Tue, Apr

Pierce College Performing Arts Theatre: An Untapped Cultural Treasure Amidst Neglect

SAN FERNANDO VALLEY - Over the years Pierce College has existed in a semi-autonomous corner of the west San Fernando Valley, a vast open space awaiting the inevitable bulldozers of development to one day swoop in and attach it to the urban sprawl that presently envelopes it. Considering its size and immense potential, Pierce College has remained a relatively insignificant part of life in the region largely because a lack of initiative and dearth of leadership that lacks any real mission, purpose, or vision as to what it should be, or become. There it sits, a lonely, beached whale on the wind-blown sandy sward of times long past, or a lost relic of a bygone era that forgot what it was to begin with.

Like an ancient Egyptian pyramid, Pierce College does harbor archaeological traces of what it was intended to be in days of yore when the State of California had leadership that built for the future. Hardly a man is now alive that can hark back to the days when freeways, aqueducts, infrastructure, and schools were constructed with a view to the future and how a utilitarian society could benefit from public buildings. One of these buildings remains perched on a bluff overlooking the west end of the valley, the Performing Arts Theatre at Pierce College. This theater was originally built with money raised from a long-forgotten bond-initiative approved by voters in a general election in the 1960s. To sell the public on the idea, proponents of the bond claimed that the community would benefit from the cultural events that the theater would provide. Live performances, concerts and other events would vastly improve the quality of life for culture-staved, under-served suburban residents. A good idea, on the surface of it, one which few could argue with. Trouble is, it never happened. In public discourse, Pierce College is never mentioned as a venue for important cultural events. That is because the college continues to practice an exclusionary “stay-out” policy in its relations with the community and significant performing arts organizations.

As a resident of the local community and a person with a long experience working with Pierce College on a variety of levels, I feel a responsibility to inform you that nothing has changed in many years to reverse the sequence of unfortunate events that have rendered Pierce College Performing Arts Theatre an impotent, mute witness to cultural life passing it by without any semblance of its intended mission or purpose. Gone are the visionaries, public planners, and even politicians who could see the benefits for themselves and others that a performing arts venue should generate. Standing resolutely quiet as a secret bastion of small-minded academics, the theater represents an unaddressed reminder of the continued a bad reputation the college currently has in its relationship with the community that it is intended to support and to serve.

The few events that do take place at the theater are a tragicomedy of unintended consequences. Last Wednesday night we were invited to attend the Encore Singers Holiday Concert. We were informed that our complimentary tickets would be reserved for us at the box office, and indeed my name was on the list of people for whom these seats were reserved. When we asked for our tickets the person behind the glass greeted us with an attitude that can best be described as hostile and combative. I was later informed that the college business office is responsible for the ticket taking personnel at the theater. It is clear this person neither wanted to be there nor thought it appropriate to display a public demeanor that would best represent the college as it interacts with individuals in the residential community that have come to the event hoping to experience an evening of musical entertainment and pleasurable enjoyment. He was apparently annoyed that it would be his responsibility to simply allow people to enter the theater unmolested. Rather his attitude was verbally abusive as he assumed an arrogant tone of artificial authority that was almost farcical.

Let us keep in mind that the function here at the box office should be simple, and that is to allow whoever wants to attend the concert to come in. Instead, he and his associate determined that they would exclude my wife and daughter from the list since they were not listed by name, but simply recorded as my name & guests. My questions are simple: Who is served by keeping audience members out of a holiday concert? Why does the overall attitude of hostile negativity on the part of Pierce College employees have to permeate the atmosphere at Pierce College events? While it is almost proverbial and not surprising or unexpected that public-sector employees have bad attitudes, one would think that these kinds of things need not happen. When people come to Pierce, or any concert venue, all they desire is a welcoming atmosphere where live performances can be enjoyed without harassment from ill-tempered employees.

Ordinarily it would not be worth the time it takes to make a complaint like this, but there is a lot more at stake than just this one simple occurrence. Many people have experienced similar treatment at Pierce, not just in the box office at the theater, but in many of the on-campus facilities. It is unfortunate that the college has earned a uniformly negative reputation for bad community relations. There is a culture of unhappy, disgruntled “it’s not my job” attitudes commonly encountered at Pierce. If you started today, it would take a considerable time to reverse the trend. Leadership begins at the top and is reflected all the way down.

Very few people can now remember the sprawling open space where Winnetka Avenue meets Victory Boulevard, where a wheat farm donated to provide an agriculture faculty for local students to learn animal husbandry, botany, and the scientific disciplines that feed people evolved into what we call “Community Colleges.” Looking back, our forebears had some good ideas. Looking at the hillside where the theater stands today, what we see is just about as useful as an empty stone pyramid set against the desert sands. Looking forward the winds of time churn up a swirling dust storm that obscures what the future should be.  

(Mihran Kalaydjian is a leading member of the community and a devoted civic engagement activist for education spearheading numerous academic initiatives in local political forums.)