a landmark Spanish colonial-style movie palace, which was reduced to asbestos-coated rubble by the 6.7-magnitude Northridge tremor in January 1994, then painstakingly rebuilt with millions of federal tax dollars.

After decades of having the Valley regarded as something of a cultural backwater, the El Portal's operators are betting that their $5.5 million, multipurpose building will help boost the area's cultural profile and provide a first-class showcase for its growing artistic ambitions.

``For (the Valley) not to have its own regional theater is unacceptable,'' says Jeremiah Morris, artistic director of the nonprofit El Portal and its resident acting company, 28-year-old Actors Alley. ``We must have a theater. And this is the theater. And we're going to make it work.''

Not everyone, including some of its neighbors, agrees that the El Portal's resurrection marks a major new phase for the NoHo Arts District, the city-sponsored 1.5-square-mile enclave of about 20 small theaters, coffeehouses, antique stores and art galleries that has sprung up along Lankershim and Magnolia boulevards over the past seven years.

``Sure, it's going to have a positive effect, but it's not the god of NoHo,'' says David Cox, artistic director of the American Renegade Theatre Company. ``It's the collective theaters that are the energy of NoHo.''

Yet many of those familiar with the area think NoHo's future success will depend heavily on the El Portal.

``Obviously, the El Portal is crucial,'' says Tom Waldman, former administrative assistant to U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, whose office was instrumental in helping the El Portal secure $4.5 million in rebuilding funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency following the Northridge calamity. The center also received a $1.5 million Small Business Administration loan, which it will begin repaying in May.

``I wouldn't go so far as to say that, as the El Portal goes, so goes NoHo,'' Waldman continues, ``but I do think that the future of NoHo can be only be enhanced by a thriving El Portal theater. And I think the intention of the theater is to compete at the highest level.''

In fact, the El Portal Center boasts no less than three theaters: the Mainstage, which occupies a major chunk of the 25,000-square-foot complex and which will concentrate on plays with broad audience appeal; the 99- seat Circle Theatre, which will focus on more intellectually demanding and experimental works; and a 50-seat Studio Theatre, where solo shows and cabaret acts will be performed.

With nearly 400 seats to fill, the Mainstage will attempt to attract patrons by offering familiar names from TV and film. ``Over the River,'' for instance, stars veteran television actor Joseph Campanella and Carol Lawrence, the original Maria in the Broadway production of ``West Side Story.''

``Over the River'' will be followed by ``Rollin' On the T.O.B.A.'' (March 14-April 9), a tribute to black vaudeville. The third show at the Mainstage will be P.G. Wodehouse's adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's classic farce ``The Play's The Thing,'' with Hal Linden, TV's Barney Miller.

However, don't expect the Mainstage to dispense only family-friendly comedies. Its fourth production, Ben Elton's ``Popcorn,'' is a jarring morality tale about an Oscar-winning movie director who's confronted in his Beverly Hills mansion by real-life versions of the violent lunatics he depicts in his movies.

Actors performing in Mainstage shows will be paid a minimum of $472 per week under an Actors Equity union agreement to the standard League of Resident Theaters (LORT) D contract. That's a quantum leap up from Actors Alley's previous 99-seat Equity waiver agreement, under which actors receive only a few dollars a performance. But the union believes the El Portal's salaries are in line with its budget projections.

``Their projections were conservative. If they achieve any kind of healthy box office, they should be fine,'' says Timothy Smith, an Actors Equity business representative.

The less commercially oriented Circle Theatre will open Feb. 3 with a revival of the Actors Alley production of ``The Puppetmaster of Lodz,'' Gilles Segal's harrowing Holocaust-related drama. Its four-play season also will include Chekhov's ``The Three Sisters'' and Peter Lefcourt's ``La Ronde 2000,'' a satiric roundelay set in contemporary Hollywood.

Actors Alley members will be eligible to audition for Studio, Circle and Mainstage productions based on their experience and ability.

``It's planned so that everything feeds everything else, both artistically and as a training ground,'' Morris says.

So far, the El Portal has sold 4,987 Mainstage subscriptions, 89 percent of them to Valley residents, 9 percent to those living between West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and the rest in Glendale and Pasadena.

However, producing plays won't be the El Portal's only order of business. It also will oversee 10 different educational and community outreach programs, including internships with California State University Northridge and Van Nuys High School, and performance projects with neighboring elementary schools.

Two companies of ``guest artists,'' East L.A. Classic Players and Lula Washington Dance Theatre, will give regular performances at the El Portal, and discussions are under way to develop a Latino writers workshop there as well.

``We want to make it like a three-ring circus, something happening all the time,'' says Robert E. Caine, who as president of the El Portal's board of directors presided over the building's transformation from dilapidated eyesore to would-be cultural flagship.

That transition began in 1985 when Actors Alley began searching for a larger permanent home to establish a fully professional regional resident theater.

By the early 1990s, Caine and Morris had settled on the El Portal, a 1,400-seat former silent movie and vaudeville house whose slow decline mirrored that of the surrounding blue-collar commercial district.

But the neighborhood already was turning around, and the city's Community Redevelopment Agency saw the El Portal as one of the proposed arts district's linchpins.

``We've always believed that there were two anchors on Lankershim Boulevard, the El Portal at one end and what's now the Lankershim Arts Center on the other,'' says Lillian Burkenheim, project manager for CRA's North Hollywood Redevelopment Arts District. ``Those are two historic buildings that provide a lot of the character of the street.''

Caine started drawing up remodeling plans with Pasadena architect Richard F. McCann and obtained a feasibility study grant from the James Irvine Foundation. Construction began on the Circle Theatre in September, 1993, with a planned January opening.

Then, with construction nearing completion, the Northridge earthquake struck, causing damage estimated at $1.5 million. Instead of a $350,000 renovation, the El Portal suddenly had a multimillion-dollar project on its hands.

While El Portal staffers like to refer to their new building as ``the Miracle on Lankershim,'' the consensus is that it wasn't miracles but the tenacity of Morris and Caine that allowed the project to rebound from the Northridge setback.

``Bob Caine was absolutely relentless,'' says Tom Waldman, the former congressional staffer. ``It was almost as though at certain points the bureaucracy was wearing him down, and he wouldn't allow that to happen.''

Still, the El Portal's aggressiveness and success in rounding up public money hasn't necessarily endeared it to NoHo's other residents. Resentments were exacerbated last year when Actors Alley decided to withdraw from the Valley Theatre League and chose not to participate in either the league's Artistic Director Achievement (ADA) Awards ceremony or the annual NoHo Arts Festival.

The center is not expected to receive any significant government aid toward its first-year Mainstage operating budget; most of of the $750,000 raised so far has come from private sources. Yet some have questioned whether the El Portal could share the fate of the Los Angeles Theatre Center, the massive downtown arts complex that failed despite heavy government subsidy and now subsists as a rental house.

Valley Theatre League president Edmund Gaynes declined to discuss the El Portal on the record, but issued a prepared statement.

``I always want to wish any theater success,'' it read in part. ``Actors Alley, operators of the El Portal Center, have been given a great opportunity at the El Portal. With that also comes a responsibility, an obligation, to upgrade the consistency and quality of the product.''

Morris says that the center ``will work with anybody who wants to work with us.''

``I don't have a problem with any theater out there,'' he says. ``I have a problem with a few individuals.''

Whatever tensions have existed in the past, the CRA's Lillian Burkenheim thinks that, sooner or later, NoHo will put its differences aside.

``We're a small town,'' she says. ``They (the theaters) will not be successful each unto their own island. They are going to have to work together for the district to be successful.''

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo: (1 -- color --cover) Familiar face, new vision

Members of El Portal Center for the Arts hope to rebuild a cultural future for the Valley. (View of the theater marquee)

(2) Chairman of the board Bob Caine, left, and artistic director Jeremiah Morris trace their interest in the El Portal back to the early 1990s.

David Sprague/Staff Photographer

(3) The El Portal Center for the Arts reopens Friday with Joe DiPietro's ``Over the River and Through the Woods'' in the 382-seat Mainstage Theatre.
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 12, 2000
Words:1753
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