Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Show Time?

While the Newhall Elementary auditorium is used as a warehouse, some dream of raising its curtains again.

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"Here comes the yellow rose now," a spirited third grader says, stepping up to the footlights. Her smile beams to an audience full of anxious parents and relatives, and she makes a sweeping gesture toward another girl in a yellow hoop skirt.

What's wrong with this picture? The third grader has teenagers of her own. The footlights have been extinguished. The seats have been removed. The curtains hang neglected.

Where are the people?

The stage at Newhall Elementary School patiently awaits another generation of third-graders. Its proscenium proudly peeks out from four-foot-deep stacks of boxed modeling clay and cleaning products. The projection booths that once showed the films of silent film star William S. Hart are filled with dust and hardware.

The auditorium (or "ditorum" as the sign outside, minus a few letters, reads) is currently playing its most tragic role of all — a warehouse.

The Newhall School District, established in 1877, built the third generation of Newhall Elementary (the first two burned down) at the corner of 11th and Walnut Streets in 1940. The auditorium, the first and only in the town, was built by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.

When the next school in the district, Peachland Elementary, was built in 1960, it was more cost-effective to include a multi-purpose room instead of an auditorium, making Newhall the only school in the valley with a venue for the performing arts.

In [1975], the school district decided to convert the auditorium into a warehouse, sawing off the seats and gutting the building, leaving a bar of lights hanging next to empty hooks that once flew scenery. The wings were walled off, creating an office, and dressing rooms with bathroom facilities were soon filled with the debris of the growing district.

Exterior and interior walls are made of concrete. The ground floor, capable of holding 460 seats, is sloped with a large area for an orchestra pit. The stage area is raised, with spaces for scenery storage on the sides, elephant doors in the rear of the building and a large storage area in the basement.

A ticket booth to the left of the lobby now sits abandoned. Fans mounted in the upstairs room next to the three tiny projection windows are still capable of cooling the hot celluloid.

All that's missing are the people.

January's earthquake brought the curtain down on the most commonly used community theater, the auditorium at Hart High School, leaving Newhall Elementary with the only standing stage in the community.

Aware of the hidden jewel in their school, a group of concerned parents, some of whom are Newhall Elementary alumni, have organized to bring the auditorium back to life.

The Theater Arts for Children Foundation, headed by Patti Rasmussen, has a mission: to provide theater arts for the children of the Newhall School District and its surrounding communities. The group has met with the school board to explore a joint-venture project of restoring the auditorium. The cost of the project, according to district architects, is estimated at $1.4 million.

"We want to restore the auditorium to its original condition for the children of the school," said Rasmussen as she led a group through the warehouse/theater. "Our group has been given three tasks: one, to find alternative warehouse space to replace what they would lose here; two, to raise the $1.4 million needed for the project; and three, help design a program for theater arts for children."

Professing to being a "non-theater" kind of person, Rasmussen's interest grew when her 6-foot-2, 250-pound freshman son wanted to do something other than play football. Despite the coaches yearning for him to play, he found his niche in scenery painting and is now fully involved in the technical end of theater.

She clearly relishes showing off the auditorium, sharing her dream with anyone who will listen. Her younger son ran up and down the aisles with a playmate, his laughter echoing against the walls of windows hung with tattered curtains.

"Listen," Rasmussen said. "Perfect acoustics."

Rasmussen has strong support from the parents group, especially Paco Vela, an actor who works with the school children producing royalty-free story theater.

"There's a place in theater for anyone who wants to walk in," Vela said. "I direct, stage manage, whatever it takes to make sure every child can participate."

"We consider theater arts for children our heart," he said, gesturing around the auditorium. "We just want this as a home."

Vela was bit by the performing bug at a young age when an elementary school in bis native Texas needed boys for a dance performance.

"I was fortunate to have available a theater group in junior high and high school," Vela said.

After spending four years in the Navy, Vela performed in Equity dinner theater and began pursuing an acting career, performing in television dramas "Hill St. Blues" and "St. Elsewhere."

He also spent a lot of time with children as a bilingual Ronald McDonald.

"Throughout my acting and theater career, I always ended up in children's theater," Vela explained. "Whether it was scene building, directing ... it's simple and honest. You've got to be honest to do it."

Both Vela and Rasmussen know their task is monumental, but they are not daunted. Replacing 10,000 square feet of warehouse space (for the auditorium and an adjacent newer warehouse, which Vela explains could easily house set storage, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms and a dance floor) is their first hurdle. The district is not requiring die group to find the space within district boundaries; in fact, it has expressed concerns whether such a busy facility should be located on school grounds.

"We could look in the industrial center," said Rasmussen. "It might even be better out there."

Raising the money might even be the easy part.

As the building is unique and nearly 60 years old, historic preservation monies might be available for the restoration.

As for creating the theater arts program for the children, Vela is already seeing to that. His enthusiastic band of thespians recently performed in the cafeteria at the school and are willing to put on a show anywhere.

But it sure would be nice for these kids to have a home. It's time for those footlights to flip up and shine again.

More information on the Theater Arts for Children Foundation is available by calling 259-2709.

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