Pleasanton Weekly

Column - August 27, 2010

Amador Theater staying open

by Jeb Bing

Facebook fans are in a tizzy over reports that Pleasanton's much-treasured Amador Theater will close or somehow take a long hiatus when the city's new Firehouse Arts Center opens next month. That's not true. City Manager Nelson Fialho said Wednesday that the Amador Theater, which seats more than 600 patrons, will remain a viable part of the Pleasanton performing arts facilities although there will be a push to book small productions at the new Firehouse, which seats 230. And with good reason. Fialho and the City Council, with grassroots support from the Cultural Arts Foundation, authorized the expenditure of $8 million from the city capital improvement fund to build the downtown arts center and theater. The foundation raised $2 million and is expected to contribute another $100,000 at a council meeting next month. There was hope that the foundation would raise more, much more, enough in public donations to establish an endowment that would pay for ongoing programs, services and equipment once the Firehouse opens. But except for selling individual bricks at $100 and $150 and $500 seats in the theater, contributions have dwindled. After a festive opening day Sept. 17, it's likely that the foundation and its hard-working, personable director Debbie Look will be out of business with any unspent funds to be turned over to the Cultural Arts Council.

The Cultural Arts Council provided the impetus for converting the old Railroad Avenue Fire Station No. 4 and the city fire department's headquarters into the majestic downtown arts center and theater that's nearly completed today. After the fire departments in Pleasanton and Livermore were merged with a new headquarters building constructed on Nevada Street and Bernal Avenue, it was decided to also build a new fire station on Bernal near the fairgrounds, which Station 4 served. For a time, plans called for bulldozing the old firehouse and selling the bricks. At the same time, the arts community was clamoring for a place to exhibit their works, hold art classes and store their materials. Why not convert the old brick firehouse into an arts center and build a state-of-the-art performing arts center at that location? With plenty of enthusiasm and volunteers, the arts council sought city support, first for $4 million, then $6 million and then more. In the end, just before the project went out for bids, construction costs were estimated as high as $12 million. Fortunately for the city, but not for the construction industry, the economic downturn brought in bids as low as $8 million with another $2 million added for "extras," such as solar panels and British-made artwork.

At no time was it ever contemplated that the Amador Theater would close. Many of Amador's productions require large sets, a large stage, frequent changes of scenery and more seats than the Firehouse can hold. For the winter and holiday classics that the city schedules, the competition comes from the even larger and technically superior Bankhead Theater in Livermore. Most of the performances planned at the Firehouse would be too small for Amador and the number of patrons too few for a professional appeal. Those kinds of smaller productions need smaller, almost black-box type theaters, which makes the Firehouse a perfect match and really without competition in its bookings. It also requires more performances to pay the bills, which is why the city has moved Rob Vogt to the Firehouse as its full-time director. Tickets for all performances, including upcoming shows at Amador Theater, will be sold out of the Firehouse box office, although Amador's will open when it has performances.

Just as the arts community and downtown merchants are lavishing their praise on the Firehouse, which is only a short walk to Main Street restaurants and stores, Fialho and the scores of admirers on Facebook haven't forgotten the Amador. It has served as the city's principal performing arts facility for more than 60 years. It was constructed in the late 1930s as part of the Amador Valley High School campus and has hosted innumerable school plays, concerts, lectures, assemblies and graduations. Over the years, it received a facelift and then in 1981, needing more repairs, the theater underwent a major overhaul. The Cultural Arts Council at that time spearheaded a fundraising drive, raising $800,000 in cash and in-kind materials, with the renovation completed in 1989 and the city government paying the rest of the $1.2 million needed in total funding.

As part of its agreement in taking ownership of the Amador Theater from the school district, the city allots 60 days a year for school performances and other uses. As performing arts productions seek reasonably-priced facilities in a market where the larger theaters have significantly raised their rents, the Amador Theater expects a busy and growing season even as the public's attention focuses in the coming weeks on the new Firehouse Arts Center.

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