GUEST COMMENTARY - At this point in time, it seems futile to discuss the frustrating conundrum represented by the Madrid Theatre on Sherman Way in the heart of Canoga Park, and the glaring eyesore it has manifested rather than becoming the community center and performing arts asset it was once conceived to be. It is beating a dead horse redundantly to state that the Madrid Theater could still move forward in accordance with its original conception and design as a community-based performing arts facility and to establish the vision of a cooperative arts alliance that would be of incalculable benefit to the cultural life of the region. But for that to happen it would need to be permanently and absolutely separated once and for all from the stranglehold that the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department has exerted over it practically since its opening.
We have witnessed first-hand the failures and missteps of leadership and governance that in the Third Council District have led to the current situation we now face, with the Madrid Theatre dead in the water and looking for all the world like nothing more than an empty blight on the community. But some of us remain steadfast in believing that given the right kind of leadership, the kind it originally had before the Cultural Affairs Department usurped control over it, the Madrid Theatre could yet emerge as the cultural arts asset it was intended to be. The question arises: What exactly was the Madrid Theatre intended to be? Whose crazy idea was it to convert the Pussycat Theater into a venue for symphony concerts? Who sat with Mayor Richard Riordan (can you remember that far back?) after the Northridge earthquake to propose the idea to renovate a derelict, red-tagged property in the center of a dying retail district and convert it into an auditorium for the performing arts and community events? Who was it that sat with the architect to design the new building that “Like a Phoenix would rise from the ashes of destruction?”
The answer unequivocally is the San Fernando Valley Symphony Orchestra and its music director James Domine, and all these years later, the SFVSO still remains as the organization best positioned to rectify the mistakes of the past, to avoid the incompetence, ineptitude and arrogance that have characterized the mismanagement of the Madrid for many years past and lead a Renaissance of music and arts in the west San Fernando Valley. It is a good bet that if the Madrid Theatre was renamed Symphony Hall and management of the facility turned over to the people who know what it is for and how to use it, the plague of mismanagement that continues to haunt the Madrid Theatre would cease to exist and we would witness a flowering of creativity never seen before in the San Fernando Valley. Maybe that’s what the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department is afraid of.
What went wrong? Why is the hollowed-out shell of the Madrid Theatre sitting like a beached whale in the middle of a busy traffic corridor with its damaged marquee advertising long-defunct shows that no one attended? The answer is quite simple, and not surprising to anyone who has had to deal with city bureaucracy. The Cultural Affairs Department, installed by operatives of Laura Chick’s 3rd District staff simply never understood and never wanted to understand the West Valley community in which the theater is located. The succession of department employees at the theater never attempted to make a pretense of working with the community it purported to serve but opted rather to run a series of productions imported from the failed theater row downtown. Suffice it to say these shows were geared to a very different audience whose demographic was ill-suited, not to say doomed to failure in the context of Canoga Park and the surrounding area. Additionally, and at risk of piling on, most city employees, who are almost without exception show-biz wannabees and mostly not local residents regarded working at the Madrid as a kind of career-quenching exile, vocational banishment to the Gulag prison of the wildly remote extreme reaches of the western San Fernando Valley. Without exception they clamored to move back as soon as possible to the Westside, or better, Hollywood where the mythology of a career in “the industry” can be affected more convincingly.
It has been such a long time now that the Madrid Theatre has been forgotten, abandoned to the winds of misfortune that any real opportunity to reestablish and revitalize its mission as it was originally conceived, to form the collaborative relationships between performing arts organizations that must form the basis of a successful program moving forward, and to face the challenges and solve the problems that lie ahead seem remote and at best very unlikely. And yet not to do so will doom the theater once and for all to obscurity, neglect and inevitable failure.
To lead the Madrid Theatre out of the shadows and into the light, the facility needs to be turned over wholly, entirely, and immediately to the SFVSO. The symphony has succeeded in every area that the Cultural Affairs department has failed. Having given many hundreds of performances, the orchestra and its affiliate groups are extremely versatile and flexible having worked in a wide variety of venues in all parts of the city and beyond, each presenting its own unique set of circumstances and conditions. The SFVSO is very experienced in all the elements of theater management on both the business and production sides, having produced, directed, managed and supervised many shows including concerts, plays, ballet and musical theater performances. The Madrid Theatre needs management that knows how a theater works from the initial planning phases through the final performance, including budget development, contract negotiation and administration, rehearsal and performance scheduling, the technical aspects of set, lighting and sound design, costumes, virtually all the factors that combine to create successful performances and viable theatrical operations. The fact that the SFVSO is still in the performing arts business after decades of fierce competition for funding, savage criticism from rivals, and many detractors (including the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department) while the Madrid Theatre sits a forlorn, empty shell, speaks for itself.
If the Madrid Theater is to ever realize its full potential as a viable cultural resource, it must rely on the leadership of those who possess the vision that enables them to truly understand its mission and purpose. As a progenitor of that vision, the first advocate for and initial organizer of support for the concept of the Madrid Theater as the cultural hub of the west San Fernando Valley, the SFVSO is ideally suited for and uniquely qualified to implement the actions necessary to see the realization of our dreams and aspirations finally come to fruition.
(Mihran Kalaydjian is a consummate leading member of the community and a devoted civic engagement activist for education spearheading numerous academic initiatives in local political forums.)