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Coming Soon to an Upgraded Theater Near You

A major upgrade is in the making for performing arts venues in the San Fernando Valley region. City governments, universities and nonprofits are looking to please audiences with amenities at remodeled facilities. In January, Thousand Oaks City Council approved a $1.4 million contract to create the Civic Arts Plaza Campus Master Plan by 2020. The council approved a contract with Pasadena-based engineering firm Aecom — best known for governmental and industrial projects — to overhaul the plaza, the cultural centerpiece of Thousand Oaks at 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., in conjunction with its 25th anniversary year. The vote called for the creation of an ad hoc committee involving two council members to guide the process on the civic campus, which is home to the community’s City Hall as well as two performance theaters. That same month, the council decided to incorporate a block that includes a 1959-built Spanish Colonial Revival-style structure on 2.8 acres (once home to the city’s first Taco Bell in 1970) into the Civic Arts Plaza redevelopment. The current campus includes the 1,800-seat Kavli Theatre – the No. 1 venue on the Business Journals list on page 19 – and the 394-seat Scherr Forum (No.13), plus 97,000 square feet of office space used by the city and five levels of parking. In recent years, the Kavli has attracted such varied acts as Mel Brooks, Rita Rudner and the band Chicago to its stage. According to Community Development Director Mark Towne, the city has $6.1 million set aside in general fund reserves for construction costs of Civic Arts Plaza improvements. The City Council expects work on the master plan to take more than a year to complete. In Woodland Hills, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield’s ambitious $1.5 billion redevelopment of the aging Westfield Promenade shopping mall could include a 15,000-seat sports stadium. The project also will have 244,000 square feet of retail space, 629,000 square feet of office space and 1,400 apartments. In neighboring Canoga Park, the office of Los Angeles City Councilman Bob Blumenfield closed escrow Dec. 24 on Clyde Porter West Valley Playhouse, a 150-seat theater at 7242 Owensmouth Ave. in Canoga Park, which, after two decades of operation, was on the brink of shutting down. The city rescued the property utilizing $1.4 million in excess Community Redevelopment Agency bond funds, which are required to be spent within Canoga Park and Reseda by 2020. CSUN’s Soraya One of the Valley’s most prominent live arts destinations sits on a college campus at 18111 Nordhoff St. The main arts site on the campus of California State University – Northridge was rechristened Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts in 2017, colloquially known as The Soroya. The Nazarian family donated $17 million to create an endowment for the theater. The concert hall’s namesake is herself creative: Nazarian family matriarch Soraya Nazarian, a sculptor, donated one of her pieces to CSUN — a sculpture titled “Unbound.” The 1,700-seat theater ranks No. 2 on the Business Journal’s list. Soraya Executive Director Thor Steingraber said the Soraya has little competition in the market. “There was no real venue for performing arts in the Valley,” Steingraber said. There is the historic Alex Theatre in Glendale, a 1,413-seat all-purpose facility often hosting concerts and screenings, which largely serves the Tri-Cities area and ranks No. 3. College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita has the 7,500-square-foot proscenium stage with a state-of-the-art sound system and 886 seats to rank No. 6 while Agoura Hills’ The Canyon club, which ranks No. 5, recently opened a second location at Westfield Valencia (No. 4); and Ventura County, in addition to the Civic Arts Plaza, has the 1924-built Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. However, those are locations outside of the core San Fernando Valley, Steingraber said. “These are now what I call ‘satellite venues,’” he explained adding that such varied sites contribute to a “healthy ecosystem.” In terms of programming, Steingraber said the cultural market has changed in the last 15 years as once underserved ethnic and music audiences are now being fed a steady diet of programming aimed at them. And despite its CSUN origins, the Soraya transcends its college campus roots to offer A-list entertainment. For the 2018-19 season, with artists from 18 nations in seven different performance series, The Soraya’s diverse programming includes the Silkroad Ensemble, an authorized tribute to late Mexican mega-star Juan Gabriel; a new violin concerto from movie composer and founding Oingo Boingo front man Danny Elfman; the musicals “1776,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and the upcoming “Singin’ in the Rain”; and Disney’s “Silly Symphony.” “Our performances are public, not student productions,” said Steingraber. “Sometimes students are brought in to participate,” Steingraber said. “(But) those are exceptions.” Concerts at the Soraya average $48 a ticket, spanning from around $45 to $110 per ticket, with about 100 tickets allotted for CSUN students in the $10 to $15 range. In two years, the theater will start to benefit from the Nazarian endowment, which provides the financial cushion for the theater’s operational costs as well as future refurbishing. While the recently built facility is not old enough to warrant an overhaul anytime soon, there are components soon due for upgrades. For instance, Steingraber said the audio system has a shelf life of about 12 years and the amplification system, which operates via both hardware and software, is currently in year eight. While the seats have a 40-year window, he said, other costs and considerations include maintenance and security staffing plus parking and concessions. The Soraya also maintains an aggressive marketing budget. Recent ads for concerts there appeared on KCRW and KPCC radio as well as print advertisements in Los Angeles Daily News and TV commercials on stations carried by Spectrum. Bigger Puzzle In the case of Westfield’s proposed stadium at Warner Center and the recently rescued West Valley Playhouse in Canoga Park, the sites have been characterized by Blumenfield as pieces of a much larger puzzle. Valley-wide, Blumenfield believes that there is demand for live performance arts and he anticipates that such demand will expand as the seeds of the Warner Center 2035 Specific Plan bear fruit and establish Woodland Hills as the “Downtown of the San Fernando Valley.” “I regularly hear from constituents, and some members of my staff, who grew up in the Valley lamenting the need to go to the Hollywood Bowl, Greek Theater or the Forum to see a show,” Blumenfield told the Business Journal. “The Valley has a rich history of smaller venues but we should be open to expanding arts and entertainment experiences.” The city official believes that the arts is important to the social fabric of his communities. “The Valley has limited cultural amenities and not a lot of live entertainment venues,” Blumenfield said. “If we want to be a truly sustainable city, we need diverse artistic spaces so people don’t need to drive to Hollywood or downtown for art and entertainment. People in the Valley deserve these opportunities.” Yet he has reservations about the stadium idea in Woodland Hills. “I have not been shy in expressing my concerns about the lack of details regarding its programming or who will ultimately be the tenant. Will it be sports? Will be live entertainment? Will it be enclosed or open air? These are key details that we do not have answers for yet. Without a complete picture it is hard to know what is really coming to the Valley, how it will impact our community, and how those impacts will need to be mitigated,” he said. That said, Blumenfield remains bullish on such a stadium’s prospects in his district’s midst. “I see Westfield’s project as potentially game-changing and it could be a great anchor for Warner Center,” Blumenfield said. Ventura’s venues In Ventura County, smaller communities are receptive to such arts centers as cultural and economic stimuli to their small downtown centers. City of Moorpark City Manager Troy Brown said his community derives much value from its 225-seat performing arts theater, High Street Arts Center, located at 45 E. High St. “The theater has had a long and rich history as a source of culture and entertainment for the residents of Moorpark,” Brown told the Business Journal, “and was built in 1927 to replace an old wooden structure that housed a silent movie theater.” In August of 2005, the City Council came to an agreement with the owner and voted to purchase the theater. After several rentals to local theater production companies, the City, via the Redevelopment Agency, embarked on a new venture: creating a performing arts hub for the Moorpark Community, and renaming it the High Street Arts Center. After operating the center as a part of the City’s Community Services Department, the City Council established the nonprofit Moorpark Foundation for the Arts in 2009 that assumed daily operation. “From 2010, the success of the HSAC has grown by leaps and bounds, with attendance and revenues increasing by huge percentages,” Brown said. “The independent foundation’s management of the HSAC brought professional quality in aggressive show selection which attracts the best talents the region has to offer and the venue now enjoys the reputation as the finest of its kind in Ventura County.” Nearby in Camarillo, some residents voiced their desire to see such a facility rise in their Old Town district. At a Jan. 29 meeting held at Camarillo Public Library, Camarillo city officials met with some 70 residents to hear ideas to re-use a courthouse building. The Ventura Boulevard property, which was purchased for $1.4 million by the city’s redevelopment agency in 2006, has sat dormant for seven years and the city must by law earmark the building toward public use. There were many ideas – including a performing arts center – but Camarillo Director of Community Development Joseph Vacca downplayed how strong the response was for this choice. “There wasn’t technically a consensus but there was signfifant ideas from the residents,” Vacca said, noting that other ideas included a visual arts center, walking paths and picnic areas. While some at the meeting believed such a site would put Camarillo’s Old Town quarters on the map, other residents appeared wary of noise and sound pollution, traffic and parking congestion, and other issues that might stem from such an establishment. While Camarillo, a community which in 2017 hosted a very lengthy and successful run of the equestrian show “Cavalia” out of temporary facilities, does have the performing arts studio at California State University – Channel Islands and a solid performing arts auditorium at Rancho Campana High School, the closest concert destinations are Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and Majestic Ventura Theatre in Ventura. Vacca said the city will explore the feasibility of all of the ideas presented at the town hall meeting, including a performing arts center. The next step is for these ideas to go before Camarillo City Council within four to six weeks.

Michael Aushenker
Michael Aushenker
A graduate of Cornell University, Michael covers commercial real estate for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. Prior to the Business Journal, Michael covered the community and entertainment beats as a staff writer for various newspapers, including the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, The Palisadian-Post, The Argonaut and Acorn Newspapers. He has also freelanced for the Santa Barbara Independent, VC Reporter, Malibu Times and Los Feliz Ledger.
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