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Los Angeles Times — August 25, 2002

A Bid to Be Big Stage on Campus

Madison Theater project model

Santa Monica College bets its theater will be a significant Westside addition


The invites were out, the caterers booked and the glossy centerpiece—a poster-sized image perched on an easel—was set up at the host couple’s house. Dale Franzen, director of the Madison Theater project, had everything ready for her upcoming party. In fact, she was looking forward to the chance to thank recent contributors to the proposed $15-million, 500-seat performing arts facility in Santa Monica.

Yet the Madison project’s honorary chairman, Dustin Hoffman, was wary of donor party business as usual. “Dustin said to me, ‘Let's not do any boring speeches,’” Franzen recalls. “But the purpose of a party is usually to thank new donors, so there's a lot of boring speeches that have to be made.”

Dale Franzen, Project DirectorWhat’s a project director to do? Armed with a list of donors’ names she envisioned as the raw stuff of lyrics, former opera singer Franzen enlisted the help of composer Alan Chapman. “I told him, ‘I want you to write me a song,’” she says. “I instigated what I’m going to do from here on in, which is, I sang the song at the party.”

Recalling the tale, Franzen can’t resist a reprise.

Bread, bread
We need a lot of bread…
Theaters are expensive things to build…
And all I’m hoping for
Is 11 million more.

She sings, in a clarion soprano that resonates through the doors of her office and down the hallways of Santa Monica College’s Madison campus, on Santa Monica Boulevard between 10th and 11th streets, where the theater is to be built.

“And in between,” she adds, back in speaking voice, “I thanked all these donors.”

Brava! Apparently the ditty was a hit. “The next day, the phone was ringing off the hook,” Franzen recalls. “It’s not like I’m a shrinking violet anyway, but there’s a million people out there trying to get at money from the same people. Everybody remembers who I am now.”

Indeed. While artists have been singing for their supper for ages, it's not the usual modus operandi of arts administrators. Yet given the soft economy and a record number of Southland arts organizations trolling for dollars to pay for new projects or expansions, it may be just the kind of ingenuity that’s needed.

The project is not only on track, it has also gotten to this stage relatively quickly as these things go. In the works for three years, it probably will break ground next year.

“Basically one-third of the money is in, and our hope is by the time we do groundbreaking, somewhere in 2003, we will be close to 90%,” says Piedad F. Robertson, Santa Monica College president. She adds that a March donation of $1 million, from the Santa Monica College Foundation, brought the funds raised to $4.5 million. “The total amount needed for construction is $13 million and the total project cost, when you figure other technologies and equipment, is another $2 million to $2.5 million more.”

If all goes as hoped, the theater will become a significant addition to a Westside performing arts landscape dominated, in terms of mid-size and larger venues, by the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood and the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts. Other ventures in the works include the Mark Taper Forum’s renovation of the Culver Theater in Culver City, the Geffen Playhouse’s plans for a second theater in Westwood, and the Skirball Cultural Center’s campaign to add an amphitheater and other expansions of its facilities. The midsize options, particularly in Santa Monica proper, are limited. In fact, although donors and others ask Franzen many questions, the one they don’t ask is why the theater should be built. “No one has said to me, ‘We don’t need this on the Westside,’” she says. “They all say we desperately need this; why wasn’t it done 10 years ago?”

That’s what inspired Hoffman to get involved. “In 1956, I was a student at SMC and took my first drama class,” says the actor, now in London shooting a film. “Many years later, I was approached by the college to become involved in the capital campaign of this new theater, and I was very pleased to be able to give back and support a school that meant so much to me in my early years of acting and to help in the creation of a small, accessible theater for this community where I live.

“The more theaters, performances, artists, the more avenues for young people to choose wonderful, productive alternatives that will enhance their lives and the lives of the whole community,” he adds. “Here in Los Angeles we are coming into our own, culturally, and realizing how theaters in every community should be the norm, the way it is in Europe.”

Many people who live on the Westside are interested in the performing arts, but not all of them are eager to travel downtown or elsewhere. “I don't mind driving to get to the opera or the symphony. But a lot of people, unless you make it very accessible, will not participate,” says Robertson. “This is a project that has the ability to have an impact on this community for generations to come.”

The Madison site consists primarily of a former elementary school built in the 1920s and a large parking lot. “Believe me, that is the crux of the project,” Franzen says. “Parking was everything-parking and ladies’ bathrooms.”

When Robertson, former secretary of education for Massachusetts, came to Santa Monica College in 1995, the Madison site had fallen into disrepair. “We spent $4.5 million bringing Madison up to code,” she recalls. “When we looked at the auditorium, built in the 1920s, it needed so much work that we just decided that we can’t do anything here.”

Franzen, who performed in many productions with Los Angeles Opera during her singing days, had been exploring new career paths. In the late ’90s, she was a consultant to Santa Monica College on the creation of the Academy for Entertainment and Technology, a campus dedicated to classes for those who want to work in the entertainment industry.

Robertson asked Franzen to develop a vision for the Madison site. “I remember Dale standing up on the auditorium stage and starting to sing,” says Robertson, recalling their first visit to the now-shuttered auditorium. “The two of us are a little bit crazy, so it was a perfect combination.”

Franzen began by musing on her own experience. “I started to think about what is missing in this community,” says Franzen, who lives in Topanga Canyon and is married to attorney Don Franzen. “My kids went to the Santa Monica school district until we moved out of Santa Monica, and I began to think about what was I missing here as a parent, as a community member.”

She started researching other arts facilities, including New York’s 92nd Street Y, a multiuse cultural arts and education center, which proved a key inspiration. “We began to think of this as a small visual and performing arts center,” she says.

“Out of that initial idea, the theater was one component, and very quickly after that, the college decided to move the art gallery that was on the main campus over here to enrich that idea. And the latest idea is that they’re going to move parts of the music department here.”

The theater component will be high profile by virtue of Hoffman’s involvement. The Santa Monica College alumnus intends to form a resident theater company at Madison that will offer two productions a year, each running six to eight weeks. Hoffman is partnered in the venture with theater producer Ron Kastner, whose credits include “Angels in America” and revivals of “The Real Thing” and “True West.”

Plans for the theater have drawn praise and support from an impressive array of arts stars, including Los Angeles Opera artistic director Plácido Domingo, dancer-choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov, actors Edward James Olmos and John Lithgow, and opera singers Marilyn Horne and Frederica von Stade.

In the interest of drawing more attention to the project, Franzen didn’t wait to have a building before she started programming free performances at the site. Shows have included artists as varied as African musician Prince Diabaté, singer Lila Downs, tap dancer Mark Mendonca, dancer-choreographer Lula Washington, L.A. Philharmonic’s brass trio and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

This fall will mark the fourth year of free concerts, in addition to other programs at Madison. “We’re doing this miniRussian festival where we’re bringing a young curator of an art gallery in St. Petersburg to do an exhibit in our art gallery in January, and then we’re going to tie it in with some lectures and perhaps a reading of a new play, and Russian singers will also do a concert.”

Because opera remains Franzen’s first love, she launched a youth opera camp in collaboration with Los Angeles Opera. The two organizations will also team up to present a children’s opera this fall.

“We’re going to be premiering a new piece that Los Angeles Opera’s doing based on ‘Girl of the Golden West,’” she says, referring to the Puccini opera that will open the Los Angeles Opera season on Sept. 4. “‘Girl of the Golden West’ is not only about California, it’s about the Gold Rush, and the Gold Rush is fourth-grade curriculum in the public school system.”

With fund-raising and programming moving forward, all that was needed was the building. Santa Monica architect Renzo Zecchetto, whose designs include the $78-million California Center for the Arts in Escondido, was hired to design the theater.

A primary goal was making the building accessible. Easy parking is key, but there’s more to it than that. “On the Westside there’s nothing of this sort that is easy to come to, that is accessible, where you would park, go a few steps and be greeted by this nice outdoor experience,” Zecchetto says.

“Those who come to the theater would park quickly and walk to the entry garden. We have a circulation path where the elderly and those in wheelchairs or whoever can be dropped off. Normally, you have to go through the subterranean parking experience, and you have to work hard to undo that negative. Access is a critical component of the success of this.”

Although considerable thought was given to accessibility, the interior design also posed challenges. Because the theater will present a range of performing arts, the acoustics had to be variable.

“Of all of our parameters, acoustical ones took precedence,” Zecchetto says. “So the visuals are acoustic. We invented what we call this orange-peel, layers of double curving walls that reflect sound in particular ways, for the musicians and the audience. We’re trying to create an atmosphere where the room remains the same visually, so we have these, layers where we conceal things. We placed lighting and other needs of the theater in such a way where they’re integral to the design. You don’t have the architecture, the acoustics and the lighting: It’s all one thing.”

The facility will have to accommodate not only a range of art forms, but also the needs of Santa Monica College’s curriculum. The college will use the theater 35% of the time. It will serve as an educational facility Monday through Thursday mornings, and be used as a lecture hall Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.

That will still leave plenty of room for Franzen’s programming. She anticipates relying mostly on presenting rather than producing, at least initially. “The first three years, I’ll start with 15% to 20% producing because I’m assuming that it’s going to take me the first year or two just to get my feet off the ground,” she says. Finding the artists won’t be a problem. There are more performers in search of venues than venues in search of performers. “There are many excellent companies right now that are performing in much smaller venues,” Franzen says. “They’re ready to make a step to a larger venue, but they don’t have the internal nonprofit support.”

It’s a step up for Franzen too, from on stage to offstage, from being responsible for her own performance to supporting the work of many performers, She views her new role as an opportunity to give back not only to the communities of L.A. and Santa Monica, but also to the community of artists.

“In the climate we’re about to go into, for at least the next two years, the nonprofits in the city will have even less money,” she says. “One of the things I can do is pull up the slack there. I feel like my passion for that aspect of this job is because I worked in that world.”

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar.