Company Spotlight: Altarena Playhouse
Thursday, November 21, 2013
By Laura Brueckner
"This is one of the dressing rooms," says Frederick L. Chacon, artistic director of Altarena Playhouse in Alameda. "Look, there's memorabilia from people who have been in this theatre since the '50s." He points at walls that would be white except for the explosion of handwriting covering them. Many messages are show titles or lines from plays, while some are more cryptic; one reads, "I am not a duck!" while another laments, "no coffee" in small letters. On one cabinet, an autograph in black marker stands out: "Anne Collins, 1996, "The Odd Couple," Female Version, Altarena Debut."
This is notable not merely because the company just closed its 2013 production of the same play 17 years later, but because 17 isn't really that long in Altarena years. Some people involved with this community theatre have been contributing their time and talent for decades. Rae Gaeta, one of the company's guiding lights, performed in her first show with the theatre in 1951; her most recent, 2008.
|Lobby of the Altarena Playhouse. Photo: Laura Brueckner
In some ways, the story of Alameda Little Theatre, Inc., the organization that runs the Altarena, is a story of buildings. The company, founded in 1938 by a director named Valentine Newmark and an actress named Doris Goodman, began its career with a murder drama called Riddle Me This at Alameda's Adelphian Club. Newmark landed a Works Progress Administration grant the same year, and the ALT was off and running, producing shows as an itinerant troupe for 10 years.
It would find a home at the Hideaway Warehouse, where it would spend the next 10 years. The Hideaway was a former dance hall, part of Neptune Beach, a Coney-Island style amusement park and island getaway for San Franciscans tired of the fog. Using only volunteer labor, and lots of it, ALT built out the empty hall into a proscenium theatre. This effort, spanning years, brought dozens of people together, forming the basis of a community that is still going strong.
In 1957, the company lost its lease on the Hideaway and moved its operations into the defunct Hagstrom's Grocery building at 1409 High Street. ALT christened its new home "ALTarena," combining the troupe's initials with a reference to the theatre's arena-style seating—and it's been there ever since.
ALT enjoys one enviable advantage—it owns the building. With venue rentals eating up a large part of so many theatres' budgets, Chacon is grateful for—and realistic about—this achievement. "We have to thank the pioneers," he says. "In '57 they got this space, then they paid off the mortgage" (an event which occasioned a notorious "mortgage-burning party"). "If it hadn't been for them securing this space, who knows where the Altarena would be today?"
Where Altarena actually is today is another story. This season marks the company's 75th in continuous operation, a long life carefully documented in the theatre's archives. Theatre history buffs can see photos, programs and other artifacts from the '30s, '40s, '50s and beyond, thanks to ALT historian Susan Dunn; she has devoted a great deal of time to preserving and preparing its archival materials for display, including an exhibit at the Alameda Museum and at the company's gala 75th anniversary celebration this summer, where performers from years past entertained over 300 guests, including Alameda mayor Marie Gilmore.
This season has heralded new initiatives, too. Altarena now hosts benefit performances on the first Sunday of a show's run, donating half the evening's proceeds to a local charity. Another program premiering this season is production sponsorship, where an individual or company can make a substantial donation for a specific show. Sponsors receive opening night tickets, thanks in the program and a signed show poster.
Chacon selects the seasons himself, with occasional suggestions from ALT staff, often choosing golden community-theatre standbys like The Odd Couple or The Fantasticks. "I try to give us a major work, a Tennessee Williams or an Arthur Miller," he says, "then I look for a comedy or a musical." While Altarena's 2013 production of Rent broke box office records, last year's edgier Spring Awakening proved a tougher sell. "It was a beautiful production, but it wasn't everybody's cup of tea," says Chacon.
ALT has also staged new work, including two original musicals by local playwright Ron Lytle, and the show currently playing at the Altarena, The Song of the Nightingale, an original musical by Min Kahng developed in part through workshops with ALT.
On the way out, through the lobby decked with bright-colored posters from cheery musicals, Chacon points out favorites with a grin. When asked what he would like to see in the company's future, however, Chacon—a retired drama teacher of 30 years who founded and ran Alameda Civic Light Opera before coming to ALT—smiles. "I would really like to do some Shakespeare," he says.