Through thick and thin, the Pasadena Playhouse has maintained a corps of volunteers, hundreds strong, that stokes the fire whether the theater is running or dark. From serving as ushers to envelope stuffers, gardeners to cooks, the group is known for its commitment to helping in any way it can.
For Lenore Almanzar, the trek has lasted decades and is far from over, if she has any say in the matter.
She was a student at the Playhouse when it operated a school as well as a theater, and “I never strayed too far either, since I married a fellow student,” she says in the theater lobby. The conversation is interrupted several times by late ticket holders and other volunteers. “I watched it be closed all those years, and that was just heartbreaking.”
While referring to a long dark period through the 1970s, Almanzar also was present for what artistic director Sheldon Epps in 2010 called the “intermission.” No one knew how long that pause would be between the final performance of David Lee’s Camelot and the next rising curtain. To say the Playhouse had encountered “financial hard times” would be an understatement. The majestic theater had fallen into a fiscal catastrophe, only to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in less than six months with a clean financial slate.
“I was just devastated,” Almanzar recalls. “But I had a lot of faith that they would re-open. I knew they couldn’t keep going the way they were. They had to get rid of all the debt and start fresh. All of the volunteers shed a few tears. It could’ve gone all wrong. Wouldn’t that have been a terrible thing? This place has so much history.”
Almanzar is as much a part of the theater’s contemporary history as anyone. It collapsed under a weight of debt in the 1960s, and its floors became sleeping spots for vagrants. Pigeons overtook the top floor, and fires and water damage could have brought the place down. Then early in 1979 a small notice appeared in the newspaper, Almanzar says, asking for volunteers to help re-open the Pasadena Playhouse.
A meeting was convened at Ambassador College. The 80 people who attended formed the group eventually dubbed Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse.
They formed committees. Membership grew. Everyone dug in with shovels, hoses and clippers. Until the theater officially re-opened, Friends, including Almanzar, served as tour docents to once again drum up interest in a forgotten theater. They sold tiles for the Wall of Support and marched in the Doo Dah Parade with a replica of the Playhouse they designed and built.
The first part of the theater re-opened in May, 1980, she remembers. It was a 52-seat auditorium, the Interim Theatre, where Elements restaurant now sits. Then, in what is now the upstairs Carrie Hamilton Theatre, the Balcony Theatre space opened, and the Friends enlarged their refreshment stand in the patio.
Once the main stage re-opened, new committees formed, all run by the volunteers, all of whom pay $20 per year and receive two comps for every show. “We still have those committees — and more,” Almanzar says with pride. She reads down the list. “Archives, Endowment, Historian, Hospitality, Membership, Merchandise, Newsletter and Office Help.”
Almanzar mentions a million dollar endowment that was received in 2002 at the death of volunteer Georgia McClay. Some of the money went into the Friendship Center on the south side of the Playhouse patio, a place for pre-show gatherings and merchandise sales. “One of the reasons Georgia left the money to the Friends and not the Playhouse is that she wanted to make sure the needs they had were taken care of. A new washer and dryer downstairs, for example. That’s the kind of thing we like to do.”
The Friends group gives the Playhouse a certain amount from the endowment every year. “Of course it’s not as much now as it used to be.” Indeed. In 2004 the group handed over $500,000 for the Playhouse’s Next Stage [fundraising] campaign. “I think we were really instrumental in keeping the Playhouse afloat for a while when they were in trouble. We don’t have a million dollars now,” she adds, acknowledging the endowment now stands at approximately $30,000. It is just enough to tackle small projects — painting a bench or replacing screws in furniture.
Epps responded to a query about the half-million dollar transaction. “In addition to their many hours of valuable service, the Friends have also greatly served our theater through a number of generous gifts. Some of those were made at times that were absolutely crucial to the theater’s fiscal health. They always come through for the theater, in good times and bad, and for that I am very grateful.”
Epps adds that, money aside, the Playhouse likely could not operate without the Friends organization. “I certainly wouldn’t want to try,” he admits, eyes wide at the prospect.
Epps and Almanzar know the organization’s value. “For one thing, we don’t have a salaried coordinator, so that saves the Playhouse money,” she says. “And our members have volunteered at least 19,000 hours in 2011. That’s a conservative estimate.” According to an article in the AARP magazine she cites, the value of a volunteer is now $23.42 per hour. “That means the Friends would be volunteering the equivalent of $444,980 this year. The hours probably will be more like 23,000. It’s an enormous amount of money.”
Three other Friends of the Playhouse meet Almanzar in the lobby. Sharon Zaslaw is the board’s recording secretary. Nola Widin has served as treasurer for 14 of the 15 years she has been on the board, and Mary Basile is a two-year member of the Friends group.
“I’m retired,” says Basile, “and feel kind of sad because people often sign up for Friends just so they can see the plays for free. So I decided I will usher every Saturday and Sunday night during the run of a show. You get to know these people.”
It would be impossible, she says, to volunteer so much that you stand in the way of other volunteers. She comes to the group without a background in theater. “I have no talent whatsoever,” she admits, but she easily remembers seeing her first show at the Playhouse. “It was 1987 and my favorite show of all time, Mail, about a guy who ran away and came home to all this mail, which was talking to him. It didn’t do well on Broadway, however.”
When asked how many hours she volunteers a year, she answers, quickly. “Over 500, but don’t even blink. That one there [Lenore], she’s amazing.”
Almanzar is particularly proud of the Playhouse’s membership in CAVORT (Conference About Volunteers of Regional Theatre) which assembles every other year and draws hundreds of non-paid theater volunteers. Next year’s event is at Niagara-On-The-Lake in Ontario, Canada.
“We pay our own way.” Almanzar notes, “However, if one of the Friends is a member of the CAVORT Board, the Friends give them a small amount to help with expenses, since they go to the planning meeting the year before as well as the actual conference. The Friends are always one of the groups with the largest attendance.”
She notes that the Theatre at Boston Court, just a few blocks from the Playhouse, is joining, too. Boston Court Performing Arts Center executive director Michael Seel says, “When the Playhouse went dark in early 2010, I got a call from Lenore Almanzar. Like everything in that period of time, the Friends were also shut out of the building and didn’t have a place to hold their board meetings. We were happy to give them space and, in return, they asked if we were in need of volunteers. Since we don’t need ushers at Boston Court, we asked if they wanted to assist when we did our next mass mailing preparation. Well, they did and what normally took us four to six hours, was done in under two! And they continue to come help us out every time we call.”
On Tuesdays, Basile helps with the Playhouse’s archives, run by Ellen Bailey. “It is so interesting because you can tell how much money [the Playhouse was] making at the time by the quality of the paper. Things aren’t going so well, there’s flimsy paper that disintegrates. When they’re doing better, the programs are nicer.”
Bailey began the archival process 30 years ago. “When I started, there was no organization of anything at all. Photographs and programs and everything was scattered everywhere. I started sorting through it all, and now we’re transposing all of our records into the computer, a horrendous job.”
She stands next to an old-fashioned library catalog cabinet, the kind children would once search through, using the Dewey Decimal System to find a book. “It’s original to the Playhouse,” she notes. “There is a card for every actor who has appeared here, dating back to 1916, and some photos as well. We have directors, too.”
Bailey and her volunteers copied the cards, looked to see what information was missing, then cross-referenced details from corresponding programs. “That way we can add closing dates if we need to and anything else that might be missing. We check for spelling errors, too.”
It hasn’t been an easy task. The computer age gave Bailey DOS, then Microsoft Word. Excel came in later and ultimately a special database that now has nearly 57,000 individual entries.
Holding a stack of dozens of requests, Bailey says, “We hear from people almost daily who want to learn something about their aunt or great-grandmother, someone in the family who performed here.”
We stand in a room lined with bookcases and file cabinets. Volunteers squeeze in, elbow to elbow, working quietly or checking with a comrade who might know where a certain file or piece of information might be located. The filing system is organized by year for the Playhouse’s first few decades, then by show once the main Playhouse re-opened in 1986.
“When the Playhouse went into bankruptcy in 1969,” Bailey explains, “everything was sold. All that remained was the library catalog. Thankfully, a lot of Playhouse alumni kept programs and photos. Last week a director brought in a box of photos from different shows. We have re-collected a lot but still have some gaping holes. That’s why it’s been a never-ending job and I’ve been at it for 30 years.”
The volunteer archivists say it’s their mission to honor the Playhouse’s rich history. “Right now we’re putting into this software program a list of every person who ever played at the Playhouse, the name of the production they were in, which one of the theaters [there were as many as five on the site], the director, author, dates they played, what class they were in if they were a graduate. If there’s a program or photos we’ll scan those in as well.”
Bailey pulls open a file drawer that dates back to 1916. Its 3×5-inch yellow, blue and orange cards have mellowed by age. A round metal rod pierces their bottom edges and holds them in place. A few feet away, she opens another. In it are blue folders with names of plays and one in particular stands out: Art.
David Lee, who directed the Playhouse’s Camelot just before its 2010 “intermission,” helms Yasmina Reza’s play starring Roger Bart, Michael O’Keefe and Bradley Whitford. It opens January 24, 2012 and gives the volunteers yet more documents to scan and record.