L. A.'s Wilshire Theater: the new kid in town

If there was ever a legitimate theater tailor-made for Hollywood, it must be the Wilshire. Its prime location would make an entrepreneur weep for joy: near more than a dozen good restaurants and accessible to practically every part of widespread Los Angeles, thanks to freeways and highways.

It seats nearly 2,000 while still maintaining that sense of intimacy so vital to the theater experience. And, thanks to the foresight of its owners and manager, the Wilshire has the added capacity of extra cable runs, extra power positions, and extra hanging positions for lighting, making it the best-equipped theater for film and television in America. Hence its affinity with Hollywood, where the major industry is television and movies.

The Wilshire even brings a smile to the conservationist's face. In its previous existence it was the Fox Movie House, built in 1929, a mini-landmark in this city of chicken wire, stucco, and wrecking crews. Saved from demolition in 1978, the theater was reborn last year as the Wilshire, after being bought for $ 1 million and renovated for $1.8 million by owners Thomas Stagen, of Stagen Realty, and RKO Pictures Inc. The result -- a testament to the power of recycling, and a vision of loveliness.

Behind every vision is a visionary, in this case the managing director of the Wilshire Theater, David Banks. If there is such a thing as a Pied Piper of theater in L.A., that man is Banks. He has spent the past 20 years working in and, more important, form theater in Los Angeles, accumulating in his wake a trail of improved theater houses and loyal followers, many of whom now work for Banks at the Wilshire. Starting as a stagehand at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1959, he moved on to become production manager at the Greek Theater, Huntington Hartford, and the Aquarius theater, and even turned the Roxy, a music club in West Hollywood, into a legitimate theater for the stage production of "The Rocky Horror Show."

Banks also has a background in construction and house renovation, a knowledge that came in handy during the reconstruction of the Wilshire and that was earlier put to good use when he (literally) put together the Oxford theater some 12 years ago. So when called upon to manage the Wilshire, Banks understood the nuts and bolts, or rather bricks and mortar, of such an operation.

"The theater, the live experience," Banks explained, "is something that demands to be treated a certain way. I put together a team of people at the Wilshire that feel the same way about theater as I do. Some of them are people I've worked with for 10 and 15 years. That was as much fun as the actual physical rebuilding of the theater -- putting together a team that really makes it work, because they set the attitude.

"People go out to the theater today and it's a hundred bucks a night for a couple by the time you've bought the tickets, had dinner, paid for parking, and gotten a sitter for the kids. Our salaries are paid by those folks, and the better we take care of them, the better off we'll all be. I want to make the theatergoer's experience as uncomplicated and happy as I can. The staff really picked up on that. We've gotten letters about how nicely people are treated by our ushers, the ticket office, the whole staff. It all counts."

Banks has a special feeling about people who work in the theater, both on and back stage. "The wonderful thing about people in the theater is when they're turned on to something they really do it. It's rarely money that motivates them. It's the project, either a show or the concept of running a theater. Everyone involved is so close to the creative part of it, the stagehands, the ushers, the lighting crew, they're all part of it. Because it's live."

This reasoning explains why a life in the theater is a conscious choice for Banks, over a similar production job in television or films.

"What I love about theater," he says, "is the actual contact with the process. You lose that in TV and film, you become removed. I enjoy being involved in so many aspects of production. In film and television, it's so departmentalized, it's so rigid, unless you're a producer with a lot of money and can demand that control. In theater you have that control. And it's instant gratification -- you hear the applause every night."

The first production at the Wilshire was "The Oldest Living Graduate," starring Henry Fonda, which was first aired as a special on NBC. Among the shows that followed were "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" with Lucy Arnaz and Laurence Luckinbill alternating the roles of patient and doctor; "Beatlemania"; and "Anything Goes," starring Ginger Rogers and Sid Caesar. In between, three television specials have been taped at the theater.

How does the Wilshire fit into the already established theater scene in Los Angeles? "Only time will tell how the Wilshire will stack up," Banks says. "Right now we're still the new kid in town.

"The ideal would be to put on six shows a year, with a six-week run, tape the seventh week, and have the eighth week for a turnaround to mount the next show. Then sell the taped show to television, cable, or cassette. You could get practically any actor you wanted if you could guarantee him a part of the TV sale, because that way he or she would have a residual for life. All the actors live out here anyway, and most of them want to do theater. The cable access makes it financially viable."

Banks is a master of detail, from choosing the right logo for the theater -- a palm tree -- to making a pageant of opening night. "We concentrate on making our openings an event; we pay attention to the theatrical part of the evening, besides what's on stage." Invitations even encourage appropriate dress, such as "cruise attire" for the opening of "Anything Goes."

Banks brings new meaning to the overused phrase "upward mobility." As he moves up in his career, he also takes the quality of theater in L.A. up with him.

"I like making people feel special," he says. "It's included in the price they pay when they buy the ticket. And if you make them feel special, they treat the theater as if it were special, too."

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