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Legendary Pasadena Playhouse Closes

GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Since it was built 86 years ago, the legendary Pasadena Playhouse has become a launching pad for stars. People like Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Harry Dean Stanton and Angela Bassett. But this weekend, the southern California institution closes the curtains for good. The theater's operators carry an unwieldy debt. And with a sagging economy, fewer people have been buying tickets.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has the story.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The courtyard of the Pasadena Playhouse was fuller than it has been for a good while as theatergoers stopped at will call.

Ms. CARMEN RICHARDS(ph): I need two tickets for Carmen Richards.

BATES: Richards was visiting from Washington State and her host was a longtime playhouse patron.

Ms. PEGGY McCAIN(ph): My name is Peggy McCain and I have come to this theater for probably 30 years and have enjoyed it.

BATES: McCain says the playhouse is a uniquely intimate venue and she wanted to show Richards what she's about to miss.

Ms. McCAIN: I had heard through the grapevine that possible closing and then she came to town and we wanted to at least be able to come and see it one more time.

(Soundbite of musical, "Camelot")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Camelot, Camelot, I know it gives a person pause. But in Camelot, Camelot, those are the legal laws...

BATES: It's ironically appropriate that the last show would be a musical about a mythical kingdom that began in great hope then crashed under the weight of ugly reality.

Earlier in the day, Sheldon Epps and Stephen Eich, the theater's artistic and executive directors, gave me a little history lesson as we sat in the playhouse's main auditorium. Epps says there was also an acting school here in the early days.

Mr. SHELDON EPPS (Artistic and Executive Director, Pasadena Playhouse): The studios used to actually send people here to learn how to act and use their voices and all of that.

BATES: Eich and Epps roll out the many household names who worked on this stage.

Mr. STEPHEN EICH (Artistic and Executive Director, Pasadena Playhouse): Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Eve Arden, (unintelligible)...

Mr. EPPS: Robert Preston, Robert Young, Sally Struthers - a lot of very, very well-known people.

BATES: The Spanish revival-style playhouse was built in 1924 and over the years has become a beloved community touchstone. But the grim economy has crippled many of Pasadena's cultural institutions. And now, the playhouse becomes yet another theater among many in the U.S. that can't afford to remain open.

Epps says one of the scariest things about the playhouse's closure is what that says about the nation's overall cultural health.

Mr. EPPS: If this can happen to this theater, to Pasadena Playhouse, then the arts in America are in big trouble.

(Soundbite of song, "C'est Moi")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) C'est moi. So admir'bly fit. A French Prometheus unbound.

BATES: Now, what the Pasadena Playhouse needs is a financial white knight, a Lancelot who can swiftly rise to its rescue.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) To serve at the Table Round. The soul of a knight should be a thing remarkable. His heart and his mind as pure as morning dew. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.