Pasadena Playhouse

Feb 1, 2010

By now we are all aware that our solid old “always there” Pasadena Playhouse is on precarious footing. She’s the grand dame of Pasadena culture. We are shocked and distressed to hear of her misfortune, even if we are not playgoers. How can we make sense of her decline, and is there anything that we ordinary friends or neighbors or even strangers can do to reverse it?

Last night I was at a dinner party with some who are far more cognizant of finances than I am. One suggested that the Playhouse renegotiate terms of its mortgage obligations, “skinny down” staff and with the understanding that this recession may continue for another two to three years, work on revitalization. Someone else noted that significant fundraisers really can occur in a generous region like Pasadena. Another said bankruptcy is an option. I listened to all of this, but I admit I don’t quite understand how we reached this point. Yet here we are.

I’ve always wanted to be a philanthropist. My primary obstacle is that I don’t have any money. To compensate I suppose I think a lot about how to make things better. Now the Pasadena Playhouse has relocated right into the center of my thinking tank. Its occupation has become my preoccupation. On a human level, I have known Sheldon Epps, the artistic director, and his wife for nearly ten years. They are very understated, earnest, devoted contributors to the cultural scenes of Pasadena and Los Angeles. If anyone can suss out some solutions, I’d wager it will be Sheldon. Still, this is a painful time fraught with 37 job losses and the Playhouse’s spectral possibility. I keep thinking about what else could help restore and reinvent the Pasadena Playhouse.

The other day in class a boy suggested, “Miss, if every man, lady, baby and kid in the US gave a penny, wouldn’t that help the economy? Even the babies!” This did get me thinking — what if we shifted our view that instead of a getting-time, we now live in a giving-time? And it may need to be a giving-time for an indeterminate period? What if we imagined a new normal? What could that look like?

A new normal in Pasadena could steady the Playhouse. True, someone is going to have to lead the way in things monetary. But why couldn’t the Playhouse broaden its applicability to the life of our city? Could it be used for filming? For music or speakers’ series? Could its lovely courtyard be rented for private events, like those that take place in the oak garden behind Happy Trails Catering on Fair Oaks? Could a drama school be reintroduced? Could improv training like we find at Upright Citizens Brigade or Groundlings be offered? The Hamilton Theatre with its 86 seats is a great intimate space for performances and small-scale plays that itinerant companies like Buzzworks or Parson’s Nose mount.

One other consideration is the life and livelihood of Elements, the restaurant that has just arrived and is adjacent to the Playhouse. In its first location, this kitchen has won raves all around town. We’ve long anticipated its El Molino destination. Elements could prove to be as familial as our beloved old Playhouse, given the chance.

Pasadena has been blessed with its architecture, its sense of history, its ability to craft a particular identity in Southern California. There is room for all ages in our city. At some point the scenesters who hang out at the Paseo are going to grow up and start going to the Ice House, the Playhouse, the Gamble House. It’s our challenge to link the past and the present, to mesh our getting-time with our giving-time, to continue to foster our vibrant city. The Pasadena Playhouse may be ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille, but certainly not its close up.

Jean Gillis is a teacher and the proprietor of the blog Dating Yourself in Pasadena.

6 Responses for “Pasadena Playhouse”

  1. This is just another sign that we may indeed be far from an economic recovery in this country.
    As for the new Elements. That Playhouse space has always been bad luck for restaurants. If the PH is now outta biz, it probably won’t help that young restaurant to walk & run.

    Nevertheless, I see a future for the PH!

  2. Barlprod says:

    Maybe a mystery dinner theatre which would benefit the theatre and a restaurant that participates would work.
    There is a Gourmet Detective in Riverside, across from the Mission Inn, that seems to work quite well. True, it is different in that the play begins as soon as the guests walk in and dinner served in the same room as the play, but I’m sure something could be worked out with a restaurant close by!

    Surely there are dancers, actors, and singers that would love to showcase their talent in such a wonderful place and as a fundraiser!

  3. Petrea says:

    I’ve lived in Pasadena nearly five years now, and before that I lived in Altadena for two years. I’m a Pasadena homeowner. I’ve worked in the theatre much of my life. And all the time I’ve lived in Pasadena I’ve wanted to see shows at the Pasadena Playhouse. But I can’t afford a ticket.

    Perhaps my opinion will be unpopular in light of the fact that the Playhouse is a long-loved Pasadena icon, but I think it has to be said: I believe the Playhouse has been out of touch with Pasadena for a long time.

    I know from experience that it costs a lot of money to produce theatre. But if your own market can’t afford tickets to your shows, you’re doing something wrong. Yes there are rich people in Pasadena, but the rich people here obviously aren’t supporting the theatre. There are a lot of other people in town who might like to attend the theatre but who have to make other choices with their money. At $68 for a Sunday matinee, that’s $136 for me and my husband to see a show. In this day and age, I’m afraid I have to opt to pay my property taxes instead.

    I want the Playhouse to survive. But it’s got to survive in the 21st Century, with a new awareness of its audience.

  4. […] guess we’ve been too caught up in the Olympics and the Playhouse and other dramas, but somehow it’s just now sinking in that the Pasadena Marathon is Sunday […]

  5. Pasadena Theatre Watcher says:

    Truth is, Sheldon Epps and co. just plain mismanaged the entire playhouse finances for years. Because they are a registered charity, you can access the playhouse tax return freely, and truth is that they were taking in $3-3.6 million at the door and spending 7-8 million. They had 37 staff, which is about double the needed staff to run a playhouse of that size, and Sheldon Epps and Tom Ware themselves got 15-20% increases in salary in the last few years – Ware getting over $135k a year as the head carpenter, and Epps as the part time artistic director getting over $230k for his last year of service… And operating for years without anyone other than Epps directing the finances… Well, sorry of you don’t like the opinion, but Epps is always saying publicly that the playhouse was “saddled” with debt from its early days 13 or more years ago… with a debt that covered necessary production equipment and was not addressed in over a decade. That’s not a reasonable statement – it just tries to make it the problem of anyone else but those responsible for the mismanagement – the top one being Epps himself. As Epps has called for a “new beginning”, I find myself in complete agreement – a new beginning with no one from the current (mis)management team would be best!

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