The problem with the Downey Theatre

DOWNEY - Early in a meeting to determine the fate of the Downey Theater, Laura Zucker asked, "What's the sub-committee's vision for the theater?"Ah, the vision thing. The long answer, offered by Community Services Director Thad Phillips, was this: "We want to bring in entertainment programs for the community that we can sell tickets to. The current rentals aren't attracting growing audiences. Someone would have to understand the community, its income and education level and, uh, its language needs. The city council recognizes the importance of the Downey Theater to economic recovery and downtown revitalization." The short answer was this: There is no vision. The occasion for the meeting, which took place Monday morning in the theater's green room, was to invite booking, marketing, promotional people and producing organizations to put in a bid to program the theater and, if not move it into the black, at least keep it from losing money (Councilman David Gafin recently stated that the theater is losing $1 million a year, but later said he misspoke and changed the figure to $1 million over a three-year period). Some background is in order here. The city owns the theater, which was built in 1970, and its balance sheet. It needs to find ways to stop leaking money. For years it's been trying reverse the creeping malaise of abandonment that's followed the collapse of the local aerospace industry. It's been a long process, with the Downey Landing, Porto's Bakery, the anticipated acquisition of Tesla Motors, new residential housing downtown and gateway design, among its hoped-for solutions. At the edge of downtown, next to the Embassy Suites and strategically located near City Hall, sits the tall, rectilinear, imposing structure that is the Downey Theater, its electronic billboard flashing out over Firestone Blvd., with little else of broad public appeal beside the Downey Civic Light Opera and the Downey Symphony to flash about. The city has asked, in effect, Can something be done about this? In September, the council appointed a subcommittee of two of its own, Gafin and Roger Brossmer, to bring the Downey Theater up to speed. As Henry Veneracion reported in last week's Downey Patriot, "The subcommittee…recommends contracting with a qualified firm to handle the overall management and operation of the civic theater, including its scheduling, booking, marketing and ticket sales." And they have to do it quick: final proposal has to be made by mid-June, after three weeks of deliberation. Gafin and Brossmer are good men and true, but they don't know anything about arts programming. They in turn enlisted Phillips to find the outfit that will answer the problem of the Downey Theater. Phillips is a new appointee to the Community Services post. Before that, he was city librarian. He doesn't appear to know much about the arts either, and even less about programming, and has an irritating habit of telling everyone in earshot how new he is to the job and how little he knows about what he's doing, as if this were laudable somehow. In fairness, he did work hard to map the city's proposal, putting out a highly detailed document about the theater specs, staffing, and income versus expenditure, and adding a demographic breakdown (population, 113,000; white: 49.8%, Hispanic: 60.9%), including median income ($54,984), that would clue marketers into what they like to call a target audience. Hence the meeting. A group of 10 took a lengthy tour of the theater and its facilities under the guidance of Phillips and theater supervisor Noreen Kimura, and then returned to the green room for a question and answer period. Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, had the greatest presence in the group; her small retinue included the manager of the Ford Theater. Since these people were in competition with each other, most of the questioning dealt with the theater and the nature of the city. Nothing was said about what they might propose. Aside from theater costs ($470,000 per year, with $225,000 recouped in rentals) and other details, they learned that anyone who came in to program the theater would have to study and understand the community first, but that occupancy could come as early as January of 2011. They also learned that Downey's summer concert series is run out of Social Services-more on this in a moment. Zucker and one or two others zeroed in on how much control they'd have over the theater-it appeared they were not keen on sharing. "Are the DCLO and the Symphony bumpable?" Zucker asked. "The council is open to change," Phillips replied. "We recognize proposals to do things differently. Yes, they're bumpable." Solvency and civic autonomy came under question. Phillips gave Downey high marks on both, adding that Downey is not a contract city-its police and fire department are city-owned-and that the city of Pasadena, where he'd worked earlier, was much more active in community interest and involvement. He concluded that any proposals from the group would be made to him, and that his recommendation would forward on to the council. Let's recap: A committee of two, unschooled in arts management, turns programming of the Downey Theater into the hands of a third party who knows even less. There is no arts council, no arts advisory committee, indeed no outside arts recommendation from a neutral professional, to offer guidelines on how best to operate the cornerstone of Downey's cultural life. The Avenue Theater is unsalvageable. The Downey Art Museum is shuttered over a legal dispute. That the summer concert series is run through Social Services, another city bureaucracy, shows that there is no official entity, like L.A.'s Cultural Affairs Department, to oversee the arts in Downey. The flip side of the city's decision to limit community engagement, made in the spirit of efficiency, as Phillips suggested, implies that it doesn't feel terribly answerable to the community either. That's why, so far, the public hasn't been invited to weigh in. Culturally speaking, we're moving backwards in time. And if the city makes the wrong choice about the Downey Theater, we could lose more months and maybe years getting to where we are now (Brossmer has some positive suggestions about local cultural development, which I hope to report later). The question of the arts isn't just about the arts. It's about community. Downey is in a transitional state, its identity in flux. It's the arts, not television or blockbuster movies or other flashy staples of generic entertainment, that engage us most deeply as human beings. Sharing them lends us our humanity, our self-knowledge, our consciousness of difficulty, complication and reward, our sense of place. Beyond new restaurants and businesses and urban facelifts, that's where the vision for Downey's future needs to focus, in more than the passing glance we've seen so far.

********** Published: May 7, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 3