It was with a different sort of fanfare that the Alex Theatre celebrated its 95th birthday this year.
There was no party, per se, no gala or soiree complete with the latest in ballroom fashion, trays of wine or special performances in the historic theater. In fact, since March, there’s been little-to-no action in one of the Jewel City’s greatest, well, jewels in its collection.
Save, of course, for the virtual telethon that served as the marathon birthday party for the venue, where its operating body served up $100,000 in donations to help the landmark soldier through the trials and tribulations of the coronavirus pandemic. While historic theaters throughout the nation, including elsewhere in Los Angeles County, face an uncertain future, the venerable Alex is already planning its centennial birthday five years ahead of schedule.
“Since COVID,” explained Elissa Glickman, executive director of Glendale Arts and, therefore, the Alex Theatre, “obviously we haven’t been able to do live performances and our effort has been focused on, how do we maintain our staff, maintain our 95-year-old building and how do we remain relevant?”
On top of the six-figure fundraiser from the birthday telethon, Glendale Arts has continued to otherwise seek prominent donations and funding. Federal coronavirus assistance and the Small Business Administration provided early loans and grants to help keep staff paid. In terms of relevance, the organization has endeavored to support its artists by launching an artist assistance program.
“We significantly ramped up our fundraising efforts,” Glickman said.
These efforts position Glendale Arts with the tools that will be necessary if they want to successfully pivot the Alex Theatre’s operations in the post-COVID era.
Walking through the surprisingly spacious interior of the Alex feels a little frozen in time right now.
It is utterly silent save for the occasional janitor or perhaps a courier dropping off mail. Not a speck of dust seems to lie anywhere, and nearly every piece of furniture not bolted down seems put away or shelved.
Strange for a performance venue accustomed to having nearly two-thirds of its year booked.
“At the height of our bookings, we were close to doing 200-225 days a year,” Glickman said. “It’s a pretty hefty schedule. Our budget from 2012-19 grew from $1.7 million to $2.4 million. To accommodate the types of bookings that we were getting, we had to expand our staff. We’d gone from 10 full-time employees to, pre-COVID, 18 full-time employees, and we had more than 50 part-time employees, many of whom live in Glendale and are heavy contributors to the local economy.”
In spite of the financial assistance, all of those part-time employees have had to go, as have half of the full-timers.
“We don’t know how long this is going to last,” Glickman said. “We don’t see a pathway to additional federal assistance right now. We’re doing our part. We’ve been told that for purposes of public health that we need to remain closed, so we’re doing that, but we’re doing that at significant cost to the organization and our people.”
For now, March 8 serves as a bit of a dubious date as being the theater’s last performance — the Glendale Youth Orchestra’s spring concert — before Gov. Gavin Newsom pulled the plug on gatherings of 250 or more a few days later.
By March 16, staffers began working at home; the Taste Walk, which is Glendale Arts’ biggest fundraiser, was canceled in April, as was the popular Open Arts and Music Festival, which last year brought 15,000 attendees. Around then, the famed marquee began billing an “event” of sorts: the Day of Giving on May 6, which invited donations to support the organization. The virtual telethon, Alex95, also was promoted.
“It was spectacular,” said Nina Crowe, the managing director in charge of fundraising and special events, on the Alex95. “It was really cool because part of what we did was connect with artists, promotors, clients and donors in a really different way. We asked them to participate with a monetary donation, of course, but we also asked them to make a testimonial about the Alex Theatre for the other donors. It was very personal and a totally new experience for us.”
This message board of sorts also opened another window of opportunity, through which the Alex was able to converse with the community.
“Stay safe & take care of each other,” it read in all-caps one day. “We can’t wait to see you all for the next act…after this intermission.”
“We’re fulfilling our role to uplift the community and our audiences in new and different ways, which we recognized we had to do early on,” explained Maria Sahakian, the managing director who handles marketing, booking and the marquee messaging. “It really is intended to bring everyone together spiritually while we’re unable to welcome our audiences in person. It’s a way of showcasing the Alex as a center of this community.”
Messages have varied for the occasion — for example, it bore a get-out-the-vote message earlier this month. When Azerbaijan kicked off military offensives to reassert its control of the Armenian-populated breakaway state of Artsakh, the theater bore words of support for the city’s vibrant Armenian community.
In June — when protests and demonstrations filled the nation’s streets, demanding justice reform after the death of George Floyd — Sahakian placed a Maya Angelou quote on the façade: “Hate. It has caused a lot of problems in the world, but it has not solved one yet.”
Appropriately, the march for Black Lives Matter through downtown Glendale passed by the Alex that day.
“I was struck by that particular quote,” Sahakian said. “It spoke so perfectly to the different emotions and viewpoints that were permeating our nation at that time and it served as an appropriate backdrop for the march as well.”
Glickman said she believed that the marquee has become “the voice of the community” and said the efforts have garnered the organization national attention.
“It’s important not just for our own sake,” she added. “It’s important that the largest arts organization in the community uses its platform to be there for the community. When we can’t produce art and give art to the people, we have to somehow make sure the Alex is relevant and purposeful and that, when people look at it, it inspires something and makes them think. We’re in a unique position to be able to do that.”
Loans trickled in during May and June, allowing the Alex to bring some staff back on-site for eight weeks while they trained in coronavirus-specific safety, performed some maintenance, planned for future fundraising and handled the wave of cancellations, refunds and exchanges.
In spite of the silence, standing on the stage before the 1,411-seat auditorium prompts one to feel the history of the venue, almost like an ethereal energy coursing through you.
“One of the things that I love about this space is how small 1,400 seats can feel,” Glickman observed. “It can feel so intimate to do concerts, dances and live music here.”
The Alex’s very first audiences enjoyed vaudeville shows on that stage. Through the 1950s, it also played the role of preview house for Hollywood productions — the very first film screened there was 1930s “Lightnin’” starring Will Rogers and Louise Dresser. A 1940 fire paved way for the addition of the signature marquee and 100-foot-tall art deco neon tower to create the more defined entrance. This operational run of the theater continued through 1991, when it closed doors after its final theatrical showing, “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
Glendale’s redevelopment agency purchased the site a year later and sunk $6.5 million into renovating it and relaunching it as the performing arts venue it is today. Glendale Arts was formed as the management agency in 2008. After 11 months of work, 6,600 square feet of space was added behind the stage and, mostly, underneath the building, creating extensive dressing room and storage space to accommodate contemporary uses as a performance stage and filming location.
The theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Resident companies at the venue include the Alex Film Society, the Glendale Youth Orchestra, the Los Angeles Ballet, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, the Musical Theatre Guild and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
All of this is to say, Glendale Arts may be a nonprofit, but it’s still a business — show business at that.
“Just because we’re a nonprofit doesn’t mean we’re not a business, so throughout this crisis, we’ve looked at ways we’ve had to reduce,” Glickman said. “The reality is, even if the state says we can open tomorrow, audiences may not be comfortable coming back to a live performance. The crew members of a production or ballet may not be ready to come back to that. It’s going to take time for people to ramp up their schedules.”
Part of the more recent investment, therefore, plays into the new virtual world of the COVID era: live streaming.
“We’ve really had to pivot and look at where the industry was going because of the pandemic,” Glickman said. “Live streaming was really the first place where we thought we could find investment. Now, by February, we will have the ability to do virtual concerts and events. If you look at historic theaters across the country, many of them have just remained shuttered or closed during this entire experience, and we’ve fought really hard not to be in that position.”
Also recently, filming production has returned to the theater, with crews on-site for a Netflix-produced series this past month.
“We have leveraged all of the relationships that we’ve built over the decade with production managers, and we’re starting to see production come back,” Glickman added. “We’ve been able to do that because we’ve spent our time planning for a reopening, so that the minute it was said we could do productions, or the minute the state says we can do live performances, we’re prepared for that.”
Coming up soon, on Tuesday — Giving Tuesday, as it’s called — the Alex will “host” the second annual “Laugh It Off” Comedy Night, bringing Matt Kirshen, Ty Barnett, Kristin Key and Alonzo Badden before the cameras.
Glendale Arts hopes to raise at least $10,000 from ticket sales for this event, which follows the inaugural comedy show hosted at Greyhound Bar and Grill last year.
“We had four comics on a little stage we’d built in their bar and had a nice fundraiser,” Crowe recalled. “It’s really a different type of event this year. There’s a lot of planning that goes into this programming and there’s obviously a number of safety protocols we have to follow.
“Moving forward,” she added, “that’s what the future is for us, live streaming.”
Sahakian said social media has helped Glendale Arts continue to bring the magic of the Alex to its audience of fans — not just in highlighting the latest marquee message, or by promoting the latest fundraiser, either.
“Our team continues to work hard every day, and we’re able to showcase what is happening behind the scenes at this time through social media,” she added. “Early on, we were regularly sharing content from our past programming. We were happy that it was helpful to people early on in the pandemic. Social media has definitely been key to remaining engaged with the community and audience, and in doing our part to uplift them during this time.”
All involved agreed that there was a silver lining to the forced pivot to virtual performances, in that they’ll be able to continue using the live stream option to expand the Alex’s audience even when all 1,411 of those seats are filled.
“We recognize that the post-COVID world is going to look very different,” Sahakian said, “so part of what we’re working on is an overhaul of operations to meet that necessity.”
Added Glickman: “Everyone is suffering, and one of the things that I keep telling my staff is, when we emerge from COVID, what kind of world are we expecting to be in, and will we be able to curate that reality?”
‘Laugh It Off’ Comedy Night on Dec. 1
Glendale Arts is giving people a reason to laugh with its second annual “Laugh It Off” Comedy Night, which will be streamed live from the historic Alex Theatre on Giving Tuesday, Dec. 1, at 7 p.m. The nonprofit management company of the Alex Theatre has partnered with the Greater Downtown Glendale Association and Comic Cure for this virtual event benefiting the Alex.
“Laugh It Off” is an invitation to counter the current difficulties and challenges surrounding us by indulging in the healing act of laughter while raising funds for the iconic Glendale landmark.
Following a successful inaugural event on Giving Tuesday 2019, Glendale Arts’ comedy night is returning with a lineup of comics who share a special connection to the 95-year-old theater — they all performed on the Alex stage as contestants on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” television show. Matt Kirshen, Ty Barnett, Kristin Key and headliner Alonzo Bodden, winner of the show’s Season 3, will deliver humor to the audience right at home to kick off the holiday season of giving.
On his relationship with the Alex Theatre, Bodden said “it’s got to be coming up to close to 17 years. I remember coming here for benefits I’ve done. Of course, this is where I did ‘Last Comic Standing’; that has to be my greatest memory.”
Speaking to the audience during the historic theater’s 95th birthday celebration in September, he further reflected, “It has been such a great run — from the beginning of my career to right up until now. It’s just been a year and a half since I taped a comedy special here, called ‘Heavy Lightweight.’ I have a great history with this theater.”
Commenting on the event’s goals, Glendale Arts CEO Elissa Glickman said: “During this period of extreme uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all understandably concerned. However, these times also serve as a fitting reminder to continue to uplift and empower those in our communities. We understand the financial strain many are currently facing, so this year we have decided to maintain our goal from last year’s Comedy Night — to raise $10,000. These funds will contribute to the financial stability of Glendale Arts and create future opportunities to present work that’s meaningful to the community. By maintaining the same goal, we are hopeful that our community still has an opportunity to be charitable this Giving Tuesday, all while sharing a laugh with us.”
Information and tickets are available at AlexTheatre.org and directly on Eventbrite at eventbrite.com/e/laugh-it-off-comedy-night-tickets-125066975691. Tickets start at $20.21 for individuals, with additional options, including household, VIP and “Pay What You Can.” Each ticket purchase grants viewers access to the livestream, allowing them to laugh safely from the comfort of their homes while supporting a community institution.
The Alex Theatre is a world-class performing arts and entertainment center founded in 1925 as a Vaudeville house and movie palace. Today the 95-year-old cultural institution houses six resident companies — the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Ballet, Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Musical Theatre Guild, Glendale Youth Orchestra and Alex Film Society — and hosts a multitude of performances, shoots and special events annually. A historic landmark, the Alex Theatre is further recognized for its iconic marquee and 100-foot-tall neon tower, which overlooks downtown Glendale. The Alex Theatre is owned by the city of Glendale and operated by Glendale Arts, a nonprofit organization.