February 25, 2020

The Wallis: Now that it’s built, will they come?

A giant risk is being taken with The Wallis — as the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills is being called, and for which the 1934 Beverly Hills Post Office on Santa Monica Boulevard, between Canon and Crescent drives, has been rehabbed to pristine beauty. The former post office building holds a theater school, the 150-seat Lovelace Studio Theater — a multifunction black box theater — and administrative offices, and it is now attached to architect Zoltan Pali’s new, cube-like building, which houses the state-of-the-art 500-seat Bram Goldsmith Theater, with lots of underground parking linked to City Hall.

So here’s the risk: Now that it’s built, will anyone come?

In recent years, Beverly Hills lost the midsized Canon Theatre, nearby Century City lost the grand Shubert Theatre, and eminent bookstores such as Dutton’s, Borders and Rizzoli all have bit the dust. As one literary figure of my acquaintance put it: “In Beverly Hills, shopping, fashion and eating at good restaurants has come to pass for culture.” In creating The Wallis, a great deal of money, time, effort, hope and goodwill has been wagered around a few daunting questions: Can a building — and what goes on inside it — change a neighborhood, a city, the spirit of a place? And will audiences be willing to pay for the entertainment and programming that is being booked and planned for this magnificent newly configured space?

The answer, there is reason to believe, is a resounding yes.

I can say this because to ensure success, The Wallis is relying on what, traditionally, has brought success to Hollywood: Hungarians.

That’s right. Hungarians. You may think I’ve been hitting the Tokay too strongly or am hallucinating due to a poppy seed strudel overdose, but no (my tolerance on both counts is exceedingly high). As every schoolchild knows (at least in Budapest), the apocryphal story is that there used to be a sign on a Hollywood movie studio wall that read: “It’s not enough to be Hungarian; you have to have talent.”

Consider the following: The architect of the renovation and the newly built theater structure is Zoltan Pali, an American-born Los Angeles-raised son of Hungarian refugees, and a partner of the noted architectural firm Studio Pali Fekete (Judi Fekete being his Hungarian-born partner and wife). And what is the first play to launch The Wallis? “Parfumerie” — by none other than Magyar great Miklos Laszlo — which was adapted into the films “Shop Around the Corner” (with Jimmy Stewart directed by Ernst Lubitsch), “In the Good Old Summertime” (with Judy Garland) and “You’ve Got Mail” (starring Tom Hanks, directed by Nora Ephron); and as the musical “She Loves Me.” So Hungarian insurance abounds. But is that enough?

First, a little history: The Beverly Hills Post Office was built as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project on the site of a former Pacific Electric Railroad station in 1933. The story goes that Will Rogers wrote a letter to President Roosevelt saying the city had been promised a post office — and upon a commission’s investigation, the funds were awarded for it to be built. Its architect was Ralph Flewelling, and Alison & Alison, an architectural firm known for UCLA’s Royce Hall and Wilshire Boulevard Temple. The WPA also provided funding for California artist Charles Kassler to paint several murals about the everyday folk who would use the post office, as well as some frescoes on the history and future of the U.S. Postal Service. The building opened in 1934 and served Beverly Hills over the decades as the city’s fame grew as a destination for tourists and locals alike. In 1998, the post office was decommissioned, however, and a group of Beverly Hills residents rallied to save the building.

In 2000, the City of Beverly Hills awarded the lease for the post office property to what was then called the Beverly Hills Cultural Center Foundation, at which point they hired Lou Moore, who had worked six years at the Geffen Playhouse, as managing director. Over the next decade, a series of RFPs — request for proposals — went out, architects submitted plans, architects were chosen, architectural plans were considered and rejected, other architects applied, until they decided to get the Hungarians on board.

As Moore told me recently, “At the end of the day, the board [and] the Annenberg Foundation hung in there. We were not going to give up because this was an extraordinary historic building that deserved to be brought back to life for the community.” Moore said the project got support from a wide group of donors. “A lot of the people gave gifts in honor of restoring this landmark, or [because of] how important the arts are to their life, [or because] they wanted more accessible arts.”

It was Pali, who as a child had often visited the post office, who proposed restoring the post office as well as building a separate structure for the new theater. The post office now serves as the gateway to the complex. With its floors buffed to a high sheen and the murals restored, it is a jewel of a building, perhaps more glorious than it was upon its official dedication in 1936.

It was also Pali who, upon considering the original use of the site where the new theater would reside, considered the following: What if all the envelopes, once opened, with all their contracts, legal notices, love letters, all were to come back to the post office? And so the outside of the new theater is made of cement panels whose forms suggest envelopes with their corners ripped open. However, Pali was careful not to let the new building overshadow the old — he sunk his design so its roof would be lower than the post office’s.

“I had come up with the idea early on that I was not going to copy the architectural elements of the old building. We have do something that is of today but is a conversation with the old building, a young guy and an old guy, Miles Davis and Branford Marsalis — they could have a conversation, they could get on stage and play a duet together. I saw it as a duet.”

Moore’s vision for The Wallis is that it will become a vital town square. “You might come here and see an exhibition during the day, a show at night, you might have a child in our theater school and sit at our cafe, and you could do that all with parking once.”

The programming is equally eclectic, with the Martha Graham Dance Company, aforementioned Hungarian chestnut “Parfumerie,” as well as Frederica von Stade, Noel Coward plays and programs, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, the Jessica Lang Dance company and “Baseball Swing,” a musical event presented in conjunction with the national Baseball Hall of Fame.

“We’re presenting theater, dance, music and professional children’s theater,” Moore said, adding: “Our programming is truly for all ages. … We are bringing extraordinary companies from around the world here in Beverly Hills.”

All that, and Hungarians, too.

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