Council Debates Future of Alex Theatre


On Tuesday evening, the members of the Glendale City Council and trustees of the Glendale Community College met for a joint session to highlight the partnership work of the college and the city and to discuss plans of mutual benefit and interest.

At its afternoon meeting, the council deliberated at length over the future of the city-owned historic Alex Theatre, ultimately voting unanimously to negotiate a five-year extension to its current agreement with Glendale Arts, the private non-profit organization that has run the theatre since 2008.

In 1992, the city used redevelopment funds to purchase the Alex Theatre with the intent of developing it as a community-based regional performing arts center to anchor downtown historic preservation and as an economic and development engine. Over time, the city ceded the management of the 1,450-seat operation, built in 1925, to Glendale Arts, setting a goal of economic self-sufficiency. In 2012, the theatre was closed for renovations that included expanding the backstage and dressing room areas.

According to Glendale economic development coordinator Tamar Sadd, “Over the past 27 years, the Alex has evolved from a community theatre to a regional player in the arts – and a rental house for some of TV’s biggest networks such as Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, NBC, and CBS.”

Since 2015, Sadd added, the theatre has operated on average more than four days per week and is expecting its best financial year in 2020, anticipating income of $2.48 million. While not fully self-sufficient, it is competitive with similarly sized community theatres owned by municipalities, such as San Diego’s Balboa Theatre and San Jose’s Fox California Theatre. In contrast, Riverside’s Fox Performing Arts Center is run for profit by Live Nation with the city guaranteeing $500,000 per year as well as covering utilities and building maintenance expenses.

Councilmember Frank Quintero recalled early council discussions about the theatre: “It’s been a jewel of this city. The subsidy has gone down over time.”

“These things never pencil out when it comes to the arts, when you’re trying to pencil out a budget,” Quintero added. “But it certainly pencils out for enhanced cultural life, it certainly pencils out for the mom and pop restaurants on Brand. A private company is not the solution. They’d have to cut something.”

“We are Glendale,” Glendale Arts CEO Elissa Glickman addressed the council, advocating a long-term arrangement. “We serve Porto’s pastries in our concession and hire GYA Verdugo Jobs Center workers. Who could have known when we entered a five-year agreement in 2015 that the minimum wage would double in five years? That tax laws would make it harder to raise money? That immigration laws would make it really hard for some of our promoters to get visas?”

The biggest costs, Glickman said, are labor costs. Regarding the employees of the Alex Theatre, she said that “they are the heart and soul of the brick and mortar and it’s simply prudent to invest in them. Our bathrooms are spotless; our audience service and stage departments are continuously complimented, from everyone from NBC to the Glendale Youth Orchestra.”

Glickman added that Glendale is on “the precipice of unprecedented investment in the arts” then asked the council to take “quick, decisive action” on a 10-year extension for her organization.

Representing the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation, Mike Hume asked the council to consider an even longer contract term, “ideally more than 40 years.”

“The biggest reason to re-up with Glendale Arts is they’ve developed a better handle on the community aspect,” said Randy Carter, current Glendale Arts board member and founder of the Alex Film Society. “Whether it’s an Armenian dance company or the Alex Film Society showing old movies, it’s not an $80 ticket. It’s part of the original community element, along with the expertise to administer it.”

Councilmember Vrej Agajanian insisted that the Alex “must become self-sufficient. We cannot continuously spend money. We’ve already spent a lot. Maybe recession is on the horizon.” He moved that the city extend the agreement for two years while developing a plan to end the need for any subsidy from the city.

“No one is talking about closing the Alex,” said Mayor Ara Najarian. “And no one is talking about throwing out Glendale Arts. The worst-case scenario is that they compete in an open RFP process in which they would, no doubt, be extremely competitive.”

He added the council’s obligation is to not enter into sole source contracts and to require vigorous competition. He noted that the agreement with Glendale Arts had never been subject to a competitive bid process. The mayor advocated for a three-year extension with specific goals.

“I want to see corporate development, foundational work. I will not support five years on a final vote unless I see a plan for corporate and institutional involvement, a plan for naming rights,” said Najarian. “I’m not saying I want to see the money; I want to see a plan.”

The council voted unanimously to begin negotiations with Glendale Arts for a five-year extension to the existing agreement. A final deal must be approved by the council.