California Theatre Center touched thousands of lives over 41 years – The Mercury News

The California Theatre Center closed its doors Aug. 1 after 41 years, leaving many patrons, actors and alumni with fond memories and heavy hearts.

A posting on the California Theatre Center’s website offered the Sunnyvale company’s appreciation for decades of support and patronage and cited “escalating costs and limited resources” as the reason for the closure.

Reached by phone, box officer manager Diana Burnell told this newspaper that the closure was due in part to the theater not having enough money to cover operating costs.

The company toured around the country and on occasion internationally. The company rented space at the Sunnyvale Theatre on E. Remington Drive, staging shows for children and running a summer conservatory to give youngsters experience in theatrical production.

“We weren’t able to keep up with the cost of Silicon Valley. Rent, insurance and payroll—we paid our actors as full-time employees—we weren’t able to continue paying them a living wage as other costs went up, and we couldn’t raise tuition and tickets enough to cover the costs,” she said.

The closure has left alumni and former theater-goers saddened.

Sarah Thermond, who attended shows at the center since she was 4 years old, said she loved watching “The Elves and the Shoemaker” every Christmas. From ages 8-16 she was a student at the summer conservatories and later worked as a teacher and actor with the company.

Thermond is a drama and English teacher at Saratoga High School, but was asked to come teach this summer’s conservatory “one more time.”

“I realized when they said ‘one more time’ it might have extra significance beyond asking me to do it again,” Thermond said, adding that teachers tried to make the last conservatory a memorable one for participants. “I was excited to do one more teaching session and be part of the company in its final weeks.”

Heidi Tokheim Kalison, who now lives in Southern California, started in the beginning conservatory class at age 11 before moving on to the advanced group for teens, and later joined as an actor with a company. She returned to California Theatre Center nearly a decade ago to perform her one-person show, which she said the center sponsored.

She fondly recalls a month-long tour of “Pinocchio” that went from Wyoming to Texas, stopping in all states in between. She also traveled to Australia and New Zealand, performing with the group.

“We’d stop at small and large venues and there would be 1,500 kids. It was amazing doing a show and hearing all these kids laughing, and knowing that what we are doing is affecting them in a positive way and giving them an experience of the theater,” said Kailson, adding she was saddened relatives wouldn’t be able to see more shows.

“I would have loved to bring my daughter, and knowing I can’t is sad.”

Clara Walker was with the center from 2009 to 2012 and currently works for Starting Arts. Walker is brought in by schools to direct and choreograph drama productions. She fondly recalls staging shows for children “almost every morning of the school year,” saying her favorite show was “Mrs. Nelson is Missing,” where she played both a good and evil character.

She said the company was unique in providing actors with a steady salary.

“They gave us novel things like health insurance. I feel very lucky to have been part of a company like that. It allowed me that kind of job security, which is so strange with theater,” said Walker.

“When I read the announcement, I found myself being sadder than I thought I would be. It was a great run for 41 years; that’s pretty great for a theater company.”

Mary Hall Surface was recruited for the company in 1981 after meeting California Theatre Center co-founder Gayle Cornelison at a theater festival in France. She served as associate director for six years during the 1980s and fondly remembers working on the play “Most Valuable Player” about the life of Jackie Robinson and having the opportunity to tour with the play to American military bases across Europe and Canada and in Lima, Peru.

“I think it’s a profound loss to the South Bay area because they provided access to live performance for young people and their families, and I think the arts provide an essential role in our lives,” said Surface, who works as a director and playwright in Washington, D.C.

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