SOUL OF THE CITY VII: Downey Civic Light Opera

DOWNEY - I could never understand why the city government treated the Downey Civic Light Opera like a bedpan. I'm not talking about the wrangling that has gone on among the cast of characters that include the city council, the principals of the DCLO, meaning, mainly, Executive Director Marsha Moode, and VenueTech, the management firm hired in 2010 to run the Downey Civic Theater-all of them, plus the Downey Symphony Orchestra and maybe the Rose Float Association, pushing and pulling in a struggle that threatens to spill out onto the street, as in old Laurel & Hardy films. I'm talking about before all that. I'm talking about what the DCLO actually did, which was to present the heyday of the American musical, one of only two distinct art forms-the other being jazz-that the U.S. has given to world culture. Just think of the names that have afforded us some of the greatest pleasures we've ever had in the theater; the Jerome Kern of "Showboat," the Irving Berlin who wrote "White Christmas" and "There's No Business Like Show Business," among dozens of great songs. George and Ira Gershwin changed the sound of mainstream American music; they gave it jazz, sex, soul, and a swanky bluesiness that's never been matched. Think of the witty melancholy of Lorenz Hart, the heady sophistication of Cole Porter in songs even rockers like to try out now and then. Think of the Rodgers & Hammerstein who, in "South Pacific" and "Oklahoma," gave the Depression and war-weary country back its sense of vitality, decency and can-do optimism. Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, Lerner & Loewe, Marvin Hamlisch-the list goes on. Who could fail to be charmed and amused and even moved by these nights out?

It's all over now, at least for Downey. Moode's announcement of the DCLO's demise, given from the Downey Theater stage during the June run of "Paint Your Wagon," brought to a close a scenario that has the elements of tragedy. By tragedy I don't mean a nut case who plows his car into a Venice beach crowd, killing a vacationing newlywed. I mean tragedy in the classical sense, where a number of different characters hold powerful, intractable and conflicting points of view, each one of them completely justified.

How did it happen? Let's throw out the factor of prohibitive costs that are making musical companies, with their large casts, dance numbers and live orchestras, drop like honeybees all over the country. Let's acknowledge that the conventions of the musical as an art form have changed, so that gaudy spectacle and the rhythmically blunt and tyrannical rock beat have made musicals less nuanced, less complex, less adult (Stephen Sondheim says he stopped writing because audiences don't want to work anymore). Let's even allow that, for a while, the DCLO had become a little old ladies theater, satisfied with the self-conscious disconnectedness of amateur performance.

Probably the first death knell sounded when Kevin O'Connor retired his post of theater manager several years ago. His departure left a large programming gap that kept the Downey Theater dark when its regular tenants (the DCLO et al) weren't using it. Jump ahead a few years. The great recession of '09, which shakes the industrialized world's banking and investment system, including municipal bond holders, dumps the city of Downey into an $11 million deficit hole. City leaders look across the plaza and see $400,000 a year moldering in that big block known as the Downey Civic Theater. Can't something be done?

To its credit, amazing under the circumstances, the city is willing to stomach the loss, as long as there's more programming going on over there. Now we're in 2012. Says then-mayor Roger Brossmer, "I'm trying to get this city out of the [Richard and Karen] Carpenter era. The theater's been under-utilized. I love what the DCLO brings to Downey. Marsha is unique in the city and the region, a big attraction, a draw for the theater. For many years she's been the only show in town. We need to take care of the DCLO and the symphony. But we need to appeal to a much larger audience." By then, Venuetech, a northern California management outfit, had outbid six other candidates to take over the running of the Downey Theater (more on VenueTech next week). The cost of running it had risen to $857, 870, but with a revenue of $484,107, its financial balance was pretty much what it had been, and even looked better for '12-'13.

But a certain unraveling had begun in the DCLO's relations all around. The city reneged on its promise to protect the Downey theater's nonprofit "legacy groups" from a steep rent raise, and in the DCLO's case, wanted additional rent on its office and storage facility, which had been used for free since the company's inception.

Then there was the issue of the box office. At an equipment installation cost of $12,000, plus an $800 a month software licensing fee contracted to stretch out for forty-four months, VenueTech established what it calls its nerve center, which the city regards as a conduit for the theater's fiscal accounting. The DCLO would have none of it. Box office and subscription are crucial to the pay-as-you-go fees of three weekend runs, plus rehearsal, tech and load-in schedules. Moode refused to surrender control of her tickets. There are precedents, Paul Garman, who runs Musical Theater West at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, had to leave La Mirada after the city took over his box office and wreaked havoc on his operation. The Cabrillo Music Theater's artistic director, Lewis Wilkenfield, wrote that a similar takeover had pushed his theater "to the edge of extinction."

Meetings ensue. Moode is conceded her own box office-until the end of 2013. Though she assures the city that she has no intention of leaving her post, they want a succession plan for the takeover of the DCLO when she does.

"The DCLO is bigger than any one person," Brossmer says.

More friction points arise. The city doesn't protect its legacy groups' performance dates, so that they find themselves at the mercy of VenueTech scheduling and conflicting events nearby, like the Taste of Downey. Petty things occur. The 2013 winter-spring edition of the Parks & Recreation activity magazine has VenueTech bookings splashed across the cover, but omits any mention of the DCLO and the symphony-two outfits that have given Downey historic cultural distinction (the omissions began in 2012). There are certain, shall we say, temperamental differences between Moode and theater manager Amber Vogel, Venuetech vice-president and COO Judy Barkett, and Parks & Rec. Director Arlene Salazar. Salazar knows nothing about running a theater and takes her cues in that department from Vogel, who takes her cues from Barkett. Moode is beginning to feel ganged up on.

"It's a girl thing," she says.

Moode is a high-octane, high-strung woman. The endgame begins one day in May of 2012 when she arrives at the theater to find the storage room trashed, city paraphernalia strewn in such a way that prevents her from getting into the DCLO section. Vogel, Salazar and Barkett are in the building.

"Let's have a meeting,' Judy said, says Moode. "I thought it would be a production meeting. But then I learned our prices would be doubled. They wanted our tickets. I can't pay our bills without our tickets. I can't pay actors, the musicians and choreographer, the trucks for loading in, production costs, programs, cleaning, all of it. 'Think outside the box,' she said. She wanted us to cancel or double-up performances. I felt blindsided."

Moode sat in the DCLO's tiny office on an April afternoon and listed her staggering job description (she started work at the theater in 1986 as public relations director). She chooses the DCLO season and produces and directs all its shows. She hires the actors, musical director, choreographer, lighting and costume designer, and house and stage manager. She pays Equity contracts and royalties, and supervises the load-in and out of sets. She's principal fund-raiser for the DCLO's stated $300,000 a year budget. She co-signs the DCLO checks, organizes the programs and the opening night party at the Embassy Suites. She writes fund-raising and subscription renewal letters. She gathers up costumes and takes them to the cleaner. On performance nights and matinees, she puts on makeup and an evening gown and greets every theatergoer at the door, and bids them goodbye as they leave.

Asked why she hasn't groomed a successor, she replied, "I work for a pittance and sometimes put my salary back into the theater. There's no health benefit, no pension. I'm the DCLO's only full-time employee. Who'd want to do it?"

The city, whose leadership stopped going to DCLO shows years ago, doesn't see it that way, but given the cost, scale, complexity, and the knowledge and experience needed to run a musical theater, it doesn't appear the DCLO will reopen anytime soon. The city is also justifiably miffed in having its worst fear realized-Moode walking out without so much as an official notice, or the professional courtesy of a letter. Not a good move on her part, but by then she'd been driven to the breaking point, where one doesn't always make the wisest choices.

Moode left while her learning curve of how to direct musicals was veering sharply upward. They were gaining more art and professionalism, more style and pizzazz. She had created a community for actors and audiences, who came from 72 cities in the region. Born for the stage-she's a former beauty queen, USC theater grad, star of the Ramona Pageant in Hemet, and professional actress and director--her intermission addresses to DCLO audiences made for an entertaining entre'act in her shows. She's the only person out there who could give Downey a touch of star quality.

Now it's finished, except for retirement of a five-figure debt. "I'll pay every penny," she says. "I'll go out with honor."

The tragedy isn't Shakespearean. The stage isn't littered with corpses at the end. It's more Chekhovian, where everyone goes out into the night with a feeling of heavy, irredeemable loss.

********** Published: Aug. 8, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 17