Canyon Theatre Guild:
Where it’s been, where it’s going
Where it’s been: Callahan’s Old West Indian Village in Agua Dulce was home to the Canyon Theatre Guild from 1986-2000. Photo by Nathan Caswell/The Signal
By Rick Steadman For The Signal
Friday, September 22, 2000
hirty years ago, in early April of 1970, a notice appeared in the Newhall Signal inviting interested members of the public to a community meeting to explore the possibility of forming a local theater.
In July of 1970, the Canyon Theatre Guild mounted its first production, "Vacancy in Paradise" at the William S. Hart High School Auditorium. Carmen Sarro, the only charter member of the Canyon Theatre Guild who is still active in the theater, remembers the production well. "There were maybe 20 people in the audience that night" (the auditorium seated approximately 1,000) "and I thought to myself, ‘maybe we should find a smaller venue,’" she said. Today, the Canyon Theatre Guild has the opposite problem.
"We’re bursting at the seams these days! Especially when we produce one of our blockbuster musicals," Patti Finley, current president of the CTG’s Board of Directors, said. "We’re very excited about our move into our new, state-of-the-art theater in Old Town Newhall. Our seating capacity will almost double! Our Sierra Highway location has been very good to us, but we will be accessible to so many more people in our new home."
The Canyon Theatre Guild is currently putting the finishing touches on its main theater building, which is Phase I of a three-phase project to create a performing arts center for the citizens of Santa Clarita. The funding for the $1.2 million Phase I of the complex has been raised through fundraising efforts of the Guild, which include donations from the residents of Santa Clarita, corporate sponsorships, a bank loan and grants from the City of Santa Clarita and the Redevelopment Agency. Fundraising is ongoing, as are efforts to obtain additional Corporate Sponsorships. "We have been overwhelmed with the generosity and dedication of the people, the corporations and the City of Santa Clarita in their support of the theater," Tim Ben Boydston, director of operations and artistic director of the Canyon Theatre Guild, said. "It has indeed been a long road to our new home."
Where it’s going: The acoustic ceiling in the converted general store building at 24242 San Fernando Road gets its first coat of paint. Photo by Nathan Caswell/The Signal
The members of the CTG have led a very nomadic existence since their first show at Hart High School. They have performed wherever they could find a space and an audience. Their temporary homes have included St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Valencia, the Placerita Junior High School multi-purpose room and "The Rafters," in Newhall, the Storefront Theater in Canyon Country, and their current home at "Callahan’s Old West" in Saugus. In addition, they have performed at outdoor locations including City parks, the Old Town Newhall Street Fairs, Frontier Days, the July 4th Country Fair, the Historical Society’s Old Town Days and Mentryville’s Fall Festival.
"I got so tired of packing up all those boxes," Sarro said of the early years. But she feels very good about her accomplishments with the Guild and thinks that the most important thing that she and her husband, Joe Sarro, did in those early years was "keeping it alive and not giving up." When asked why she felt the theater was so important, she said, "I love it. It is so much fun, and it is so satisfying. It was great for our kids when they were growing up." She went on to emphasize what a positive experience the theater can be for youth who are not necessarily sports-minded. Sarro said two of her sons, who appeared in the second production of the Theatre Guild, and in many other productions thereafter, "were raised in the theater, and it was very good for them."
Over the years, the theater has folded their tent and moved several times, mostly for economic reasons. "Sustaining the art of live theater is a very big challenge because it is so labor intensive," Boydston said. Finley added: "We have always tried to keep our admission prices affordable in order to make live theater available to a large number of people. However, this limits our ability to recoup the $6,000 to $15,000 that it costs to produce each show." Another reason that the CTG moved from place to place was to try to find performance space that would accommodate their production needs. Working in unusual spaces has presented the Guild with some interesting challenges, with stories to match.
When the theater was performing at "The Rafters" (which is located in the attic space of the old courthouse building in downtown Newhall), they had very little space for storage of props and costumes so they were making use of a small area that did not have flooring on the rafters. One of the actors, Phil Noell, slipped off the rafter beam and his foot and leg went through the plaster ceiling. This elicited gasps and screams from the assembled Weight Watchers group who were meeting in the room below. The sight of Phil’s leg, dangling from the ceiling was one that they would not soon forget. One of the biggest challenges for the CTG during the early 80s was to continue to draw enough audience to keep the doors open. After one lengthy hiatus, Carmen Sarro received a call from Rick Huntington, a fellow thespian who had worked with the Guild since his teenage years. "If it were not for Rick Huntington calling me and encouraging me to resume production, the Canyon Theatre Guild might not exist today," Sarro said.
Reviving the theatre proved to be difficult work. "When the very first meeting was held, 450 people turned out, including important people like J.C. Ageganian … At the second meeting, 11 people turned out," Huntington said.
"Rick Huntington was the glue that held the theater together for at least 10 years. His leadership, along with his wife, Barbara, is the reason we’re where we are today," Boydston said. The theater was very influential in Huntington’s life, as he met his wife there and involved their children as well.
"Theater is excellent for kids. It gives them confidence and teaches them how to imagine. It teaches them how much work goes in to it … it doesn’t just happen," Rick Huntington said.
Huntington, who is known for his masterful comedic productions in the 80s, also spoke of the child-like enjoyment that theater can bring to its patrons. To make people laugh, he said, "Steal from the best, I used anything that tickled me from when I was kid."
What’s funny to the actor is not always what’s funny to the audience, however. "There was a busload of patrons who were ‘not a theater crowd,’ and kept talking while I was on stage- through the whole play, at the end of the show, a guy came backstage to reprimand me, and a flat from the set fell on him!" Rick Huntington said as he recalled a performance of "The Good Doctor," performed at Placerita Junior High School.
Huntington’s wife, Barbara, also has a long history of contributions to the theater guild (over 20 years). "I’m a hard worker and I’ve helped keep it going….and supporting Rick….and have brought in some new people who have been invaluable," she said.
Barbara Huntington said she dedicates so much time because of the benefits she receives from the art form. "It frees a person to do things you wouldn’t normally do; and it’s cathartic," she said.
One of the new people that she brought into the Guild was Tim Ben Boydston. "Barbara cast me in "The Butler Did It" in 1986 and the theater has been pretty much my life since then. I couldn’t believe that they were going to do theater in an old building without heat or air-conditioning, with concrete floors, open rafters, and a dirt parking lot eight miles from the nearest stop light."
Community activist and long-time member of the CTG, Marsha McLean said that making the Callahan’s Old West Indian Museum into a useable theater space was a huge job. "Oh, my goodness, there was so much to do … years of disuse … with cowbells strung across the seats, horseshoes on the beams and gords hanging from the ceiling … the weeds were several feet high and there was dirt and dust everywhere." But McLean also spoke of the burning desire that drives "theater people."
"Theater is in my blood. I’ve always enjoyed performing. It satisfied my need to entertain … and to give back to the community," she said.
The stage was expanded, risers were installed, insulation was added, a ceiling was put in, plumbing and heating were repaired, air-conditioning was installed and toilets were once again made operational. Historic, 125 year-old seats from the San Francisco Opera Company were cleaned and made ready once again for patrons of the arts. The work was accomplished 100 percent by volunteers from the theater. "We will always be grateful to those who gave so much time and talent to the theater during its period of rebuilding. People like Michele and Keith Buttelman, Nancy Albrecht, Brad and Laura Peach, Sharon Cummings, Wayne and Diane Stevens, and Bob and Evelyn Reed gave literally years of their lives to keep the CTG alive and growing," Boydston said.
And grow it did! From a total of 2,500 audience for the four shows in its 1986-87 season, the theater has grown to an audience of over 13,000 for the nine shows of the 1999-2000 season. "The Sierra Highway location has been very good to us," Finley said.
"We have produced some high quality shows, and done things in that small performance space that I wouldn’t have thought possible when I first saw it! To have mounted productions the size of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Annie" is a testament to the ingenuity of our technical volunteers and to the tenacity of our audience members who have faithfully driven up Sierra Highway to support us," she said.
There are, however, inherent problems with the facility said Boydston. "The inadequate power supply has us continually running for the breaker box, and in the winter the actors have to choose between a heater and a curling iron. The intermissions at the CTG are always quite long because the audience has only two restrooms to use, as compared to eleven in the new facility. Also, we have discovered in the last 14 years that the theater lies in a flood plain and we have lost our parking lot three times," he said.
Boydston spent an anxious night during the El Nino storms, trapped in the theater, waiting for the floodwaters to recede. The next morning, he emerged from the theater dressed in a bear costume, which was the only dry clothing that was available. The next-door neighbor quipped to Boydston, "I have your parking lot here. Just get a bulldozer and take it back upstream."
Being in the country, the theater has also seen its share of wildlife, both outside and inside of the facility. Mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, deer, and rodents of every size have been spotted around the theater. Last season was a particularly interesting year, when volunteer Kerry Rock identified the terrible odor that had been plaguing the theater, when he came upon the body of a skunk that had expired under the floor of the tech booth. In the early part of this past summer, Boydston had the dubious pleasure of removing a live rattlesnake from under the stage.
In addition to critters of this world, many at the theater claim to have seen an apparition from "the other world." Many people who have worked in the theater say they have seen, or heard, the ghost of Robert Callahan, the builder of Callahan’s Old West, which was originally a tourist attraction similar to early Knott’s Berry Farm. One of the long-time actors and premier technical designers, Brad Peach said three years ago, when his daughter Angie was only four years old, they had an unusual experience. "I was working right outside the bathroom door and heard Angie talking to somebody. I went inside and asked her who she was talking to, and she said ‘to that nice man with the brown hair’. But there was no man and no one could have left that room without my seeing him," Peach said.
Peach is not worried about Robert because he is reputed to be a spirit who is friendly to the theater and especially to the children. Indeed, when asked why he has been with the theater for so many years, Peach said, "I enjoy the camaraderie and family atmosphere." Some members are not sure that there is a presence from an other world, but "just to be on the safe side," Finley said, "many members of the Theatre Guild, if they are the first to open the doors to the building, shout a greeting to Robert: "Hi, Robert. It’s me!"
Tim Ben Boyston, executive director, and Patti Finley, current board president, figure out what will go where inside the Canyon Theatre Guild’s new home. Photo by Nathan Caswell/The Signal
The trials and tribulations of working in an inadequate facility led members of the CTG to being a search for a new home which would meet their growing needs. Four years ago, Boydston located a property in downtown Newhall that seemed ideal, a 6,000 square foot building with no visual obstructions. The board of directors agreed that this would make a good theater space and so the quest began to call 24242 N. San Fernando Road the new home of the Canyon Theatre Guild. A presentation to the Santa Clarita City Council followed and the Guild was encouraged to organize, raise funds, and make application to the new Redevelopment Agency that was in the process of being formed. Members of the Canyon Theatre Guild then began to work tirelessly toward their goal.
First they mounted a letter-writing campaign that resulted in 1,200 letters being signed and mailed to the City of Santa Clarita asking for help. They also worked with the consultants who had been hired by the City by participating in citizen input workshops to help formulate the current Redevelopment plans, which included a prominent place for a theater and arts district.
The CTG also took the step of hiring Boydston as their full-time director of operations to coordinate the location and purchase of a theater property and to facilitate the organization of the fundraising efforts necessary to purchase and renovate the property. "It’s hard to believe that the very property that we wanted to make into our theater was available three years later when we had finally secured enough money to make an offer," Boydston said. The City of Santa Clarita Redevelopment Agency awarded one of its first grants to the CTG to assist in the purchase of the property.
"Without the vision of our wonderful city council and city staff, this dream could never have become a reality," Boydston said.
One of the conditions of the City grant was that matching funds be obtained. A whirlwind of fundraising activity commenced. In the past two years, the CTG has hosted five successful fundraising events including two summer galas, a Valentine dinner-dance, a murder mystery and a cabaret. In addition they established two on-going fundraising programs, the "Wall of Stars" which allows supporters to engrave their name or a message on a permanent star that will be affixed in "The Heavens" in the lobby of the new facility. The "Name A Theatre Seat" program allows patrons to engrave their name or a message on a plaque, which will be affixed, to one of the 288 seats in the new facility. They have raised more than $250,000 toward their new home.
"Not only have the residents of Santa Clarita been generous in their monetary contributions to the CTG, they have pitched in and helped with their time, talent, energy and services to help us realize our dream" Patti Finley said. Each weekend, volunteers from the CTG’s more than 500 members arrive in Downtown Newhall, in work clothes with their "sweat equity" in hand. "Our volunteers have put in literally thousands of hours on this building already, helping us to keep the costs down," said Boydston. "Also, we have had great in-kind donations from our Corporate Sponsors including Realty Executives, Blue Barrel Disposal, Gruber Systems, The Signal, Valencia Bank and Trust, Remo U.S.A., The Magazine of Santa Clarita, and Newhall Land and Farming."
"This project has truly been a community effort. From the design, to the financing, to the construction, literally thousands of people have helped in the building of this beautiful theatre space," said Finley, admiringly. Mary Merritt, the project’s conceptual designer, facilitated the Western/Victorian design of the building. "The inspiration for the theatre design came from the Tabor Grand Opera House in Leadville, Colorado," Boydston explained. "We wanted to reflect the architectural style that was prevalent in the finer buildings in the Western towns of the 1880’s. We believe that this building will be a crown jewel of Old Town Newhall." The building promises to be as beautiful inside as it is outside thanks to the interior design by Louis Romero and decoration by long-time, "Goldie" award-winning designer, Helene Camara.
The grand opening for the Old Town Theatre is set for Nov. 11, Leslie Berra, event chairperson and board member said. "Festivities will include a champagne and hors’deuvres reception, silent and live auction, a "Best of the CTG" musical performance, and dessert with the cast after the show. There will be dancing and preferred seating is available. Tickets for this gala event will be $125 per person, and it promises to be an evening to remember. To receive an invitation to this ‘Gala Grand Opening,’ call the CTG business office at 799-2700," she said.
The members of the Canyon Theatre Guild are looking forward to the opening of the new facility with great anticipation. "Our new home, with its centralized location, will allow us to better serve the citizens of the Santa Clarita Valley with our existing programs and the increased space will allow us to expand our programming," said Finley. Some of the programs currently offered by the CTG are a regular season of musicals, comedies and dramas; a season of "Theatre For Young Audiences;" a Summer Youth Workshop for teens; and the CTG K.I.D.S. program for younger students. Performance schedules will be expanded to accommodate youth and seniors and additional programs are being studied by the Board of Directors.
"This is an exciting time for the artists of the Canyon Theatre Guild and for the citizens of Santa Clarita who have helped us make this dream a reality," said Boydston.
When asked why he thought theater was important, he replied, "Theater is beneficial to the health of a maturing community. The art of theater allows the artists and their audiences to reflect on their personal beliefs, their interpersonal relationships with others, and their relationship to society as a whole. It shines the light of education and enlightenment on the darkness of prejudice and ignorance. It provides us with the healing power of laughter and the catharsis of tears. It makes us better people."
Rick Steadman is a member of the Canyon Theatre Guild.