Leon Worden

Homeless thespians overtaking Newhall?

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, May 15, 1996

ne year ago, talks of revitalizing downtown Newhall were shrouded in disbelief. Everyone seemed to think it would be a nice idea, but not too many seriously believed Newhall's backward economic and social slide could be arrested, let alone reversed.

The skepticism was justified. Many members of the "I'll believe it when I see it" crowd had suffered through earlier attempts to spruce up our old downtown core, some dating back 50 years. All prior efforts failed for lack of broad-based community interest.

In late 1995 and early 1996, a remarkable thing happened. Literally hundreds of people from all over Santa Clarita began to put countless thousands of hours into making their dreams for downtown Newhall come true.

In the present political climate, the revitalization of downtown Newhall is almost inevitable. The debate has shifted from "if" to "how." Today, at City Hall, only the details remain to be ironed out.

One of many exciting proposals to emerge thus far from the cacophony of community voices — actually, a combination of proposals — would turn downtown Newhall into a full- blown Theater District.

Widely publicized have been the efforts of the Theatre Arts for Children Foundation, headed by fellow Signal columnist Patti Rasmussen, to restore the forsaken Newhall School Auditorium to its former glory. The foundation wants to bring performing arts back to the auditorium — built in 1940-41, within walking distance of downtown shopping — and in so doing, make culture a part of our children's lives again.

"It's a great facility," says Timothy Ben Boydston, president of the Canyon Theatre Guild. "You've already got Mitch's Java 'n' Jazz in the vicinity. If we put three theaters within three blocks of each other, we'd create an identity for the area."

Boydston has a proposal of his own that could dramatically change the face of downtown Newhall. He is asking the City Council for one-time help in purchasing a low-cost downtown property that will give local thespians a permanent home.

For the last 10 years, the Canyon Theatre Guild has holed up in Callahan's Old West, a rickety museum and trading post built by cowboy actor Robert E. Callahan in the 1950s way up Sierra Highway, far from the theater-going multitudes of modern-day Santa Clarita.

Boydston wants to move the Guild closer to its audience. He is eyeing a quake-damaged but structurally sound set of buildings on San Fernando Road at 6th Street, in the heart of the revitalization zone.

"Now is the time to move," Boydston says. "We can get the best deal right now — 8,000 square feet for $400,000. You can't find that kind of square footage for that price anywhere else in Santa Clarita."

Rising box office receipts show how far the Guild has come since its first production in a rented Hart High School Auditorium a quarter-century ago. Theater gets no better than Mike Levine's incredible performance last season in Fiddler on the Roof, the Guild's most challenging — and most successful — production to date.

Fiddler boosted the Guild's surplus cash to $50,000, which will go toward the downpayment on the new residence. A prudently managed, self-sustaining nonprofit corporation, the Guild will carry a $240,000 mortgage and needs the city's help to build a stage, seating, work rooms and offices. An adjoining "Stage Door Canteen" will offer libations and delicacies before and after performances.

Michael Freedman, craftsman of the city's formal revitalization strategy, says Newhall must carve out a "market niche." It must provide something not found elsewhere in Santa Clarita. Economist Suzanne Lampert notes that Santa Clarita's traditional markets are saturated: our basic shopping needs can already be filled locally.

The trick, then, is to transform Newhall into something totally unique: a "main street" shopping environment which attracts customers from near and far and entices them to spend money.

What better lure than theater? There's plenty of room for children's theater, community theater, even a movie house in downtown Newhall.

Look around the next time you visit Glendale's Alex Theater or the Pasadena Playhouse. You roll out of the theater and into a restaurant. You pass block after block of upscale boutiques, art galleries, jewelers and rare book sellers as you walk to your car.

Merchants in those once-neglected downtowns long ago figured out the impact of captive theater audiences and restaurant patrons on a shopping district. For that matter, so did the designers of the Valencia Town Center, an altogether different kind of shopping en- vironment with a multiplex cinema and numerous eateries as bait — but no performing arts.

Bring community theater and fine dining to a rebuilt Old Town Newhall, and the shoppers will come.

* * *

And bring the kids to Hart Park in downtown Newhall this Sunday, May 19, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for the 5th annual Animal Fair! For information call 259-0855.

    Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident.

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