The LA Times today has a series of articles on the 50th anniversary of the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. However, in their desire to glorify the past, they have made one glaring omission: They completely forgot about Edwin Lester and the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera.
Reading the articles gives the impression that the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion was the home of the Philharmonic, Opera, and Dance; all theatre was under the purview of the Center Theatre Group, and was at the Ahmanson and the Taper. That, of course, is completely false.
Wikipedia has a good page on the LACLO; so does Broadway LA at the Pantages and the Philharmonic Auditorium. LACLO, founded by Edwin Lester, started in 1938 and shared space with the Philharmonic at the Philharmonic Auditorium. When the Chander Pavillion was completed, the LACLO moved there with the Philharmonic. The LACLO pioneered the notion of a “tour” to the West Coast; often Broadway productions that did not tour to the West Coast would import the production for the LACLO with the original Broadway stars. LACLO also started a number of shows that either made it to Broadway, or attempted to make it to Broadway and failed. These included Song of Norway (1944), Magdalena (1948), Kismet (1953), Peter Pan (1954) and Gigi (1973). Among the aborted shows that I recall included a version of Gone with the Wind with Pernell Roberts, and “Sugar” with Robert Morse.
The LACLO is the reason I’m into theatre — my first live theatre was “The Rothschilds” at LACLO in 1972 with Hal Linden. My parents were LACLO subscribers, and they soon added me to their subscriptions. This is when I fell in love with the theatre.
LACLO operated in parallel with the Center Theatre Group; often CTG productions were bonus shows for LACLO. I recall this being the case for my favorite show, “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, which was my first show at the Ahmanson. In general, the LACLO did musicals; CTG did plays.
According to Wikipedia, during the 1950s and 1960s the LACLO was the most financially successful musical theatre subscription organization of its kind. However, in the 1970s the organization’s audience size began to decrease and by the 1980s the company was experiencing serious financial difficulties. The company’s last production was of John Kander’s Cabaret in 1987. Wikipedia doesn’t note that what did the company in — beyond the quality of 1980s theatre — was the growth of alternate houses such as the Shubert (which opened in the mid 1970s) and the Pantages (which opened in the early 1980s).
The Broadway LA folks (who claim to be the successors to the LACLO) note that in 1981, the Nederlander Organization bailed out the financially-ailing Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. In their words: “While many of these productions continued to light up the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Ahmanson Theatre at the Los Angeles County Music Center, as available windows for booking shows at those venues became smaller and smaller, the Nederlanders eventually opted to utilize the Pantages to house the LACLO season of shows.” The translation: Once the Nederlanders got control, they slowly moved more and more productions to the houses they controlled (and of course, never to the Shubert theatre in Century City). And thus, the LACLO faded from view at the Music Center, to be replaced by Nederlander tours at the Pantages. All that was left was the mailing list.
[Edited to Add: Over on Facebook, Ron Bruguiere provided some additional clarification to the above, noting: “In your blog, you neglect to mention Feuer and Martin. They took over CLO from Edwin Lester in 1976, lasting until 1980. The subscribers were extremely unhappy in 1977 with Liza Minnelli in “Shine It On” which when it opened in NYC, was known as “The Act.” 1981 is when the Nederlander organization begin producing the CLO productions, and the blue-haired ladies let it be known that there was too much blood in “Sweeney Todd,” the subscribers were very displeased, and subscriptions fell off. By 1987, when CLO closed, the subscriber base was greatly diminished.”]
Still, any look back at the contributions of the Music Center must acknowledge the LACLO. For many many years, the LACLO was the outlet for musical theatre in LA — even after CTG started. It wasn’t until the death of Lester and the Nederlanders taking over the remains of the LACLO that the Ahmanson became a musical house.
As we look back on 50 years of the Dorothy Chandler, let’s remember the days when musical theatre could fill a 3,150 seat house that actually had great accoustics as well as glamour. Let’s remember the contributions of Edwin Lester and the LA Civic Light Opera.