On Dec. 3, 1926, the curtain rolled up on a production of “The Prince Chap” at what was then known as the Turlock High School Auditorium. It was the first show at the theatre that would one day be renamed as the Turlock Community Theatre. From headlining acts to the local youth theater troupe, the Turlock Community Theatre has been bringing entertainment to Turlock for decades and looks to be around for many more.
“Our main mission is to bring art to Turlock, whether it’s world-class acts or our local performers and we will continue that mission,” said Kit Casey, the theatre’s managing director.
Designed by architect William Henry Weeks and completed in 1925, the theatre, which was part of Turlock High School, quickly became a key spot in the cultural and social life of Turlock’s citizens.
“Every year there was a big Christmas pageant at the theatre and I remember it being a big, big deal, even as a little kid,” said Steve Carkeet, now the president of the theatre’s board of directors.
The memories of songs sung and scenes acted up on that stage run plentiful with many of Turlock’s more seasoned citizens.
“Some of our younger board members tell us we treat this place like it is a sanctuary and we tell them it is in its own way,” Carkeet said.
The theatre’s place as a central part of life in Turlock almost came to a fiery end when on Nov. 13, 1979, flames devoured large sections of the theatre’s art deco interior.
The fire, which was started in two storage closets by an arsonist, caused considerable damage to the stage and was deemed unsafe for student use, leaving the Turlock Unified School District with no choice but to shutter its doors.
For the next several years the theatre sat empty, accumulating dust and odds and ends as it became a makeshift storage facility for the school district. With the school district facing a steep price tag to bring the theatre up to code, the theatre looked likely to meet the heavy end of a few dozen sledgehammers in 1986.
However, five women — Betty Ireland, Sunny Washburn, Louise Washburn, Janice Virgo, and Bea Hapgood —remembered what the theatre once was and believed passionately in what it could be. Together they pled their case to the school board and by one vote the decision was cast to spare the site from demolition.
The women became the founding members of the Turlock High School Auditorium Restoration Fund. The school district signed a long-term lease with the new non-profit group and over the next 14 years the group would recruit new members and bring in the money to restore the site. Along the way, the group had the theatre recognized as a historical landmark.
The exhaustive work finally culminated in 1999 with the grand re-opening of the newly named and refurbished Turlock Community Theatre.
“The vast majority of the money raised came from private donations,” Carkeet said.
“We would not be open if we didn’t have the support of the community,” Casey added.
Since its resurrection from the ashes, the Turlock Community Theatre has been bringing headlining performers and world-class acts to the stage.
“The talent level coming in here has risen every year,” Casey said.
This year’s scheduled line-up includes: Musician and singer Kenny Loggins on Oct. 4; comedian Mike Birbiglia on Nov. 1; a Christmas show with Aaron Neville on Dec. 14; Blues musician Jonny Lang on Jan. 17, 2013; The Temptations on Jan. 25, 2013; Los Lobos on Feb. 15, 2013; author and satirist David Sedaris on May 7, 2013; and comedienne Joan Rivers on May 17, 2013.
Crooner Diana Krall has an upcoming show at the theatre at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 21.
“There will be a few other surprises coming and other potential shows,” Casey said.
Season tickets range from $300 to $458, depending on seat selection. Turlock Community Theatre also offers a partial subscription of five shows, with packages ranging from $206 to $321.
Additionally, the theatre is home to numerous local performances, including the Turlock Community Concert Association, Turlock Youth Performing Arts, Westside Ministries and a few dance academies.
“I love to see the kids using the theatre again,” said Carkeet, who took the same stage in several productions during his high school years. “It’s great we can give them a real theatre to perform in.”
For more information about tickets or renting the facility call 668-1169.
— SABRA STAFFORD