Community Leaders Scramble to Keep San Pedro's Warner Grand Open

This article was published by the Daily Breeze on March 10, 2010. To view it directly on their website, click here.
Community Leaders Scramble to Keep San Pedro's Warner Grand Open
By Donna Littlejohn
Community leaders are scrambling to keep San Pedro's Warner Grand Theatre running while the cash-strapped city of Los Angeles prepares turn the historic landmark over to a private operator. "We can't shut this place down while (the city) tries to figure out what to do," said Linda Grimes, who oversees bookings for the Golden State Pops Orchestra at the theater. "It impacts not only us, but all the restaurants and merchants in the community." Because of the timing, a city official said Tuesday that the theater could sit dark for several months while bids are submitted and evaluated to choose a group to operate the facility.
Fourteen years after the city gave the run-down, 1930s-era movie palace new life by purchasing it, city officials say they can no longer sustain its operation and are looking for a private entity to lease it.
The city faces a staggering $280 million deficit this year, which is expected to double by the following fiscal year, Saul Romo of the city's Cultural Affairs Department told a San Pedro Chamber of Commerce committee meeting.
With early retirements and layoffs, the department faces severe cutbacks and can no longer operate all its cultural assets, Romo said. "It makes better sense to turn those over to another entity," he said.
Two community groups that already present programs at the theater - The Grand Vision and The Relevant Stage - have expressed an early interest in applying for Advertisement the role. The Grand Vision, founded in 1996, has directed much of the renovation work for the theater. The Relevant Stage, which came on the scene just three years ago, books 40 percent of the theater's 150 program dates in the course of a year.
But the city, while hoping to name a group to operate the Warner Grand by July 1, has yet to firm up its requests for proposals and the theater could go dark if there is a gap in selecting someone.
Questions such as whether for-profit organizations can compete with nonprofit groups - and whose obligation it will be to pay for ongoing utilities and maintenance - remain up in the air.
"There are a lot of unknowns right now, like exactly what the maintenance costs would be," said Liz Schindler-Johnson, volunteer director of the Grand Vision Foundation. "This is going to become an ongoing expense that the community is now being asked to bear and that's something to be kept in mind. It's not a one-time only expenditure, it's going to go on and on into the future."
Currently, Lee Sweet of Cultural Affairs manages the theater on behalf of the city. The theater offers a variety of shows throughout the year, from a foreign film series to live musicals, concerts and classic films.
Every Saturday night, the cult classic "Rocky Horror Picture Show" draws crowds to San Pedro to see the weekly midnight showings. "It's troubling on a number of levels," Ray Buffer, producing artistic director of The Relevant Stage, said of the circumstances surrounding the theater. "But it's too soon to say the sky is falling. I think everyone's mostly concerned about a halt of business as usual."
Romo said choosing a private group to take over is expected to save the city about $500,000 a year. The idea is to have the private operator "absorb the cost" of running the theater.
"In the event that we cannot find an operator, the city may think about whether to sell some of these facilities as assets," he said. At this time, however, Romo said that is not anticipated.
The timeline to name a group by July 1, he said, is probably overly optimistic. "We think it will take at least a six-month period," he said, "so we expect there will be a lull in (theater) activities."
That could be devastating, some community members said, since many merchants and restaurants in the downtown area rely on Warner Grand performances for business.
"That not just has the potential of ruining the Warner Grand, but also what we're trying to do" in the downtown, said Pat Nave of the Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council.
The chamber committee voted to ask City Councilwoman Janice Hahn to introduce a motion calling for the Grand Vision Foundation to serve as the interim group to operate the theater in the event that a bid hasn't been awarded by July 1.
Buffer suggested that ultimately several groups could come together to collaborate on running the theater.
"I think the door's open for that," he said. "Those kinds of negotiations sometimes happen after there is competing control for something. Perhaps (San Pedro's Arts, Culture and Entertainment) district could be prominent in creating a type of umbrella group to maintain it."
Grimes said the uncertain future makes for difficult planning. "If the theater went dark for six months, we're dead in the water in terms of fundraising and planning for our season," she said of the Golden State Pops Orchestra programs.
Still, she said, the change in operation could work to the community's and the theater's advantage.
"It's disconcerting, but for a long time it's been run like a community theater, so why not have it be run by the community if we're able to step up and do that?"
Grand Vision's Johnson agreed.
"Despite the challenge, it's a great opportunity," she said. "We're a nonprofit and we could maybe bring more creative solutions and have more flexibility" for community-based programming.