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Stage Fight

The Los Angeles City Council kicked off an abbreviated Election Day meeting by agreeing, quickly and quietly, to open talks with any group with a plan to operate a complex of four coveted stages wedged between Skid Row and the emerging downtown of loft dwellers and art galleries. Although worded to allow anyone to put in a bid on the Los Angeles Theater Center within the next 30 days, the council motion was aimed at two sets of would-be operators who, for two years, have been locked in an acrimonious battle over vision, ego, ethnicity, and the right to control a city-owned jewel that has languished under the supervision of a poorly funded city Cultural Affairs Department. The feuding that pits developer Tom Gilmore and LATC resident Will & Company against the Latino Theatre Company (also an LATC resident) has sparked charges of racism from both sides. Some have also alleged that state officials with grant money to disburse colluded with the Latino group and were trying to corner the city into quickly dropping Gilmore and signing on with a partnership of the Latino Theatre Company and the currently homeless Latino Museum, or risk losing a substantial state investment. As recently as this month, city staff were urging that they be allowed to make a play for the state dollars by immediately opening negotiations with the Latino Theatre Company, even though that company placed a distant second in a 2003 bidding process. That led opponents to threaten suit over “bid enhancement” — illegally permitting a losing bidder to up its offer after all bids were in and public. Instead, the council voted to end the entire process and start over, giving the Latino Theatre Company the chance to make a new bid based on its partnership with the Latino Museum, its state grant money and a vision for a comprehensive Latino cultural center in downtown Los Angeles — and giving Gilmore/Will a chance to compete under the new terms. Although the current dispute began in 2003, its roots go much deeper, back to the heady time in the mid-1980s when the Community Redevelopment Agency led a city effort to transform Spring Street from a gritty stretch of vacant 1920s bank buildings where homeless men competed for sleeping space among the granite pillars to a revived downtown of young urban professionals with money to spend and a taste for the arts. The CRA turned some of those beautiful but forsaken bank buildings into condos. The old Pacific Coast Stock Exchange was reborn as a nightclub. And architects fused a 1916 bank and an adjacent structure near the corner of Fifth Street — the main drag that leads from Skid Row to the shiny steel and glass office towers of the ’70s and ’80s — into a four-stage complex, and it was brought alive by the Los Angeles Actors’ Theater, which became the Los Angeles Theater Center. Some of the era’s most innovative and critically acclaimed theater was staged there, with productions by Reza Abdoh and Culture Clash. For a very brief moment, Spring Street was the place to be, and the Los Angeles Theater Center was a more prestigious venue than the Mark Taper Forum a few crucial blocks west in the more modern downtown. Then came the 1990s, the recession, and the end of the area’s flirtation with an upscale and arts-oriented local populace. Suburbanites who were used to driving to the Music Center and parking in the well-lighted county parking structures stopped making adventurous forays a few blocks further to Spring Street, and would-be urban pioneers moved on from their converted lofts. In 1991, the company that operated the theater gave up, and one of its original resident companies — the Latino Theatre Company, with artistic director Jose Luis Valenzuela — moved to the Taper. The name Los Angeles Theater Center now referred just to a building, owned and operated by the city Cultural Affairs Department. Skid Row moved back in on Spring Street as the limousines stopped coming. Still, there was good theater being produced at the LATC, much of it by Will & Company. In 2003, Cultural Affairs lost much of its funding and began looking for an LATC operator. One of the applicants was Gilmore, a charismatic and colorful figure who played a major role in rescuing the old financial district from obscurity by rehabilitating many of the bank buildings for a second run as an arts-oriented neighborhood. Also making a bid was Valenzuela’s Latino Theatre Company. Valenzuela and board chairman Moctezuma Esparza told city officials that they wanted to bring back the LATC’s golden age. When the project was awarded to Gilmore and Will & Company, the Latino Theatre Company complained about irregularities in the bid process. The complaints were rejected, but Councilwoman Jan Perry and state Senator Gil Cedillo tried to get the parties together to discuss joint operations. The talks, by all accounts, were a disaster. Will & Company artistic director Colin Cox said the Latino Theatre Company insisted on control of all of the LATC’s stages for nine months of the year, essentially putting Cox’s company out on the street. The Latino Theatre Company’s Esparza said Gilmore was overcharging and was being unreasonable in negotiations. Then came the state grant opportunity in the form of $4 million awarded by the California Cultural and Historical Endowment board, plus another $4 million left over from payments made to the Latino Museum after it was ousted from its home on First and Main streets in an eminent domain action. Esparza noted that with the upturn in the downtown real estate market, the museum can no longer afford a home in the cultural heart of downtown — unless it gets a spot in the LATC. Since then, the proceedings have verged into the bizarre and the humorous. At one recent city meeting, charges by a backer of the Gilmore/Will team that LTC officials lied about their history caused Councilman Bernard Parks to request “criminal information.” Actors testifying at another session tried to make a point about Will & Company’s multicultural focus by announcing their ethnic backgrounds. The tension was barely broken by Councilman Eric Garcetti when he interrupted ex-councilman Mike Hernandez’s testimony to deadpan, “Your ethnicity, please.” Meanwhile, theater companies are fleeing Los Angeles for friendlier quarters as the city sits on top of houses it can’t open for lack of funds. The new Nate Holden Theater sits empty except on rare occasions when it is rented out for a special event. There is no strategic plan to program and operate the Madrid in the Valley or the Vision in Central Los Angeles. Near the LATC, on Broadway, old movie palaces with stages for theatrical productions sit empty. And at the LATC itself, the smell of urine wafts among the granite pillars, and huge flies hover near the entrance. “The process is now being undermined by the interest of Jose Luis Valenzuela, who would like to have the Latino Theatre Center have exclusive rights to the entire building,” Fran DeLeon of Will & Company testified at a recent hearing. The problem, an LTC member replied, was not with Will & Company, but with — in a reference to Gilmore — “an Iago in the building.” “I’m just glad the process is reopened,” Gilmore said later. “Let everyone submit their new proposal. Let’s just start over.”


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