The last few years has seen a swath of news coverage on theatre closures in the Bay Area and around the nation. But amid all the rubble, there are glimmers of light—theatre companies opening in the direst of economies and surviving. One such theatre is the Retro Dome in San Jose, which opened its doors in September of 2009.
The Retro Dome is family owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Scott and Shannon Guggenheim along with Scott's brother Stephen. The theatre is housed inside the old Century 25 cinema dome on Saratoga Avenue in San Jose, which had been abandoned for over two years. Initially, the family sought to turn the venue solely into a stage for live, professional theatre, but upon undertaking renovations, they realized the dome was permanently split in half. So the space actually offers two smaller venues: the Blue Room, which houses live musical theatre and comedy, and the Red Room, which offers retro movies (think Alfred Hitchcock and Breakfast at Tiffany's) as well as interactive sing-along movie musicals.
The Guggenheim trio forms a musical theatre trifecta, with Scott acting as producer, director, business manager and playwright; Stephen wearing the hats of musical director, performer and movie buff; and Shannon assuming the roles of choreographer, performer and marketing director. No strangers to the world of producing theatre, Scott and Shannon met in 1990 while working together in a theatre for young audiences in Pleasanton that grew into the Children's Theatre Workshop and, eventually, the California Theatre Wing. When that dissolved in 1997, the duo took the cue to explore other options and secured the rights from Disney to produce Schoolhouse Rock Live!, which ran in Union Square for over a year before moving to San Jose for another year. From there, the team expanded into providing entertainment for shopping centers, corporate events and fashion shows using live theatre and paid actors. When their first daughter Lily was born, they looked for additional ways to support themselves and began doing a show they wrote themselves, The Meshuga Nutcracker, which toured Seattle, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Berkeley and San Jose.
In 2007 that came to a halt with the birth of their second daughter Ally, who was born with a severe brain injury. Because she required full-time care, frequent hospital visits and therapy, touring was no longer an option. In their quest to decide what to do next, Scott and Shannon began looking at venues where they could put down roots locally. A Pier 39 space was considered, but they knew that San Jose was a prime location for quality care for children with special needs. During lunch one day at the Fresh Choice in the Westgate Mall shopping center, the couple noticed a sign in the door of the then-vacant Century Theater. A lightbulb went off and the Guggenheims realized they could take all the energy they spent year-round building programs for clients and spend it on themselves to create an alternative business model. The lease was signed on July 4, 2009, and the doors opened two months later to the first revival show of Schoolhouse Rock Live! on September 4.
Despite naysayers' arguing that the timing was anything but economically ideal to start a new theatre company while others were closing, Shannon remembers asking, "'If we don't do this, what else are we going to do?' We didn't have a choice. If we wanted to stay in this area and do what we know how to do, we had to find a way to make it work. It was a sink or swim moment."
Being self-funded and not reliant on outside funding or grants, it was critical that renovations on the Retro Dome be both creative and economical. The confidence to do this came from the fact that the family had been touring for nearly 20 years. After many years of bidding projects to clients, they were familiar with money-saving mechanics such as the best printers to use and creative ways to build scenery. This frugality allowed them to go from a gutted dome theatre space with two-year-old popcorn and Jujubes on the floor, to a vibrant, groovily designed two-theatre space complete with cushioned couches and lava lamps in the lounge. The total budget for the project came in around $100k, funded through family and friends, and was kept from going over due to creative uses of what already existed. Platforms and curtains held over from their touring days were pulled out of storage. Costume designer Richard Sanchez spent tireless hours in the theatre remaking the old curtains into what hangs there today. The Guggenheims worked with out-of-business movie theatres to salvage seats. Much of the interior was left to the "retro" concept, right down to the lighting fixtures. Shannon's mom made light fixture covers to go over the concession bar. "It's kitschy, totally workable, and doesn't diminish quality," she says. "We didn't come in and tear down an old building. We recycled, reduced and reused. The only thing that is new here is the paint." (When you visit the Retro Dome, be sure to check out the paint color in the women's bathroom.)
Shannon says the Retro Dome has achieved the vision they set out to achieve and then some. "We wanted to find a place where we could create great theatre, support our family and do what we were born to do." But with the way things worked out with the movie theatre addition, the venue can run retro movies while simultaneously reaching out to movie fans who might never have gone to a live theatre performance otherwise. The Retro Dome also holds comedy nights, sing-alongs and summer camps, and plans to run movies with the chamber orchestra playing live music throughout.
Another success included securing the rights to produce the first production of Xanadu since it closed on Broadway in 2009 after duking it out with other Bay Area theatres. How did they pull it off? "We pitched a really good case—that we're not a community theatre, but are the real deal. We now have an Equity contract in place. What better place to do Xanadu than the Retro Dome?" Guggenheim says the company is also positioning itself to be different from typical regional theatres by not offering a season going forward, but working more like an off-Broadway company by running shows until they end.
According to Guggenheim, the general reaction of the community is one of delight that an abandoned theatre has been turned into a fun family venue and that there is another option for professional live theatre in Silicon Valley. This is evidenced by a dedicated fan base of over 5,000 email subscribers and a 1,700-fan Facebook page. She also attributes much of the company's early success to a balanced mix of artistic and business know-how. "Theatre is a business," she says. "Our corporate clients always came back because we delivered. You can't enter the theatre arts world without having the business end in your back pocket. This isn't Bohemia or Italy where they foster art and talent with apprenticeships. Here, it's business first."
And it's work, too. Guggenheim says most days are spent in the office, followed by night rehearsals from 6 to 10, going home and updating the website, preparing for the next rehearsal, and then starting it all over again the next day. And while it may not always be easy, the Guggenheims are happy that the business is staying afloat. Once they get past the point of barely paying the bills, they believe the endeavor could be a moneymaker and have even considered franchising the concept out to other communities. "We've been extremely fortunate in our careers, being able to stay in this area and do what we love. We're still very grassroots and community centered, and it's a privilege to give something back to the community so that they don't have to go downtown or up to San Francisco to see a really good show."
So what's up this month at the Dome? Sing-along movie experiences for Mamma Mia! and Mary Poppins, a likely open-run extension of Xanadu, and summer camps for children aged 7 to 13. For more details, check out theretrodome.com.