After 50 Years, Stars Are Still Born At L.A.'s Legendary Coronet Theatre

With fresh renovations, the stage bustles with innovative drama projects

The Coronet Theatre, its Art Deco faade newly painted, is bathed in a glow of klieg lights. Limos pull up, red-jacket valets open the door, and Charlton Heston, Gena Rowlands, George Segal, Christian Slater, and Carol Burnett are among the first to arrive.

Passersby may think all the hubbub is announcing a film premiere, but the stage-loving audience knows it's a celebration of 50 years of theatrical excellence.

In a town where films are king, the Coronet is a stately queen that has stood the test of time. Now, thanks to its enthusiastic new owners, Deborah Del Prete and Gigi Pritzker, it faces an even more-promising future. In October 1996, the young owners under their Dee Gee Entertainment banner paid $1.7 million for the 1-1/2-block complex, then another $2 million in renovations.

On its stage have been some of L.A.'s best theatrical moments. In 1947, the newly constructed theater opened with the world premire of Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo," starring Charles Laughton and produced by John Houseman.

Today, Heston remembers being at the debut and hoping one day to perform on that stage. Heston, joined by Burnett, got his wish earlier this year, performing "Love Letters" for a fund-raiser at the Coronet.

In 50 years, the Coronet has presented 300 plays from such authors as David Mamet, Bernie Richardson, John Guare, and Ray Bradbury. Earlier this decade, George C. Scott, Noah Wyle ("ER"), and Glenn Close appeared on its stage.

Then, and now, the Coronet houses more than a theater. Surrounding the patio is a two-story building of rehearsal halls, where Betty Grable practiced a new dance routine; Rod Steiger conducted acting lessons; Cesar Romero mastered his fencing technique; Richard Chamberlain learned to tap dance; and Rodgers & Hammerstein had their West Coast offices.

Today, Dee Gee Entertainment, which produces films for the big and small screens, has moved its offices into the facility and is busy casting its new movie, "Ricochet River." David Schwimmer has time off from "Friends" to scope out the Coronet for future productions of his Looking Glass Theatre Group in Chicago.

A stream of young actors and writers come to the Coronet for readings and auditions. Currently on stage is the Broadway hit "Sylvia," starring Stephanie Zimbalist and Charles Kimbrough, who plays anchor Jim Dial in "Murphy Brown." And the Playwrights' Kitchen Ensemble, a nonprofit play discovery and reading series, now has the theater as its permanent home.

"The Kitchen Ensemble is really how Dee Gee got involved," Ms. Pritzker says. "Three years ago we joined others in underwriting their Monday Night Play Reading Events. The idea was to have actors do read-throughs of new playwrights' work."

They read 48 new plays by American playwrights each year and have won the support of actors such as Dennis Franz, Ed Harris, John Goodman, Peter Falk, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Charles Durning.

Pritzker continues, "On the Kitchen Ensemble's board are Joe Cacaci, Dan Lauria, and Ted Weiant.... When Cacaci told me they really needed a permanent base for their group, instead of floating from theater to little theater, we started looking around."

Petrie Gellis Robie, whose mother had built the Coronet, was thinking of selling. Once she met the two women - both in their early 30s - who wanted to buy it, and was assured her mother's legacy would be continued, she knew she had met the right buyers in Dee Gee.

Ms. Del Prete, based in Los Angeles, has a background as an independent producer/director, and Pritzker, in Chicago, has an acclaimed track record as a documentarian. "Dee Gee" is coined from their first names.

"We worked together, became friends, and found we had the same values and dreams," Del Prete says. "Our first movie was filmed in Pittsburgh in the middle of winter. We froze, but we brought it in on time and on budget."

Ms. Robie adds, "My mother, Frieda Berkoff Gellis, loved this theater. I felt she would have liked the idea of two female entrepreneurs taking over the reins."

Frieda Berkoff was no novice to show business. The Berkoff Family from Odessa, Russia, toured Europe performing ballet routines, songs, carnival feats, and gypsy dances.

When they came to the United States, they joined the vaudeville circuit alongside Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, and Milton Berle. When the youngest daughter, Frieda, became more affluent, she commissioned an architect to build the Coronet on La Cienega Boulevard, between Hollywood and Beverly Hills.

Of Hollywood, Pritzker says, "We know this is a film town, but there is so much talent here [and people] who love the stage that we feel this theater can have a healthy life."

The partners say they have a dream, or as Pritzker says, "a wish list. Besides the main stage, we'd like to build a second theater, a 99-seater, where developing new talent could learn and be seen. We'd also love to open the Kitchen Restaurant ... and fill rehearsal rooms with film, video, and stage companies.

"We'd like the Coronet buzzing with the energy of young talent - watching their dreams be fulfilled would be the best reward."

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