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Madison Theater Breaks Ground

By Jorge Casuso

January 20 -- Academy Award-winning actor Dustin Hoffman was so enthusiastic about Santa Monica College's Madison Theater, he improvised a rousing 20 minute monologue in front of a packed house Wednesday afternoon. And the theater hasn’t even been built.

The impromptu performance was the showcase of a ceremonial groundbreaking for the $31 million state-of-the-art facility at SMC's Madison campus on 11th Street and Arizona Avenue, which will house the college's music department and give the Westside a much needed cultural arts venue when it opens in 2007.

The ceremony capped a daunting seven-year trek that began with a dream hatched around a living room table and culminated in a battle to raise funds and win the applause of a community skeptical about any development in its city.

Acting SMC President Tom Donner, outgoing President Dr. Piedad Robertson, Dustin Hoffman and Dale Franzen at groundbreaking ceremony (Photo by Jorge Casuso)

"Have you seen the theater he wants to build," Hoffman, chair of the Madison Capital Campaign, said of architect Renzo Zecchetto's design for the 540-seat performing arts hall. "I want to play there."

And if Hoffman -- whose company, 3 Coasts, will be in residence at Madison -- is any indication, so will other star actors who live on the Westside and hunger for an eager audience to perform in front of between big movie deals.

"They will do it because of the place he's building, because they're living nearby," Hoffman told the crowd packed into a large tent on an unseasonably warm winter afternoon. "I'm going to be a part of it. I can't be knocked out at this point."

Hoffman's monologue was the highlight of a ceremony that began with the recognition of those who helped turn the ambitious vision into reality and culminated with an operatic rendition of "The Impossible Dream," as the curtains parted on a rendering of the theater and golden balloons dropped from above.

"This is a unique occasion, the moment of birth of what will be for this community a legacy," said SMC President Dr. Piedad Robertson, who is retiring at the end of this month.

"This will be a place where children will come to have their first appreciation of the arts," Robertson said. "Thank you for creating this. Thank you for believing this could be accomplished."

The project -- which will include renovating the campus for the Music Department, converting the existing auditorium into a rehearsal hall and improving parking -- will be funded with $24 million from Measure S, the $135 million bond Santa Monica-Malibu voters approved in November.

Another $3 million will come from Measure U, a college bond approved by voters in 2002, with as much as another $1 million available for a contingency. In addition, $1 million for the parking improvements will come from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The balance will be bankrolled with funds raised privately by the SMC Foundation, which aside from raising funds and meeting with arts and community organizations and individuals throughout Santa Monica and Southern California, began a highly successful free Madison performance series, now in its fifth year.

It took "time, perseverance and great leaps of faith" to reach Wednesday's groundbreaking, said Dale Franzen, who as director of the Madison Project headed the fundraising effort.

The long and arduous task to build the performance hall began when Franzen, a trained opera singer, sang for Robertson in the empty old auditorium and both agreed the hall needed to be gutted.

It culminated after numerous brainstorming sessions, fundraising events, public meetings and government decisions when the SMC board of trustees voted late last year to award a $30.78 million contract to FTR International, Inc. of Irvine to build the project.

Befitting a dramatic venue, for more than three years, the proposed performing arts theater on the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District-owned site was the staging ground for a political battle of wills between college and City officials.

College officials maintained SMC had the jurisdiction to move ahead without City approvals, while City officials felt the community should have a greater say in a decision that would affect a residential neighborhood.

In the end, the college won the approval of the community and the necessary votes to move forward with the 32,000-square-foot facility.

While a U.S. Congressman, state legislators and county supervisors wrote proclamations congratulating the college on the groundbreaking, no proclamation was adopted by the City.

Robertson said she went to County Commissioner Zev Yaroslavsky's office for support. "We have a dream," Robertson said she told him. "Let's do it," she said Yaroslavsky immediately responded.

For Hoffman, the star of "The Graduate" and "Midnight Cowboy," his participation in the project was a way of giving back to the school where he first discovered acting.

In the mid-fifties Hoffman was attending what was then called Santa Monica City College after barely getting through high school when a friend told him acting was the only other class outside of gym you could pass by just showing up.

His love of theater was born, taking him to an acting school, a theater camp and finally to New York, where he worked as a waiter to make ends meet. But is was his passion for the craft that kept Hoffman going, a passion he hopes will find a venue at Madison.

“Art is a gentle way of allowing us the intimacy we shut off,” Hoffman said. “The most profound sacred aspect of being alive is that we are all here alive now temporarily, and we have things that we can do.

"It's the life force that we are missing in the arts," Hoffman said. "That's the challenge here. That's what we want to do."

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