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Phone (818) 541-9522
Fax (818) 541-9524
Email RaymondTheatre@aol.com

Mailing Address
P.O. Box 91189
Pasadena, California 91109-1189
Office Hours: Monday-Friday 9am-6pm

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005


BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE
Pasadena Weekly
by Paula Pedrolo

In 1919 it was heralded as a shining example of Pasadena's emerging commitment to the arts. An ornate and guilded 1,800-seat theater to be constructed in the heart of Pasadena, the Jensen's Raymond was to stand revered as a monument to the city's cultural heritage.

In 1999, all the Raymond Theatre does now is stand-but no longer as a monument to any cultural richness. On the contrary, the once venerable showplace is more a dilapidated crypt housing the soul of what once was a true jewel of the Crown City.

Dark for most of this decade and with the bulk of its 1,800 seats long removed the art that once filled the majestic house now gives way to commerce.

Known also as the Crown Theater and Perkins Palace, the Raymond has had many incarnations during its nearly 80 years of hosting musicals, drama comedy, dance, vaudeville, silent films, talkies, symphonic concerts and rock 'n' roll upon its stage.


Raymond Theatre Circa 1921

But it's the plan for its next incarnation that has preservationists and theater supporters standing behind long-ago drawn battle lines fearing the final curtain will be falling on the theatrical life of the grand old showplace.

Who is their adversary? Developer Gene Buchanan, the Raymond's current owner. Long waited for by Buchanan, the theater's owner since 1987, the time to institute his plan draws ever nearer to city approval. And that plan is to gut the Raymond for "adaptive reuse" as a retail, office and apartment complex.

Encompassing everything between 129 and 155 North Raymond Avenue, Buchanan wants to construct a 112,000 square-foot, mixed-use project on three parcels, leaving the current Armory Center for the Arts sandwiched in the middle of the structure.

The plans include retaining the theater's facade and four walls, but taking out most of the interior of the building, where parking and apartments would instead be built.

The project would include 99 residential units, 12,204 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor and parking for 187 cars.

To the theater's supporters, such as Gina Zamparelli, a scheme like that is nothing less than sacrilege.

APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION

Not since Gary Folgner reopened the facility in 1990, only to shut it down a year later because of financial problems, has anyone else tried.

Folgner, a San Juan Capistrano theater owner with a background in booking top rock, jazz and folk acts, was one of three potential buyers for the theater after a city-sponsored study of the Raymond was released in the late 1980's.

One of the other parties who had expressed interest was the Edwin Lester Center for the Performing Arts. However, they requested the city purchase the theater to hold it while the $10 million for restoration was raised-after which it would purchase it from the city.

That proved too rich a risk for the Council's blood, and the key was handed to Folgner.

They were the keys to a kingdom.

The Raymond was designed as a true "thespian house," one the Pasadena Star News touted in 1919 as planned to be "one of the finest on the coast" and also to house "the largest auditorium of any building in the city."

In promising to be a building devoted exclusively to theatrical arts, with no offices or stores, it was an ambitious and risky commitment from the start. Plans were outlined for inclusion of a "large stage capable of handling legitimate productions" and included the installation of a pipe organ.

The emphasis was on high style and class, with the boast the theater would be "a credit to a city much larger than Pasadena."

Built with an eye to the future with hopes that Pasadena would one day match the splendor and size of the theater, the Raymond opened its doors in 1921 in a glittering evening of city proclamations and lofty speeches and ovations.


The facade of the Raymond around the time of its opening in 1921
POINT OF NO RETURN

Today, with the echoes of those proclamations and lofty speeches and applause long gone, a go-ahead given to Buchanan by the city that was hoped would one day match, not outgrow, its glory would signal the point of no return for the Raymond Theater.

To destroy the Raymond would eliminate the largest theater in Old Pasadena-and the city's oldest venue. It predates both the Pasadena Playhouse and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, which were built in 1925 and 1932, respectively.

But before Buchanan can set a wrecking crew loose upon the place, they'll have to get past Zamparelli.

Fighting to save the Raymond has become something of a long-term pursuit for the locally-based concert promoter who served as manager of the Raymond for 10 years-beginning back
in the punk rock/new wave heyday of the late 1970s when it was called Perkins Palace.

Spearheading efforts to save the theater during the past decade Zamparelli dedicated her efforts toward gathering 6,000 signatures from the Old Pasadena community on a petition to keep the theater in use as a theater.

In 1988, that petition was enough to get the City Council to approve a $50,000 feasibility study to look into the theater's possibilities-as a theater.

A REAL OPPORTUNITY

Zamparelli was commissioned to assist in it' preparation alongside theater architect Richard McCann.

According to the report, which includes a detailed demographic and financial study and survey of needs, costs, interest and the state of the industry, the theater would be deemed economically feasible if 205 days could be booked during the course of a year.

To both McCann and Zamparelli, who had worked with many similar theater projects around the country, such a booking level was not at all an impossible feat.

McCann, who in the past 25 years has worked with more than 30 such projects, including the recently renovated Alex Theater in Glendale, maintains today that the Raymond Theater, if properly financed, "could open a really great opportunity for the city."

"If you did the marketing, sold subscriptions in which local hotels and restaurants participate," said McCann, "there could be a tremendous influx of up to 6,000 potential customers over a weekend."

But McCann sees the possibility of success for the Raymond Theater as reliant on a joint effort, rather than that of a single owner. The support of a "consortium" combined with the full support of the local arts community, is one that he sees as lacking in Pasadena.

"I hate using a cliché©, but it really does take a village to run a theater," said McCann. "One of the biggest issues here is that we need
to challenge the Pasadena community to join forces with Gene Buchanan and work together. It's too much responsibility for just one person."

A historic theater consultant, Tom Paradiso, agreed, saying the solution to the fate of the Raymond Theater is a "public/private partnership."


Outside the Raymond Theater is Gina Zamparelli, who's made saving the theater a priority time and time again
"I know that this can be done," said Paradiso. "Even with cities that have no budget. Many theaters in worse areas are making money, Plus, it's got a hell of a track record-what happened?"

Good question.

PAINSTAKING RESTORATION

Shortly after the release of the 1989 study, Gary Folgner purchased the building from Buchanan for $2.5 million and set in motion the first major historical renovation process in the theater's history. Vintage photographs were located and the proscenium arch, which had been altered to accommodate a wider movie screen, was painstakingly restored by
volunteers like 79-year-old craftsman Hugo Motte, who worked from a small remaining strip of molding as a guide.


Inside the theater with Gene Buchanan, The Raymond's Owner. At his right are signatures of cast members from "Fiddler on the Roof."
Seats were refurbished, carpets were replaced, and the theater once again began to resemble the
fabled palace of its youth.

But financial difficulties with the project quickly beset Folgner, who after sinking $1 million in
repairs and restoration, defaulted on payments to Buchanan. Fire code violations resulting from
purchasing seats that were not fire retardant caused additional problems, and a year later,
the property was back in the hands of Buchanan.

But Zamparelli and others say this failure was not the fault of the industry or a fair indication of
the potential success of the theater.

"Folgner was a professional, but he was under-financed," said Zamparelli.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

It is at this point in the picture that supporters of the Raymond Theater express the majority of their frustration. With the exception of a few film location shoots and a handful of nights for a show, the theater has been basically dark the past decade.

A large sign was placed on the side of the building advertising the availability of the property.

To Buchanan, his efforts to continue renting the theater for shows were limited.

"We tried to run it for about six months," said Buchanan. "We had a couple of shows."

Buchanan admits that his own attempts at theater management were "totally no success."

Maintenance was basically discontinued on the interior, and despite the fact Buchanan claims he has always been open to offers to keep the building in use as a theater, he admits his intention has always been to convert the Raymond into adaptive reuse.

"As soon as we got it (in 1987) we went to the city to be put into adaptive reuse," said Buchanan, "it's foolish to spend money on upkeep if you're going to eventually tear it apart."

Paradiso, also a member of the Blue Ribbon Panel organized by the city of Pasadena in 1989 during the time the feasibility study was being drafted, calls Buchanan's actions "wasteful."

"He's wasting a valuable resource," Paradiso said. "If marketed right, there are options like those with the L.A. Theater Center, which leases out at $5,000 a day for film shoots."

But Buchanan maintains there are not enough options to keep the theatre in business enough days during the year.

"No theater can run at 260 days out of 365," said Buchanan. "There's not enough product out there, in my opinion."

With years of theater and entertainment industry experience, Zamparelli is firm about how wrong Buchanan's opinion is.

"He doesn't know what he's talking about. He's a developer, not a theater person. I'd like to know how he comes to such a conclusion," she said. "'The concept in the Pasadena community that the Raymond is unworkable and that all it's options have been exhausted is untrue.

"The theater is closed for one reason only-the owner has no interest in doing a theater operation and never has."

TOWN WITHOUT PITY

The fate of "adapted use" is one that has befallen many old buildings in town, particularly in Old Pasadena where preservation aims are highest. The city's historic preservation ordinances state the facade of historic
buildings must be preserved, but no allowances are made for interiors.

City Manager Cynthia Kurtz feels the adaptive use project for the Raymond is different because the building is considered a theater. "People love the old theaters, and their first preference is always to adapt it to a similar use." Kurtz said. "The way a lot of the buildings in Old Pasadena have been saved is through adaptive use."

But Kurtz did point out in some cases, the adaptive use totally changes everything except for the facade.

It's tougher on a community when it's a theater." she said.


The interior of the Raymond Theater today.

The city of Pasadena currently has partnership arrangements with the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and the Pasadena Rose Bowl, which calls "overall successful." The Pasadena Playhouse is another historic theater with city assistance and partnership with others was reopened.

So why not create a partnership arrangement with the Raymond?

Adding another city-partnered facility does not seem a likely prospect, said Kurtz.

"The reason we created the Pasadena Operating Co. is that the city is really not in the performance business," she said. "But those are real success stories."

Pasadena may have other reasons for a willingness to discontinue interest in the Raymond's continued use as a theater: the changing face of Old Pasadena.

"Old Town's long-term survival is totally dependent on the residential density that we are able to create there." Kurtz said. "That was very clear when we adopted the plan six years ago."

According to Kurtz, the addition of a number of residential buildings have already been added, and more are to come.

"All of those will contribute to making sure that Old Pasadena survives," said Kurtz. "It fits very well into the whole land use type of thinking that we have about residential."

Just down the block from the Raymond property, a new Marriott Hotel is currently under construction, and on the surrounding streets are other condominiums and apartments complexes. The presence of a theater could face the dilemma of facing increased competition for parking, as well as stricter attention to noise levels and crowds.

DOLLARS AND SENSE

To those who want to see the theater return to its original use, Buchanan appears to be like the melodrama villain of silent film era who arrives to foreclose on the home of the heroine.

Buchanan claims the 10 years he has spend offering the building for sale as a theater are more than enough time to devote to an unused structure. The time has come, said Buchanan, to move on.


The view from the stage circa 1921.
"Nobody has come forward," he said at an April 5 City Council meeting. There have not been any reasonable offers. A dozen years is enough time for them to come forward."

But is his asking price reasonable?

Presently asking $3 million, Buchanan said it's a price he clams is "cheap" compared to other local properties in the same condition and area.

But Zamparelli, who has helped reopen 13 historic theaters around the country, isn't buying that. She claims the price places the property "as one of the highest-priced theaters in California" and that a fairer asking price would be closer to $1.5 million.

Offers in that range have been plenty, including the $1.5 million offered by Michael Balour, owner of the Belasco Theater in Los Angeles, the $1.7 million put on the table by Edward Haddad of the Celebrity Theater Group and Los Angeles developer Tom Bell who offered $1.5 million.

"Part of the reason (for the property not being bought) could be the lack of marketing," said Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, who acknowledged the "long and difficult saga" for the Raymond.

"If we had been together five years ago marketing this property to the right people, things might be different," she said. "The study looked promising and made it look achievable€

Mossman said the fact the price tag has nearly doubled could be another critical factor.

"That hurdle is frustratingly steep." Mossman said.

As expected, Pasadena Heritage which is especially concerned with preserving the interior of historic buildings, does not support the Buchanan's project.

"We are opposed to the project because it will destroy the interior of the theatre" said Mossman, who added Pasadena Heritage will be "following this project closely" and she feels strongly an Environment Impact Report, sill as yet to be required by the city, be made necessary.

"There is a great deal of historic fabric left within the Raymond Theater," Mossman said.

Mayor Bill Bogaard, who will soon take his first look at the adaptive-use project details, still expressed support for retaining the historic building.

Though Bogaard said he felt other uses for the building could also contribute to the vitality of Old Pasadena, keeping it a theater would be a boon.

"It would be wonderful from a historic preservation point of view to be used again as a theater," Bogaard said earlier this week. "I'm confident that a successful theater would contribute a lot to Old Pasadena."

TOO LITTLE TOO LATE?

Kurtz pointed out that opposing groups and individuals have no way to completely block the reconstruction of the building. If Buchanan meets all the requirements set by the city and approved by the City Council, he is legally cleared to proceed with his project as planned.

But a project that remains controversial can ultimately have negative repercussions if an effort to resolve the issues is not made, said former Mayor Chris Holden, councilman for the city's third district, where the Raymond is located.

"From seeing a number of these projects in the last couple of years, the ones that have been successful have worked very hard at incorporating the community along the way outside of the stated project." Holden said. "If there's a troubled project as the beginning it's still troubled at the end."

Zamparelli has requested the city make one more attempt to mediate between Buchanan and these who support continuing the Raymond as a theater by "creating a platform" for six months before proceeding with the current project.

"A group of experts in the field would come together to help facilitate the sale of the theater for Mr. Buchanan " said Zamparelli, who added a group with expertise in theater real estate, concert promotion, management and preservation is already in place and ready to act.

Zamparelli hopes this will speed the sale and allow the channels of communication to be reopened with Buchanan.

"It's a little late in the game for that, but I'm still open for offers," said Buchanan.

Though it appears the fat lady is waiting in the wings of the Raymond Theater, Zamparelli continues undaunted.

"I'm ready to take this as big as it can get," she said.