Theater: Holiday cheer

Time to celebrate the theater community

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The Marin Theatre Company, which recently offered a production of ‘The Little Prince,’ has received a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Photo courtesy of the Marin Theatre Company.

By Charles Brousse

Being aware that the theater reviews appearing in this space during the year have delivered their ration of coal along with the sugar plums, I thought it might be appropriate to bid farewell to 2015 on a happy note. So—here are a couple of news items that probably merit big-smile emojis (or similar post-literate nonsense).

In Novato, the dead has awakened—again! Remember the Grant Avenue Theater restoration project? Back in 1991, the art deco style, 1946 vintage single-screen movie house at 922 Grant  went dark, victim of the trendy multiplexes that now dominate the cinema scene. Almost immediately, a great hue and cry arose, claiming that the city had lost a treasure—not just a building but an iconic central landmark that assured residents and outsiders that, in fact, there was something there. In 1995, with the help of a $400,000 private loan, a citizen’s committee purchased the property and launched a campaign to raise the several million dollars required to renovate it and reopen as a community arts center.

For a while, the future looked bright. Several major grants were received from institutional, governmental and private donors. There were the success stories of similar projects in San Rafael and Larkspur to build on. Plans were drawn up, contractors engaged, work begun. Then, for reasons too numerous to explore here, the campaign collapsed; when the financial well went completely dry in 2004, the property was deeded to the city and Dante’s warning at the gates of Hell about the need to abandon all hope seemed an apt conclusion.

But no! Fast forward to 2010 and a new nonprofit, Novato Theater, Inc., headed by Bernice Baeza—acclaimed for her skill in creating a vibrant art film venue at the then-shuttered Lark Theater—rose from the ashes and re-purchased the semi-derelict property from its municipal owners. Unfortunately her tenure was short-lived, but by the time she died two years later there was already notable progress in updating the group’s business plan, strengthening its board of directors and generating the confidence in the future that is so necessary to attract wary donors.

That process is now being carried forward under a new executive director, Christina Stroeh, who ran the award-winning Terra Linda High School’s drama department for 27 years. My impression of her, based on direct conversation and what I’ve heard, is that she will throw boundless energy, people skills and determination to succeed (she’s a Novato native who loves her town) into the struggle. For sure, it won’t be easy. Only about half of the $4.7 million needed has been raised. It would help if the Marin Community Foundation (MCF), which was so instrumental in financing facility conversions for Mill Valley’s Marin Theatre Company and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, would follow suit here, but MCF (which, incidentally, has its headquarters in Novato) no longer supports capital arts projects.

Anyone around who can spare $1 million in exchange for naming privileges?

There are other obstacles, like the challenge of combining film, live performances, lectures, arts instruction and private events under one roof. Providing adequate parking. The announced departure of backer Judy Arnold from Marin’s Board of Supervisors … difficult? Yes. Impossible? No. I have a feeling that if anyone can pull it all together, it will be Christina Stroeh. And, if she does, Novato will finally have the centerpiece that so many residents desire.

Congratulations are in order: Although other grants may be richer, none approach the prestige that comes from recognition by the National Endowment for the Arts. Here’s the recently announced list of 2016 North Bay recipients: Headlands Center for the Arts (Marin Headlands, $35,000); Voice of Roma (Sebastopol, $35,000); California Film Institute (San Rafael, $30,000); Marin Theatre Company (Mill Valley, $20,000); Marin Shakespeare Company (San Rafael, $10,000); Point Reyes National Seashore Association (Pt. Reyes Station, $10,000); The Santa Rosa Symphony ($10,000).

Finally, as a politically correct Tiny Tim might end this: Happy holidays, everyone!

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