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by Robb Fulcher

The Norris Center for the Performing Arts is experiencing a growth spurt at age 32, with fresh community outreach efforts, bold additions to its state-of-the-art theater and pavilion, and a name change to Palos Verdes Performing Arts.

The impetus for much of the center’s change came from a marketing survey headed by Jeff Pieper of the local firm Pieper and Associates. The survey found that the performing arts center in Rolling Hills Estates was going unnoticed or misunderstood by large numbers of peninsula residents.

For those closely involved with the center – with well-received equity productions in its 450-seat Norris Theatre – the results of the survey were jolting.

According to board of directors president Julie Moe-Reynolds, “People in my generation and the next, in some cases, didn’t know what the Norris was. They knew it was a performing arts venue, but they thought it was family owned. In some cases they didn’t know that the venue exists,” Moe-Reynolds said.

“We need the next generation to fall in love with this venue, and continue it forever,” she said.

It was time to extend the venue’s promotional and fundraising outreach. The center’s mailers began going out past the peninsula, as far north as Manhattan Beach and Torrance.

“Our brochure went out to 30,000 additional people this year,” Moe-Reynolds said.

The center includes Norris Theatre, the Harlyne J. Norris Pavilion, and an education studio.

The name change aims to clarify that the nonprofit peninsula gem is not a family owned, family sustained project.

“It’s as much yours as it is mine,” Moe-Reynolds said.

Harlyne Norris, the venue’s original benefactor, is “completely behind the name change,” Moe-Reynolds said. “Without her blessing, it would not have happened.”

Another finding of the marketing survey was that many residents did not know the extent of the center’s offerings.

“A lot of people did not realize that we had concerts, comedy, a lot of fun things to d, in addition to the musicals and serious plays,” Moe-Reynolds said.

PV Live, launched by a handful of locals following a conversation with Moe-Reynolds, brings “stand-up comedy in a comedy club atmosphere” to the pavilion, with the help of the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach.

Ron Cloud told Moe-Reynolds he would like to see professional stand-up on the hill, and she eagerly green-lighted him to get the project underway. Cloud now heads the PV Live committee, which includes Bob Jones, Tom Thomas, Brian Kelly and Pieper.

“You know how sometimes wives might drag their husbands to a production?” Moe-Reynolds joked. “Well, now husbands can have something to drag their wives to.”

There won’t be much dragging required in the upcoming season, which opens Sept. 13 with multi-platinum selling, two-time Emmy and five-time Grammy Award-nominated Michael Feinstein. “The ambassador of the great American songbook” is known for his interpretations of American standards.

The singer and noted pop archivist will showcase the Gershwins and American music.

Other season highlights include the first visit of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” to the Norris.

“It will be really exciting for people to see ‘Cats’ so up-close,” Moe-Reynolds said.

The pop-rock musical “The Full Monty,” based on the hit film, promises raunchy comedy and emotional turmoil. Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd In Concert,” winner of 10 Tony Awards, sings a tragic tale of revenge.

“Love, Sex and the I.R.S.” unwinds the story of Jon and Leslie, two men who room together in New York City, and save money by filing tax returns as a married couple. The taxman calls, Leslie masquerades as a housewife, aided by Jon’s fiancée, with whom he is having an affair. Throw in a visit by Jon’s mother and Leslie’s ex-girlfriend, and it starts to get complicated.

The pavilion will stage “The Diary of Anne Frank” in a production so intimate that only 100 people will see it per night.

Rock concerts on the season schedule include Chicago tribute band Beginnings, Journey tribute band DSB, and the pavilion’s popular cabaret jazz.

In a big move the center has in the offing, the education studio will relocate from a leased building into a new one on a 6,000-foot lot across the street.

“We’re thrilled about it,” Moe-Reynolds said. “Fundraising will be easier because it will no longer be a leased building. People want their names on something that will be around long after they’re gone.”

The fundraising effort is off to a good start, thanks to a substantial donor whose name has not yet been revealed. (The donor is a “she” – that’s the only hint we could get.)

Moe-Reynolds credited the center’s energetic efforts to her fellow directors.

“Right now we have one of best boards of directors, a very, very active one,” she said. “The key to the success of the changes we’re undergoing is their hands-on involvement.”

Moe-Reynolds’ mother Joan Moe was a founder of the Norris Theatre three decades ago.She hungered to bring professional theater to the South Bay. The theater served a two-fold purpose, producing professional productions and providing young people a performing and education venue.

“It’s still two-fold, but now there’s such a large professional presence,” Moe-Reynolds said.

Large shows with four or five equity actors, surrounded by other working professionals, offer patrons quality productions in an intimate setting that cannot be duplicated in larger venues.

A patron recently raved to Moe-Reynolds about the changes he thought he saw in the Norris production of a musical he had seen before in a larger venue.

“We didn’t change anything from the production he had seen downtown. He just saw it here with an intimacy you can’t replicate unless you’re a small theater,” Moe-Reynolds said.

Moe-Reynolds’ grew up in a performing arts environment. Her mother acted and modeled until she had kids, and Moe-Reynolds grew up singing, dancing, acting, entering talent shows, and taking theater-viewing trips as far as New York.

She performed in productions at what was then Rolling Hills High School, then at Cal Lutheran and New Mexico State University, and sang in a number of bands.

Now a partner and the CFO of an environmental engineering firm, Moe-Reynolds, who lives in Rancho Palos Verdes, has watched her high-achieving kids perform on the Norris stage. Daughter Ashley, 11 recently booked her first national commercial, for Skechers.

“It just adds color to life, having music, acting, dancing in your life,” she said. “It just feels free. It opens the spirit up and lets life in.”