Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 1995
It started out as a theater. Then it was a movie house, an office suite, a dance studio, a print shop, an auto parts storage center. Seventy-seven years and $2.5 million later, it’s returned to its roots. The Spreckels Theatre in Coronado is back, freshly refurbished, re-inhabited and reinvigorated as the new Lamb’s Players Theatre.
When Lamb’s artistic director Robert Smyth first laid eyes on the building in 1993, he was smitten. “We’d been looking for a new space. When someone told me about a former theater for rent in Coronado, I just laughed. Space is such a premium here. I’d thought I’d come over and see a two-car garage. We walked in and ‘Yes!’ just went off inside my head.”
In what he now calls “the folly of youth,” Smyth thought the renovations (which he estimated at $800 thousand) would inaugurate the 1994 season. A year and three times the cost later, the theater is ready for the start of the 18th season. Funding is going surprisingly well; one year into a three year capital campaign, the group has raised $1.5 million. They got two big boosts: $300,000 from Coronado residents and vibrant arts supporters Paul and Ione Harter, for whom the stage is named. And $300,000 from David McFadzean, a Lamb’s Player from 1979-1986, the current executive producer of “Home Improvement.” Community support has been impressive. Last year’s 4700 subscribers multiplied to 6000 — even before this season’s brochures were mailed.
1994 was a deliriously successful season, with extensions of almost every production. At one point, Lamb’s had three shows running simultaneously all over town: the musical “Pippin” at the National City home-base, an antic, upbeat “Godspell” at the Lyceum in Horton Plaza, and the hilarious “Beau Jest” at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre in the Gaslamp Quarter.
“Our staff really went overboard last year,” says Smyth. “We knew we had to generate a little heat and light. Over the years, it’s been hard for us to get noticed on occasion.” Not only their geographic spread, but also the type of fare they offered, got them noticed. Starting out as a Christian street-theater, they have never had much of a Jewish following. But “Beau Jest,” a very funny, very Jewish comedy, attracted people who’d never seen a Lamb’s production before. Over the last two years, the Lamb’s Players have modified their Mission Statement; the ensemble description has evolved from “a commonality of Christian faith” to “an historic Judeo-Christian worldview.”
The new season is varied and should draw a broad audience: one book musical (“She Loves Me”, through March 26), one drama (“The Miracle Worker”, April 28-June 4), one musical revue (“Tintypes”, June 23-July 30), a Shakespeare comedy (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, August 18-September 24) and an adventure (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, October 13-November 19, adapted from Victor Hugo by David McFadzean; it was his first play, mounted by Lamb’s fifteen years ago, presently undergoing major revisions).
The current offering, “She Loves Me”, has an interesting history at Lamb’s. “We’d just gotten the rights as the revival opened on Broadway (October 1993,” says Smyth. “We planned to do it fall 1994. But when it suddenly got all this attention in New York, they decided on a national tour. Then the show died after the Tonys (June 1994), the money was pulled, and they never did a national tour. So the rights were made available again. It’s a great little play. (Jerry) Bock and (Sheldon) Harnick (who wrote the music and lyrics for “Fiddler on the Roof”) write terrific songs.”
Based on a Hungarian play (“Parfumerie” by Miklos Laszlo), the basis of two movies (“The Shop Around the Corner” and “In the Good Old Summertime”), the story is set in a perfumery in 1930s Budapest. The constantly squabbling sales clerk (Amalia) and manager (George) turn out to be anonymous penpals who hate each other by day but love each other by post. Smyth will direct, and his wife, the talented Deborah Gilmour-Smyth, will star.
“The entire season will have a real different flavor,” Smyth promises. “We’ll use the stage space in real different ways.” The new modified thrust stage (with audience on three sides) is quite a change from the National City theater-in-the-round. To maintain the feeling of intimacy, no seat is further than seven rows from the stage. That means a European design with a very steep rake to the seating, and a bit of a climb to the top, where the audience looks down on the action.
It was a challenge to fit a full-function theater into the Spreckels’ old shoebox proscenium design. Compromises had to be made in order to double the seating capacity (from 170 in National City to 340 in Coronado). There is no backstage and no fly-space overhead, though the new theater has much more elaborate under-stage traps. Overall, the structure has been lavishly and lovingly restored. Both curvaceous and angular, it’s a lively and provocative mix of Neoclassical, Art Deco and Modern architecture.
The structure of the staff has changed, too. After a serious cutback in 1990 (down to ten employees), they’re back up to 33, 18 of whom are active performers, and 14 of whom have been with Lamb’s for ten years or more. “We’ve gone through an explosion since 1990. We’re trying to put some brakes on now. Trying to catch up, catch our breath and stabilize,” says Smyth. “It’s been a breathless and a most moving time.”
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.