It’s hard to write about any theatre closing, but this archival website wouldn’t be complete without explaining why the Back Alley Theatre closed in 1989.
In my speech to the L.A. Drama Critics Circle in 1989, accepting the Margaret Harford Award, kind of a lifetime achievement award for smaller theatres at the time, I said:
“There are always those who will point to this dismal event or that portentous sign to declare that theatre in L.A., San Francisco, New Yok– fill in the blank– is in its death throes…but the truth of the matter is that institutions run their life course, just as individuals do. There are, and always will be, younger artists driven by a sense of mission to create theatre. To what degree we make room for them, and support them, will determine the true vitality of the art form.
“And the truth also is that Allan and I had a wonderful time creating the Back Alley. We don’t regret a minute of it. But the work we wanted to do outgrew a theatre of that size and budget.”
We felt we’d done all we could artistically in the 93-seat space; we wanted to become the mid-size theatre for the Valley, but couldn’t. We tried valiantly to generate momentum toward this and even got a $150K line item from the state legislature to renovate a historic post office building in Van Nuys, but it wasn’t enough. We spent $13K on a development feasibility study that told us we couldn’t raise the $2M or so needed. People loved us, but they loved us just the way we were–small.
Now I think this was partly our fault. Yes, there were huge hurdles, but a few did overcome them. We were so focused on making the work excellent, so sure it would speak for itself, that we didn’t build the civic capital needed to get the philanthropic leaders of the Valley to feel it was really their theatre. We didn’t South Coast Rep it.
The truth also is that if Allan hadn’t decided it was time for us to walk away, I’d probably still be there running the Back Alley. When Allan said he was done, I had no choice but to pack it up. We had a planned closure. We satisfied all our obligations to subscribers and paid all our bills, but it was really painful for me; I left my heart in Van Nuys.
Allan transitioned to a terrific artistic home at the Odyssey Theatre, where he directed and acted in so many plays, I lost count. I would sit in the last row and kibbitz, which was all the fun with none of the responsibility. Four years ago, the Odyssey gave Allan their lifetime achievement award.
When I applied to head the LA County Arts Commission three years after the Back Alley’s closure, I couldn’t believe it when during the interview I was told an important part of the job was to “fix the Ford Amphitheatre.” It was described by commissioners as moribund, an albatross around the county’s neck. There actually were apologies in anticipation for whoever got saddled with it. “Oh, really?” I replied as casually as I could, “A 1,200 seat theatre that needs fixing?” leaning in so far I almost fell out of my chair. I couldn’t get a 350-seat theatre for the Valley built, but I ended up getting a larger one to reinvent in the Cahuenga Pass, with a chance to provide opportunities for scores of emerging performing arts organizations to flourish.
When I walked onto the stage of the Ford Amphitheatre for the first time in 1992 it was clear I was on sacred ground. But that’s a whole other story.