O'Connor receives lifetime achievement award

That grande dame edifice of North Hollywood, the El Portal Theater, could very well be the subject of Stephen Sondheim’s ode to survival, “I’m Still Here.”

On Saturday, the El Portal, which opened in 1926 as the flagship silent movie palace of the San Fernando Valley, was the site of a gala dedication ceremony, “Celebrate the Journey,” which also honored the lifetime achievement of actor-dancer Donald O’Connor and the restoration efforts of Robert E. Caine, president of the board of directors of the newly renamed El Portal Center for the Arts.

In a loosely structured program that featured actors Carol Channing, Carol Lawrence, Edie Adams, Joseph Campanella and Kathleen Freeman, comedian Rip Taylor, producer-director Gary Marshall, film composer Joel Hirshorn, El Portal artistic director Jeremiah Morris and Congressman Howard L. Berman, the history of the El Portal was related in speech, skit and song, punctuated by the recurring appearances of a Jack Benny look-alike.

Longtime L.A. performer Freeman recalled the changing fortunes of the El Portal, which housed silents, talkies, vaudeville, burlesque, foreign films and rock concerts before falling into disrepair and closure. The entertainment highlight of the evening was provided by the trio of Campanella, Taylor and Adams, who re-created a venerable “Here come the judge” burlesque routine with Taylor giving it his lascivious best as the judge. Later, the irreverent Garry Marshall couldn’t resist giving a plug for his own mid-size theater, the Falcon, “around the corner on Riverside Drive in Toluca Lake.”

O’Connor, who actually performed at the El Portal in 1940 during his early vaudeville years, received the Center’s first lifetime achievement award from Carol Channing for a career that has spanned seven decades. In an impromptu performance backed by Academy Award-winning composer Hirschorn and the Chris Bennett Trio, O’Connor proved he can still sell a song despite some musical miscommunication with his accompaniment.

Details of the theater’s restoration were related during presentation of the Center’s inaugural Marquee Award to Robert E. Caine. In 1994, Caine, who was the managing director of the North Hollywood-based Actors Alley theater ensemble, was completing the renovation of El Portal as the new home for the theater company, only to have his efforts destroyed by the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake.

Cain sought and received aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration with hopes of opening within two years. In June 1995, Cain announced that the earthquake-delayed plans to convert the movie-house into a 360-seat stage complex were nearing completion, enabling the actor-membership company to begin play production by the first quarter of 1996.

The two-year wait has stretched to six, but the El Portal has finally announced Actors Alley’s first season in the mid-size Equity house. The schedule includes Joe DiPietro’s “Over the River and Through the Woods,” starring Joseph Campanella and Carol Lawrence (Jan. 11-Feb. 6); the vaudeville revue “Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A.,” by Ronald Smokey Stevens and Jaye Stewart (Mar. 14-Apr. 9); Ferenc Molnar’s classic farce “The Play’s the Thing,” adapted by P.G. Wodehouse, starring Hal Linden (May 9-June 4); and the American premiere of British playwright Ben Elston’s “Popcorn,” winner of the 1998 Laurence Olivier Award for best new comedy (Sept. 5-Oct. 1).

It was also announced that Actors Alley will take up residence in the Center’s 99-seat Circle Theater and the smaller 50-seat Studio Theater. Their upcoming 2000 season will debut with Gilles Segal’s “The Puppetmaster of Lodz,” featuring Joe Garcia (Feb. 3-Mar. 12). The season continues with Charles Higham’s “Murder by Moonlight” (Apr. 6-May 14); Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” (June 1-July 9); and Peter Lefcourt’s “La Ronde 2000″ (Aug. 3-Sept. 10).

The dedication ceremonies concluded with a banquet attended by such celebrities as Bea Arthur, Maureen Arthur, Mitzi Gaynor, Doris Roberts, JoAnne Worley, Jane Withers, Jim Brochu, Patty Andrews, Marian Ross, Carrol Baker and Beverly Garland.

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