Patti Rasmussen and Kimberle Woolen are finally seeing the light at the end of a long tunnel — and it's not an oncoming train. Working for the last five years to restore the shuttered Newhall Elementary School auditorium, their nonprofit organization, Theatre Arts for Children, recently received a $350,000 grant to jumpstart the project.
Rasmussen, president of TAC, has been working toward restoring the Newhall Elementary Auditorium since 1994, when she toured the facility and was amazed to notice how little earthquake damage was suffered by the building, which is located only a few blocks from the Hart auditorium.
A 1939 project of the Works Progress Administration, built for $72,000, the auditorium was eliminated as a performance space in 1975, in response to the Valencia housing boom that created a need for more classrooms. By converting the auditorium into a supply depot, the paper dance effectively took its 8,700 square foot area out of what the state of California saw as classroom space and allowed the district to qualify for state funding. That move resulted in the construction of Meadows Elementary School.
As a result, for the last 24 years, the only sounds echoing from the proscenium to the projection booth were the shifting of boxes and rattle of moving carts when supplies arrived or were disbursed.
Theatre Arts for Children, of which Wooten is vice president, was founded with the sole purpose of restoring the Newhall Elementary School Auditorium. The group has received grants and conducted other fundraisers (most notably the July 4th "Country Fair" at Newhall Park that raised $23,000 in 1998) before receiving the city grant. But their fundraising efforts have just begun. Total restoration costs for the auditorium project have been estimated at $1.2 million.
Linda Johnson, field representative for Assemblyman George Runner, who shepherded the funding request through Sacramento, said: "He saw the opportunity for funding during last year's budget and made a 'member's request.'" (Individual legislators may request special allocations to be spent in their districts). "It wasn't for anything specific, but it had to be disseminated by the city for the community's benefit. Since community theater had come to the fore, that's what the city decided to fund."
The grant conditions were somewhat specific: Applicants had to have an auditorium that needed restoration. Both Theatre Arts for Children and the Hart Auditorium Foundation (whose facility was severely damaged in the January 17, 1994 earthquake) applied for the grant; the City Council approved TAC's request four weeks ago. The actual amount received by the group was $344,750 after the state deducted its 1½-percent administrative fee.
The first thing TAC did was hire Phil Lantis, the city's former special events coordinator, as the project manager. His initial task is somewhat overwhelming: getting state paperwork in order, finding an architect, creating a master plan and getting the ceiling-high pallets of school supplies moved out so restoration can begin.
A group of builders has agreed to raise funds and build an alternate storage space for the district. The cost of the 10,000-square-foot facility has been estimated at $220,000. Once a piece of land is secured, fundraising and construction should begin in earnest.
"Now, we have to do presentations and performances in classrooms or the cafeteria, which means they have to be coordinated with lunches and other events," said Newhall Elementary School Principal Sue Harrison. "I'm excited about taking this forward so the students can do plays and oral speaking, which is part of the curriculum. Especially for graduations and oration contests, it seems more appropriate for students to stand on a stage and talk out to the audience."
The excitement is catching among the students, who are hearing about the proposed reopening from their parents as well. Harrison said that the project seems to have community-wide appeal, which will help when the shared-used facility opens, hopefully for the Class of 2000.
"We've got trucks ready to roll," Rasmussen said. "We have a couple of options: There is a consortium of builders in the community who are working together. Theatre Arts for Children has made the commitment to replace the warehouse with a 10,000-square-foot facility."
"The community deserves it, and the children deserve it," Rasmussen said, emphasizing the shared-used concept which puts the community before the school in use priority. "We're even thinking of changing the name of our organization to Theatre and Arts for the Community to reflect what this building means to everyone."
Santa Clarita City Councilwoman Laurene Weste was enthusiastic about the group's project.
"This is the beginning of something that will impact the lives of every child in this valley," she said. "When you impact a child, you impact the entire community. With sports, we have provided some facilities, but there has always been a long-term problem to have a place for cultural arts to unite. How better to use the talents of people with gifts to share? It's a historic building. We could bring in theater, dance, have assemblies for great lectures; and events like the film festival and Cowboy Poetry Festival could use this as a venue.
"And the fact that it's a WPA building is important." she continued. "The WPA represents a time in America when the country had to pull together. This project is something that is bringing the community together."
Weste sees the auditorium's proximity to Old Newhall as something of an advantage: Tourists will come to see the theater's Art Deco flourishes and appreciate the building's lines. She also anticipates the movie industry using the building as a location tor shooting as well as screenings.
Originally, the auditorium seated 460 people. Using the available floor space and making accommodations for handicap access, an estimated 300 seats could be considered. However, one architect's proposed plan allows for seating tor 550 — by adding a balcony.
Of course, there are those who think the warehouse setting is perfect for performing.
"We had some people from CalArts in here and they loved it," Rasmussen said. "They said the warehouse thing was the newest look. They thought we should put the audience on stage and the actors in the big space."