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True, we packed out the house at the Epic Lounge for a screening of a new short documentary about Bumblebee. We were excited to have Downey filmmakers doing a film on a Downey artist that has a regional following, and to present the event here in our community. All ages were represented, from 1 to 90 years old (yes, I brought the baby).
But the full story of how this came together really gets at the core of what the Downey Arts Coalition hopes to accomplish by developing a local creative community and an arts&culture scene. Our hope is that future generations of creative individuals will live in a city that they feel has fostered and inspired their art.
I say this as a Downey kid who wanted to become a filmmaker, but had to scrape around for ways to develop my skills in town. I found a couple mentors, but I was mostly self-taught in my student filmmaking adventures. There weren’t any legitimate examples of a film-culture here in Downey. We didn’t even have the Krikorian when I was in high school, only 2nd-run double features at the Avenue Theatre. As far as any real training for film in the city, there was none. I always knew that the only place to find the “real thing” was to go up to LA and try to find my way among a sea of other wannabe writer/directors.
To do what I wanted to do, I would have to leave. And many of my artistic friends did leave. The loss of creative, ambitious young adults damages a community at its core. But somehow I never really left. I’ve always worked in Los Angeles and Hollywood, but never could talk myself into moving north-west.
One of the ideas that changed me recently was a realization that there is power in the place you are from, the place you live, and the people around you every day– many whom you already know and trust. Much of the activism world has jumped on the “Local” bandwagon, and now I believe it is time for the arts to “go local” as well.
Back in 2010 when I decided to form a group called the Downey Arts Coalition, one of the first artists that I contacted was Pam Lane and Joan Anderson of DowneyDailyPhotos.com. Pam, Joan and Allison Mansell were doing the photography version of “art local” on their blog. They saw their hometown of Downey as a valuable resource, a subject they could explore, and a potential audience for their photos. They joined in the conversation right away.
Last year in April, Pam was photographing a local church, when she met a young man named Julian Park, who was a videographer and was already a fan of their photo blog. They connected about Downey and photography. Throughout the year the photo blog featured several images of Bumblebee’s artwork, which had captured the city’s imagination. Julian learned about Bumblebee, his work, and his Downey roots from the Downey Daily Photos blog. He decided to track him down in order to make a documentary film about his art and motivations.
Bumblebee talks in the film about growing up in a city that lacked much creative expression, or any kind of art scene at all.
But he was motivated to express himself, creating street art and other works because he had to, long before he would start to legitimately sell his work. He had an affection for his home town, which led him to create things here. Once again, using his community as a resource rather than a hinderance.
Over the course of the months where Julian Park, Joseph Kim and their teammates of HandiMade films were following Bumblebee, the Downey Arts Coalition also reached out to Bumblebee to talk about the local arts movement and if there is a way that we could do an event together. When it came time for the documentary short to be finished, Bumblebee approached us about hosting a premiere screening for it in Downey, plus a mini art show. We didn’t hesitate.
DAC member Don Lamkin set up the event with the Epic Lounge, and worked out a deal to do the event for next to no money, keep admission free, and still benefit everyone. The DAC promoted the event, wrote a fantastic article about the film, secured permission for a new large mural on the building, and the audience was spilling out the door. The evening was by far a moving experience for many people, including the arts community, the filmmakers, the artist, and their parents.
The cycle was complete when Pam Lane and Joan Anderson showed up with their cameras to document the evening on their blog: First about the event itself, then about the filmmakers behind the film.
Because of the creative community we’ve been building, and that these artists are expressing themselves here in their own city, these pieces were able to fall into place. And the event has now inspired new artists to go out and do the same. It will be exciting to see how the seeds grow.
Last, it’s not insignificant to mention: Julian was planning to move to New York for a video gig, and after the experience of this event has decided to stay in town for now, pursuing opportunities here.
We had a wonderful time producing what just might be the most contemporary theatre that’s been done in downey since the days of John Hume. Four new plays, presented as staged readings, at four locations around Downey. Best of all, it used the talents of a lot of creative people that have local ties.
On May 6th we had “In Case You Forget” by Ben Snyder, about a New York graffiti artist on his way to prison. Around 70 audience members showed up to watch the talented actors from Urban Theatre Movement, a company born out of the greater south-east LA county. UTM recently produced a successful run of “Short Eyes” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in downtown LA. UTM member David Santana directed the reading.
Presented in the back parking lot of Number 34, a new barbershop near Florence & Lakewood Blvd. The street art theme was continued with a small art show in the front parking lot.
The highlight of the show was two extra wooden utility boxes that the public was invited to spray paint on themselves. Roy Anthony Shabla, who curated the show, had a piece of street art painted over by the city of Downey– the middle utility box that is now gray was formerly a work of art that Shabla designed and painted without city permission. The police stopped by, but were happy to discover that the utility boxes in question were only fake props.
Two weeks later we moved to Granata’s & Tapas on Downey Avenue in their banquet room to present two one-act plays, “La Vida Lucky (1974)” and “El Bobo Bruto (1951)” written by Daniel Houston Davila. Houston hails from neighboring Norwalk, and wrote a comprehensive historical novel Malinche’s Children about the Carmellas, a migrant worker bario located near Rosecrans and Shoemaker in Norwalk. The plays were workshopped in the Casa 0101 playwriting program, and this is their first public reading. Long time Downey resident Alistair Hunter directed the reading.
Much of the audience turned out for dinner beforehand, or drinks after the reading. It felt good to pack out the restaurant.
For the reading, the banquet room was stuffed with over a hundred people, standing room only. The Q&A included interaction with some locals who grew up in the Carmellas and experienced many of the same things in their lives.
The next week we were back with Urban Theatre Movement, with “Handball” written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, and directed by Downey resident and UTM founder Paul Tully. Tully has been one of the driving forces behind the reading series, and has championed this play about a New York neighborhood’s struggle with gentrification. Playwright Rosenfeld was in attendance and joined the Q&A afterward. The Epic Lounge on 2nd Street downtown hosted the event, with about 50 in attendance.
Finally on June 3rd we presented “Alexander the Greatest,” written and directed by Forrest Hartl, a Downey resident and one of the producers of our series. The audience of about 65 laughed their way through the roller coaster of an amateur actor’s rise to fame through cutthroat tactics.
The Downey Moravian Church on Old River School Road hosted the evening in their Hove Hall.
We enjoyed a spread of snacks and cake to celebrate the end of the series and thank everyone for seeing it through.
The audience response on “Alexander” led us to select the play to produce as our first workshop production, tentatively scheduled for September of this year. Currently Downey does not have a theatre showing contemporary plays produced by professionals. We’ve set out to change that, so I hope you’ll join us as we continue the work. There are also more staged readings planned for the future.
Special thanks to the producing team, led by Lana Joy Wahlquist, Paul Tully, Forrest Hartl, and myself. We also could have done it without the volunteer support of many from the DAC and UTM who put the pieces together.
Here is the UrbanActs_Playbill as a PDF, though it is in printing order so you’ll have to read it creatively.
Last, here is a gallery of photos from the series.
With apologies to the regulars of Xela Cafe, we jammed about 25 people in their small coffee shop on Paramount Blvd nearby Warren High. A good crowd for a Saturday morning, and a lot of people who haven’t yet entered the conversation of building an arts community in Downey. The enthusiasm was clear– we don’t have many people striving to serve, protect, and stimulate the arts in Downey and our local south-east “562” neighborhoods. What cultural institutions we have left over from the 50s are slowly shrinking as their membership ages and young people fail to jump on board.
We had representatives with experience from the Downey Children’s Theatre days, advocates for the Downey Symphony, Pam and Joan from Downey Daily Photos (a lovely mention at their website), representation of the Downey Art Museum & Historical Society, Downey High theatre, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, pastors, and absent but there in spirit we had voices from Downey Art Vibe, and even the City Council. We had all generations represented, from 4 months old (my baby), to college aged, middle aged and those in their golden years.
A lot of ideas are on the table, and organizing this enthusiasm into results for our city is now the challenge. There seems to be broad support to organize a “Downey Art Walk” focused on bringing artists, musicians and more to the downtown strip to take over, partner with local businesses, and show that arts and art appreciation are alive in this area. One of the big movements in downtown areas all over the country, is that they now should be centers for arts, culture and entertainment. Retail has moved out, but we’re moving in. More on that to come.
A second meeting will be in the coming weeks. If you would like to join, please contact us at this web page or ping us on facebook.
Come join us at Xela Coffee House for the first “exploratory” meeting of the Downey Arts Coalition. We don’t fully know what shape it will all take, but we can start the conversation.
Saturday, February 26th at 11AM
Xela Coffee House
12012 Paramount Blvd.
For more information you can email us on the contact page and I’ll get back to you.
On Tuesday the Downey City Council voted to contract with the company, VenueTech Management Group LLC to take over management operations at the Downey Theatre, and to bring a presenting series of concerts with headline acts to the theatre. The official new story is up at the Downey Patriot:
This is big news, because it’s a right turn away from the “status quo” that has run our theatre for the last 30 years.
A bit of history first. Dan Furman (Furman Park) was the first city superintendent of parks & recreation, what is now the Director of Community Services. He met actor John Hume in 1955, who was in town performing for a storefront theatre that was producing shows on Downey Avenue. The idea: start a children’s theatre in Downey that would perform at the Rio Hondo Elementary school auditorium. The Downey Children’s Theatre was birthed, and the idea took off like wildfire. Hundreds of children came to audition, leading to the strong involvement of the community. Very soon the children’s theatre was doing 10 or 11 plays a year, entertaining thousands of residents. It out-grew Rio Hondo very quickly.
John Hume, a city employee, lobbied along with other civic leaders for the city to build a theatre. The symphony wanted a 1000 seat house, the theatre wanted only 500. 738 was the compromise. It took a long time and much controversy, but in 1970 the city used cigarette taxes to fund the project. In 1971, the theatre had it’s first banner year. No longer was the city doing only children’s theatre, but also adult plays, experimental plays like “No Exit,” the civic light opera, marionette theatre, and everything in between. Hume was the theatre’s managing director, as well as director of many of the plays.
Then prop 13 happened (restricting property tax rates), leading to the budget crisis of 1978. Among the deep cuts, Hume and his staff were let go, and the theatre operation was stripped down to a minimum. The Downey community arts groups rallied to form a coalition that would continue to operate the theatre with an all-volunteer non-profit model, but that lasted only until 1982 when the city took control of the theatre once again. By now all of the theatre programs shut down except for the profitable Downey Civic Light Opera which continues to run today.
In 1983, Kevin O’Connor was hired to be the new managing director of the theatre. His first year he even put on a season of 5 performing arts concerts that broke even. I’m not sure if or how long he continued to do that, but it also was eventually left on the sidelines. For a number of years the city also produced the “Way Outer Broadway” talent contest for young talented artists at the theatre, but when the director of that program retired, so did it.
The Downey Theatre slowly settled into it’s passive rental model that it is today, while other local theatres continued to pursue performing arts acts or resident companies to keep the theatre busy. The Civic Light Opera began to contract and settle in to the model it is today, three musicals of 10 performances each, managing to mostly break even financially without the help of many wealthy patron donors (an amazing feat in these trying days for community theatre). The Downey Symphony has also survived despite challenges, now presenting 3 or 4 concerts a year and usually operating at break-even. Kevin O’Connor continued to keep the theatre as-is, without any major upgrades, marketing or attempts to modernize the box office. After 25 years his final salary was nearly $200,000/year. He retired in 2008 and has not been replaced.
Along comes 2009, the city of Downey has purchased the shuttered historic Avenue Theatre in a state of disrepair, and announces plans to convert it to a housing development. Downey’s preservationists (George Redfox, Kathy Perez and others) coming off a major success with Jonny’s Broiler, now turned their sights on the Avenue. A “Save the Avenue” campaign was started, as well as a renewed call by others such as Lawrence Christon for the city of Downey to take a hard look at the arts as an important stimulant of culture, community identity and economic development. “Save the Avenue” was met by the city’s reply of “We have the Downey Theatre, we don’t need the Avenue.” Which begged the question: What are we doing with the Downey Theatre? The theatre is dark more than 2/3 of the year. The city council responded with the subcommittee of David Gafin, Roger Brossmer along with Community Services Director Thad Phillips looking into the potential of a private operator to come in and take over management of the theatre. In Brossmer’s words, “We don’t know how to manage a theatre– let’s find somebody that does.” Good call. Honestly, to find a suitable private company that would be interested was a long-shot. VenueTech happens to be a great fit for our size. None of the other proposals were even close to what we were looking for.
A few important things to note about VenueTech: They’re big into involving the community. They want the city and it’s residents to have ownership of our theatre, and for their name to be completely unknown to the patrons of the theatre. The DCLO, Symphony, school concerts, and local artist groups are a major part of their plan for revitalizing the theatre. With marketing and increased awareness of the big-picture of the theatre, these programs can flourish. The presenting series will complement– but for any act or headliner that they might bring in, they want to be sure that it’s a good fit for our audience. They also want to throw a series of arts-oriented festivals that will take place on the theatre grounds and the courtyard that will bring local artists and residents together around an arts setting. One of their first jobs will be to create a non-profit “Downey Theatre Foundation” that will be community run in order to organize fundraising and volunteer efforts. They want to implement a ticket surcharge for all events that will go into pool a fund that young and developing artists can apply to for financial assistance with new projects. Lastly, most of these changes will take time, and are focused on long-term development.
I’m hoping this new non-profit can provide a framework and training for our community advocates to learn how to fund-raise and start new programs to stimulate local talent and developing artists. Having acts like Chris Botti playing at the theatre is nice, but it doesn’t develop Downey’s own artistic voice. That’s why I’m excited about VenueTech’s stated desire to work with the community– hopefully it will give us a better chance to take ownership.
There was resistance at the council meeting, mostly due to part of the community feeling rail-roaded into this new regime. Has this been thoroughly thought through? Are they going to push aside our city organizations for their own agenda? Do we have unrealistic hopes about what the Downey Theatre can be? I do think that the city should have tried harder to bring together more of the local arts community to hear VenueTech’s proposal and presentation, before the night of the city council meeting. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that I saw this on the agenda and emailed everybody I knew about it, half of the arts people who were there to listen wouldn’t have been there. They mentioned at the council meeting that VenueTech had the opportunity to meet with the DCLO, the Symphony, and the school district. Two people were there– a rep of the symphony and Marsha Moode of the DCLO. The presentation was made, but from what I hear, there wasn’t much discussion (on our part) beyond protecting dates on the schedule and rental rates.
The future is still uncertain, but so far it’s at least a change with a lot of good potential. An arts renaissance must come from a city’s resident’s, not the city staff and council, that’s the part that I’m more concerned with. I put out a renewed call to the city council during the meeting: Form an official city “arts task force.” To talk about these issues on a monthly basis and come up with a framework for Downey’s approach to the arts. How hard can that be?
This Tuesday, November 23, the Downey City Council will take up the question of whether or not to contract with VenueTech (http://www.venuetech.com) to manage the Downey Civic Theatre. VenueTech would take over all day to day operations of the theatre, including hiring a full time theatre manager and other theatre staff to handle all the production needs. In addition, VenueTech would use their knowledge and contacts in the performing arts industry to book touring shows and popular acts to the theatre, creating a programming plan or a series of events produced by the city and VenueTech. They would take over all rental agreements, price negotiations, talent contracts, marketing and technical coordination.
From their website: “VenueTech Management Group, LLC is a consulting and management firm involved in the business planning, capital development and direct management of community-based organizations and public assembly facilities. A significant portion of the firm’s business is focused on the restoration and reuse of historic buildings and the use of entertainment, cultural arts and public venues as a catalyst for economic development.” They are based in San Francisco and directly manage five other public theatres in California.
To read the full contract, CLICK HERE. The initial summary is interesting, then it gets a little technical. Page 21 starts more of the plans.
The initial term of the agreement is from 2011 to 2015. There are additional costs to the city, as there should be. This year, and additional $208,000 to get set up. Some will be offset by increased revenue, but not all. Our city does not invest in its theatre nearly as much as our nearby competitors La Mirada and Cerritos, so we shouldn’t blink at what is actually a small amount. The investment will bring a better quality and number of performances to the Downey Theatre over time, serving the community. In addition, VenueTech will create a non-profit 501c3 that will support the Downey Theatre with the involvement of community leaders and arts advocates. It seeks to build up a fundraising and volunteer organization to support the theatre. VenueTech states that they have as part of their vision for the Theatre to learn about and involve the commmunity, supporting our current companies “in residence” such as the Downey Civic Light Opera, Downey Symphony, and the Downey School District.
If you are able to come out to the City Council meeting, 7:30 PM in at City Hall on Tuesday, please do.
We took part in a pre-opening training event at Porto’s Bakery in Downey this weekend. There is an album of pictures up on our facebook page.
Click here to view.
Porto’s Bakery Pre-Opening Event
The significance of Porto’s to the Downey arts scene is yet to be fully scene, but the potential is huge. This is a major, well-liked Southern California business that has taken a big step to make a home in what the city wants to recapture as a vibrant downtown scene. They worked extremely hard to design their building in Mid-Century style architecture, which is a hallmark of Downey’s roots and matches the style of many of our landmarks. The effect is stunning. Raul Porto will tell you that he was about to plug-and-play the same spanish style architecture of their building in Glendale, but then was convinced by the city to change his plans. He wasted about $150,000 going down the “easy” road, until he committed to mid-century and really worked at making his Downey location unique.
Hopefully more businesses will take notice of the quality of the new Porto’s location and will see how instantly successful it no doubt will be. BJ’s discovered how strong the Downey market is, and a central hub for many people in the area. The opening of the BJ’s in Downey was the biggest opening ever in the history of the company. At the same time, I hope they take notice of the care that Porto’s put into their architecture and design. In addition to a huge spacious restaurant, there is a fairly large outdoor area on the side that I hope can become an evening hang out, perhaps with music and art.
The Porto family has already become a mainstay here in the community. They’ve had a very busy booth at the Downey Farmer’s Market ever since their new Downey location was announced last year. You can see Betty Porto out there pretty much every week.
Welcome, Porto family, to Downey.
The Downey Civic Light Opera is currently running the popular 1920s era musical “No, No, Nanette” at the Downey Theatre. Support our local community theater– make sure you get out to see the show. Then come back here and comment about what you think.
Certainly a DCLO show is a special experience, especially because you are hosted by Marsha Moode herself, the Executive Producer and Director of the shows– she’s basically the one woman who does everything and keeps the organization running. She insists that she takes tickets at the door, and after the intermission she makes several announcements and introduces the second half of the show.
No, No, Nanette was first produced in 1925 based on a play called My Lady Friends that was popular in 1919. Familiar songs include “Tea for Two” and “I Want to be Happy.” There was a popular Broadway revival in 1971 that sealed the musical’s fate as a musical theatre favorite. There were films made both in 1930 and 1940 based on the musical.
It’s light and fun family entertainment, with a plot that leans toward the farcical. A semi-wealthy Bible salesman gets into trouble when it’s revealed that he has been giving away money to three beautiful young women (though he never laid a hand on them), all unbeknownst to his conservative wife and his niece and ward, Nanette. Nanette feels a bit stifled in her current lifestyle. Even though she’s been proposed to by the love of her life, Nanette insists that she must experience the world first, if she can ever get her aunt and uncle to be less strict. Mix it all up and we end up with everyone surprising everyone else as they converge on Atlantic City, where everything crashes together.
Check out the pictures, which are much more about the experience attending the theatre. The lobby, the “Be a Star” contest, programs, and intermission with Marsha.