By Pamela Dozois
Photos by Devyn Marseilles
Solvang Theaterfest celebrated its 45thanniversary of hosting live theater in the Santa Ynez Valley with a well-attended luncheon and back-stage tour of its 700-seat outdoor venue.
Board chairman Chris Nielsen spoke not only of Theaterfest’s history but also of the nonprofit organization’s plans for the future — including a $4.7 million capital campaign “to strengthen and modernize, address aging infrastructure, improve accessibility, technical capability and audience amenities” and to provide long-term sustainability.
Theaterfest, he added, wants to preserve the theater “not only for the rest of our lives, but it will be a legacy for future generations.”
Nielsen recognized some of the original Theaterfest founding members who were in attendance: Erling and Sue Pohls, Delores Pedersen (wife of the late Earl Pedersen), Royce Lewellen, Ken and Lloyd Mills, Cathy Mullins, and Bob Raleigh. He also recognized not only the current board members and staff in attendance, but also the many former board members who turned out for the celebration.
“My personal recollection of the Theaterfest being envisioned and built was at a time when the Solvang markers at each end of the town on Highway 246 listed Solvang’s population as only 850 people. What a miracle its concept and creation truly was,” Nielsen added.
The idea of building a permanent outdoor theater in Solvang began in January 1974. Just eight months later, and only 58 days after breaking ground on June 11, the outdoor theater opened for its first performance, “Once Upon a Mattress” on Aug. 7, 1974.
The feat was accomplished by a group of local business leaders who raised funds and amassed a group of local artisans, craftspeople and community volunteers.
Donovan Marley, then the artistic director of PCPA, and local architect Earl Petersen designed the building in only two months. Local residents Erling Pohls and Johannes Jaeger led the construction team with crews of local workmen working seven days a week, sometimes as much as 16 hours a day, to complete the project on schedule, much of it done at cost or with time and materials that were donated outright.
“Over 45 years ago, something sparked in the imagination of a group of people. They imagined something implausible — some would have said impossible — to build a theater, to make art a centerpiece of community life,” said Mark Booher, artistic director and associate dean of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA) in his speech to guests at the luncheon.
“For the last 45 years we’ve imagined the improbable kind of play-going experience that this beautiful open-air stage provides, and then we’ve worked to bring that experience to life. The improbability of Theaterfest is what makes it great. Our journey started out, and remains, inextricably and wonderfully intertwined.”
“To date 3,185 performances have graced the stage of Theaterfest since the first performance on August 7, 1974, featuring 245 different plays. More than 6,000 theatre professionals, some very seasoned, some in their early careers, have worked onstage and backstage on PCPA productions over the years. It is approximated that 1.3 million people have attended the theatrical performances at Theaterfest over the past 45 years,” Booher said.
Cagney Herrick spoke about what it was like to be a “spot operator” (lighting technician) atop the “C pole” for the plays. He talked about how lighting techs climb up and must remain there without descending, for any reason, until all the guests have left the grounds. She also talked about how cold and windy it gets up there, having to wear three coats along with safety gear over them. But she says she loves her job.
Erica Flores spoke of her love for the theater, which was instilled in her from childhood. Her father was a farm worker and the family didn’t have the money to attend the plays at Theaterfest, so her mother would pack the family in the car and park in “their alley” next to Theaterfest and listen to all the plays.
“I fell in love with the theater long before I ever saw a play,” she said.
On her 16thbirthday, her grandmother gave her season tickets for Theaterfest so that both of them could attend the plays together. She died shortly thereafter, and in her honor Flores took her friends and family to the plays in her stead, beginning with her mother.
Lunch at the anniversary event was furnished by Morrell’s Farm Fresh Dining in Buellton, cookies by Solvang Bakery, and wine by Lucas & Lewellen. Music was provided by guitarist Greg LeRoy.
Guests were treated to a backstage tour of PCPA’s latest production of “The Addams Family” led by several PCPA’s actors.
“It’s so wonderful to see such an inspired and appreciative crowd here today. I was on the board of Theaterfest during the original capital campaign, and I think this board is doing a wonderful job with this one,” said Peter Robbins.
Theaterfest is also used by the community for dozens of events each year, such as Friendship House’s “Nashville Nights,” Solvang Parks and Recreation’s “Haunted House, the Los Olivos Dance Gallery’s annual show, the Christmas Nativity play, and concerts with A-list artists.
It is estimated that 40,000 people attend the performances and community events annually.
“My husband and I were here for opening night in 1974,” said Carol Anders, a Solvang Theaterfest board member. “After 45 years we need to improve the venue’s infrastructure. If we didn’t have this venue, where would the nonprofits go to raise funds for their programs? The ‘Imagine’ capital campaign will help to preserve and restore this jewel of a venue.”
“I’ve been a Red Coat (usher) and patron since 1985,” said Leslie Franklin. “It’s a unique and beautiful setting, and I am very proud as a resident that we have this theater in our midst. Visitors are always amazed when they see the quality of the productions put on by PCPA. Theaterfest is a community treasure.”
Franklin recalled one night when she was working as a Red Coat at Theaterfest when the town experienced a blackout.
“Everyone in the theater sat and waited for the lights to return, but after a half hour we were told the play would have to be canceled,” she recalled. “As the guests were preparing to leave, the stage was suddenly filled with all the actors holding lighted candles singing ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ from the play that was featured that night, ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’”
“The founding members would be surprised and pleased with what they created 45 years ago – to see it is still a vibrant community asset. It is their legacy and ours to cherish and uphold into the future,” Franklin added. “They have my undying admiration for creating this beautiful artistic venue.”
Closing out PCPA’s summer season in Solvang is Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which runs through Sept. 8.
For tickets or more information, visit pcpa.org/tickets or call 805-922-8313.