COLUMBIA — A real life nugget from the days of the Gold Rush is the Fallon House Theatre that was built in 1850 and continues with its stage productions year-round today.
A colorful Doug Brennan, 63, serves as the resident stage manager who first came to Columbia some 40 years ago with one of the directors of a junior college. Brennan is now the central figure in the daily operations of the facility as a horse-drawn stage coach filled with tourists rumbles down the main street.
He remembers those early days in 1973 when he and several other college students did nothing but theater for nine weeks in the old Gold Rush town. He said it was like going through basic training on stage.
Thinking back through the history of the theatre, he said it had burned down a few times. The current version was constructed about 1890 when the state made several revisions in a concern for safety of both the audience and the cast members.
Brennan recalled when the bats would come out of the attic in his early days and swoop over the audience from back stage, returning into the wings.
“They never really bothered anybody, but it took the attention away from the stage. They never picked the good moments to show up, and we couldn’t get them to appear when we did “Dracula,” he quipped. “Their access from the attic has since been boarded up.”
He was one of five founders of the current theatre in 1979 that had all been members of the UOP Fallon House. Brennan, along with Dennis and Sara Jones and David and Kathy Kahn, worked together to get the theatre on its feet.
Their central connection was the University of the Pacific that had used Fallon House for Summer Theatre student productions. They had started doing the non-profit paper work in 1978. David and Kathy left after 1982, he remembers.
“Dracula” was their first stage production. Partner Sy Kahn was a very literary man and had asked what version we were going to use. He said he could write a better version over the weekend – and he did,” Brennan said.
The Summer Theatre productions had served UOP students from 1949 to 1984. Students who acted in the plays were bunked down in “Eagel Cottage” adjacent to the theatre. The misspelling of its name can be seen today on a plaque marking the building.
Brennan said he hasn’t acted for years and has focused on the stage and lighting.
“I’m an indoor theatre guy – I read a lot,” he said”. I play online poker for fun on play money sites. I’m a big sports fan – watch a lot of baseball. I live on cattle grazing land near Jamestown off of Highway 120, working 40 to 60 hours a week with rehearsals and performances in progress.”
Brennan sits in the stage manager’s chair in the rear center of the balcony during the productions where he can keep an eye on all the activities from the lighting to the action on stage. He spends 500 to 600 hours a year in that booth – as far away from the stage as he can be seated.
“It’s impossible for me to walk into the theatre and not have a quick thought to those early days and their very happy memories. It has a very nice feel, and it feels like an old-time theatre. It would be nice at times to have new technology in the building,” he said.
Brennan noted that it is always refreshing to do a show from the ‘40s in the building, like “Harvey” with Jimmy Stewart and Elwood Dowd and his imaginary six-foot-tall rabbit.
“I remember being a little upset when I was not cast for the Easter Bunny and then I got the part of Santa Claus. That started my career, later playing a middle-aged businessman – in “A Man Who Came to Dinner.”
He was initially in lighting design at 24 while still at UOP taking independent study with plays at the Civic Theatre in Stockton.
As for the ice cream parlor at the front of the Fallon House, Brennan has a favorite drink – their chocolate milk shakes.
His mother, Eileen Peteet, now 89 and living in Sonora, has been his constant supporter “forever” he quipped. There were no funds when the five of them created the non-profit and she put up some money as did his aunt and uncle who were very interested in theatre and traveled to Columbia, enjoying a number of plays.
Much of his young life was spent growing up in Germany where his dad, Thomas Brennan, served two tours in the military.
“Don’t Dress for Dinner” is currently on stage. It’s more of an ensemble, he said, with the leads being Louis Lotorto and Eva Swann.
On the east side of Sonora, several miles away, is the Sierra Repertory Theatre where other major productions can be seen on stage with professional and student actors.
For more information on Fallon House productions go to www.Sierrarep.org