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Nike enlarges its footprint on Ricardo Montalbán Theatre

June 17, 2009 | 12:35 pm


Ricardo Montalbán was never one to turn up his nose at product endorsements. The Mexico-born Hollywood actor memorably lent his name and face to commercials for Chrysler and Maxwell House. His was the sonorous voice that proclaimed that his favorite brand of coffee was always "good to the last drop."

The actor, who is best known for playing Mr. Roarke on "Fantasy Island," passed away in January, but the endorsements haven't stopped. Montalbán's name is currently associated with another internationally recognized brand: Nike Sportswear, which recently extended its marketing deal with the Ricardo Montalbán Theater in Hollywood through June 2010. Though many welcome the infusion of corporate cash, the partnership is getting mixed reviews from some of those close to the financially troubled performing arts space.

Since August, Nike has operated a mini retail store in the back of the orchestra section, in addition to Nike logo stations on the mezzanine level, where consumers can design their own footwear. The company has also put its logo on the lobby walls and erected a retail display case in front of the theater's main entrance on Vine Street. While Nike is a resident, the theater has agreed to change its name to Nike Sportswear at the Montalbán.

The aggressive branding is a rare occurrence for a performing arts venue, and not everyone is happy about it.

"I know some people in the Latino community who are saying, 'Hey, what's the story behind this?' " said Rafael Calderon, an officer of the Nosotros theater company, which works closely with the Montalbán. "It's a mixed bag. Artists aren't happy about it but, at the same time, Nike is helping the theater to pay its bills."

He added: "I can't wait for the theater to get back to its original purpose."

Under the deal, Nike acts as a tenant of the Montalbán, paying for the right to use the space for promotional events such as Cinema Tuesdays and screenings of Nike-produced sports documentaries. (A company representative declined to specify how much Nike is paying the Montalbán.) Nike is also footing the bill for at least part of the structural improvements to the building, which had fallen into disrepair for many years.

The 1,200-seat theater, which is run by the nonprofit Ricardo Montalbán Foundation, recently launched a capital campaign to raise $12 million to increase the size of the space by 14,000 square feet. So far, the foundation has raised $1.5 million toward its goal.

"We want to increase the flexibility of the house to include more commercial activities," said Gilbert Smith, who works at the foundation and is Montalbán's son-in-law. He said there are plans to build a sports activity center on the roof of the building.

"We're under the radar screen and we're trying to pay our bills," Smith said.

In 2005, the foundation came under scrutiny for delinquent accounting and mismanagement, prompting the state to temporarily halt the group's activities. It turned out that the the foundation had failed to file annual reports since 1999. A report in The Times said that the theater, which had just reopened its doors the year before, was already falling into disrepair as a result of vandals and neglect. 

The road back to financial health has been a slow, ongoing process, according to those who work with the foundation. Even though Montalbán purchased the historic theater (formerly the Doolittle) with the intent of turning it into a venue to showcase Latino artists, the space still doesn't feature any regular programming of any variety, serving mostly as a rental venue for touring performances.

Nike said that it hopes to revitalize the theater and to raise public awareness of its existence. On a recent weekend, retail store employees stood outside the theater encouraging pedestrians to come inside for a screening of a skateboarding documentary. (The lure: Tickets are free and so are soda and popcorn.)

Some people close to the theater are welcoming Nike's presence -- for the time being at least. "The theater looks different now -- polished and presentable," said Jesse Aranda, a vice president of the Nosotros theater company.

"For now, the Nike deal is OK, but if it goes longer than that, like five years, I think we would have to work together more closely. I don't want Nike to take full possession -- there's a danger of the theater becoming too business-oriented."

-- David Ng

Photo: The Ricardo Montalbán Theatre in Hollywood. Credit: Courtesy of Nosotros