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Actors' Gang Won’t Walk the Planks

By Olin Ericksen
staff Writer

August 23 -- In 2005, award-winning actor Tim Robbins -- a household name from such movies as The Shawshank Redemption -- was searching for a new home for his critically acclaimed players’ troupe, “The Actors' Gang.”

His address of choice -- the wooden planks of the financially struggling Santa Monica Pier, in a space that has been one of the most difficult for the City to lease: 250 Santa Monica Pier, an old wooden structure next to the carousel.

“They were quite enamored with the space,” said Miriam Mack, manager of the City’s Economic Development Division, who handled negotiations for the City with the actors' group.

But the courtship would be killed in the first act.

The short drama that unfolded illustrates how the City’s emphasis on the pier’s need for revenues upstaged the promise of rave reviews, some pier officials contend. It also shines a spotlight on how the City’s Byzantine bureaucracy and great expectations stopped the show before the curtain even lifted.

Several members of the Pier Restoration Corporation Board – who approve leasing on the historic structure – were shocked the City did not roll out a red carpet for a star of Robbins’ caliber, jeopardizing the chance of bringing a splash of culture to the pier.

“The cavalier way in which it was treated was extremely disturbing, as if Miriam Mack had no sense at all who Tim Robbins was, no sense who the Actors' Gang was, and that this was a coup for the pier,” said Board Chair Ellen Brennan.

For a while, it seemed like a match.

A children’s theater, workshops and a small food operation were envisioned for the perch above the Pacific that had seen two major entertainment venues -- The Ashgrove and The Arcadia -- come and go with little rent to show.

But in the end, Culver City would woo the critically acclaimed actors' troupe.

“Culver City was very aggressive,” Mack said. “I think that the deal was that the Culver City facility was a turn-key operation… and they were ready to go.”

Lured away by Culver City in early 2005, the Actors' Group nestled in the recently renovated Ivy Substation, a historical site dating back to 1907.

Though admittedly a great fit, according to Actors' Gang managing director Gregg Reiner, the door was not shut on a deal with Santa Monica.

While the idea of the pier hosting the main theater ensemble had set sail, there was still talk in July 2005 of a satellite operation coming to the pier location, Reiner said.

“We’re still looking for a second stage,” Reiner said.

After an informal wine and cheese event at the site, which for several years has been rented out for special events, Pier Board members encouraged Mack to pursue negotiations for the children’s theater.

However, after one meeting with Mack two weeks later, the deal fell through.

According to board members familiar with the negotiations, the theater group offered to pitch in $30,000 to install seating and lighting and improve the existing stage -- a figure Reiner doesn’t dispute.

However, Mack said additional improvements would be needed, including repairing the roof on the building and removing lead from the elevator shaft. The City, Mack said, could not foot the bill.

Instead, Mack suggested that Reiner consult a professional contractor.

“I suggested he go through and get a better appreciation for what might be needed,” she said. “That was the last time we met.”

Although both Mack and Reiner said moving to Culver City from Hollywood in the midst of negotiations hampered the deal, Reiner acknowledged there was more that the City could have done to sweeten the offer.

“I don’t want to burn bridges, though,” Reiner said, declining to elaborate.

According to Mack, it was a question of timing.

Because Santa Monica’s City Council had not approved pier leasing guidelines that had been in the works for three years, there was no money for the City to pick up the rehabilitation tab.

“We don’t have the funding that Culver City has through their redevelopment agency,” Mack said.

However, she acknowledged, a budget amendment could have brought the money to make the deal work. “It would have to have been a budget transfer approved by the council,” Mack said.

The space, she added, could only be offered on an interim basis, while the City approved pier-leasing guidelines, terms Reiner says the group had already agreed to.

Earlier this month, the council approved the new leasing guidelines and $100,000 in rehabilitation money for pier structures. (see story)

“It was disappointing that a high-profile figure, such as Robbins, could not come to Santa Monica,” Mack said.

However, some on the pier board are still angry about missing what they say was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity mishandled by Mack and the City.

“The board thought Robbins’ group coming to Santa Monica was a capital idea,” Brennan said. “We think bringing a culturally significant group, such as the Actors' Gang, gives depth and color to a pier that doesn’t have it now.

“There is this tension between keeping the pier funky and local and, well, we could be making more money,” she said. Mack, Brennan said, “comes from the belief that because the Santa Monica pier is a special place we should get special privileges.”

Mack says she is working to make the pier – which has been in the red – both profitable and a cultural destination.

“It’s always a balancing act,” she said. “What did or didn’t happen (with the Actors' Gang), there’s a bigger picture out there.

“Now that we have the new guidelines in there, it clearly spells out what we will be looking for at the space,” she said.

At the council meeting August 8, Council member Richard Bloom made an amendment to the proposed guidelines asking that the City seek bids from restaurants, in addition to the performance arts venues with a café the Pier Board prefers for the space.

A restaurant, it was estimated, could bring in as much as $120,000 in rent a year after significant rehabilitation to the site.

Meanwhile, there’s still a chance the curtain could rise for Robbins’ actors' troupe to grace a stage on the historic pier.

“While we would like to be closer to our home base here in Culver City, Santa Monica is on the Westside, and we are certainly open to talking to the City about the site,” Reiner said.

Mack promised to “personally call” Reiner, but noted that the City has just begun its competitive bidding process and the Actors' Gang and Tim Robbins would need to audition like everyone else.

For information on the Actors' Gang visit the troupe's web site.

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