By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – Joshua Zsido has never played the lead character on stage but he earned a standing ovation for his heartfelt performance as the savior of the Main Street Theater earlier this month.
Just 13 years old, standing in front of a packed house of peers and elders, Joshua addressed the Visalia City Council with all of the confidence and emotion of a seasoned actor. Using the skills he had learned over the last four years as a member of the Enchanted Playhouse Theater Company, he pleaded with the council to think of the children’s theater company as his family and as the Main Street Theater as their home. He urged the council not to sell the building, which has been home to Enchanted Playhouse for 25 years, and save a “wonderful and life changing” theater rather than save money to make way for another restaurant.
“Children won’t remember what restaurant they ate at 10 years from now,” Joshua said. “What they will remember is the joy of watching live theater. When I look out into the audience, I see excitement, smiles and laughter! Most of all, I see hope. Families enjoy quality time together and make a memory that will last a lifetime.”
Joshua’s father, John, said his son has suffered from a health problem for the last five years that prevents him from playing sports and other youth activities. He said his son’s first role had just six words and was alternated between two other boys, but it meant the world for Joshua to be a part of a team in his own way.
“People at the Enchanted Playhouse opened their arms to this little boy,” John said. “He developed confidence and friendships and I would hate to see that diminished for other kids.”
The father and son were among 25 people to speak out against and help block the sale of the Main Street Theater during public comment at the July 16 meeting. Over the past two decades, the Main Street Theater has played host to more than 2,000 performances by the Enchanted Playhouse Theater Company (EPTC) exposing over 300,000 students to live theater. Many of those children and their families rallied at the meeting in an 11th hour effort to save the theater from being sold.
A Dramatic Scene
Mike Wilson, who taught drama for 35 years at Golden West High School, said when he arrived at the school they were only doing musicals. He credited EPTC with getting kids interested in doing a variety of dramatic acting that also included comedies and dramas. He said stories like Joshua’s could be heard by taking to any child or parent who was in attendance.
“Social development is just as important as sports, and, in my heart, more important,” Wilson said. “We are both here to build great people.”
Incoming high school senior Joshua Martin said Mt. Whitney High School drama was a place to stick students who could not get the elective classes they wanted. He said he was treated like an outcast in the class, had suicidal thoughts and was prescribed anti-depressants. Instead, he found a more welcoming environment at Enchanted Playhouse.
“Don’t put a monetary value on the theater,” Martin said. “It touched me more than any amount of money.”
Isabella O’Keeffe, a sophomore at College of the Sequoias, also credited EPTC with providing her a safe place to express herself. She said she came from a broken home with a father in jail and a mother trying to balance work and life as a single mom. She said the children’s theater was a place to escape the problems at home without turning to drugs, alcohol or violence.
“Enchanted Playhouse helped me feel like I wasn’t broken and that I’m not alone,” O’Keeffe said. “We are known for being outcasts and if you take away the theater, you take away our outlet.”
Limuel Forgey told the council he was proud of Visalia for supporting performing arts through the Sequoia Symphony, dance studios as well as school, community and children’s theater. He said taking away the Main Street Theater would over burden EPTC with costs to rent venues and to store props and costumes.
“We work hard to maintain the quality of arts for our children and it would be in terrible jeopardy of not being able to continue,” Forgey said.
Kevin Veitia said he was raised in Miami and loves Visalia because it has a small town feel with all of the amenities of a larger city, including a theater primarily dedicated to children’s plays. He said he has seen Visalia change a lot during his time in the city but said some change comes at the cost of fixtures in the community.
“Main Street Theater is one of these fixtures, so hold onto it as long as you can,” he said. “We are not in a shortage of restaurants and retail spaces.”
The Plot, of Land, Thickens
The restaurant referenced by speakers was part of the $515,000 offer to purchase the Main Street Theater, 307 E. Main St., made by Legacy Investments in response to the request for proposals (RFP) issued by the city in February. JR Shannon, the sole owner of Legacy Investments, wrote in his proposal he had already received a letter of interest from a “large restaurant tenet” interested in half of the 8,000 square foot property for “a new conceptual restaurant that we currently don’t have in Visalia.” He said the restaurant expects to hire 50-75 new employees, with the possibility of more for a catering arm of the business, and project $1.5 to $2.5 million in annual taxable sales. He stated that this tenant had already agreed to work with Enchanted Playhouse to host fundraising events for the theater company.
He went on to say that he is already in negotiations with another restaurant to lease the other half. Shannon also proposed using a 10-15 foot portion of the Garden Street Plaza as an outdoor patio area long the west wall of the building. In keeping with the RFP issued by the city, Shannon stated that the building’s front façade and Main Street Theater signage would remain and even be repaired. He also expressed interest in keeping the ticket sales window of the theater for some sort of use by the tenant. Shannon said he was ready to begin construction in August and have the building open by spring 2019.
“My name and my family’s name in this town means everything to me and with every project I make sure I’m representing that in the highest,” Shannon wrote. “I am an active philanthropist and entrepreneur in town and I want to keep doing successful projects to help better our community.”
The only other offer the city received was from Rainmaker Productions. In his letter to the city council, local insurance agent and founder Michael Cavale said his company, which specializes in benefit concerts for local charities, would continue to the theater for live performances, including productions by the EPTC.
“I am well aware you have fiscal responsibilities; however, I am asking the council to put the good of the citizens of Visalia before those financial concerns,” Cavale wrote.
Councilmember Phil Cox pointed out that Rainmaker’s bid was $200,000 and did not meet the minimum bid of $450,000 outlined in the RFP. He said the EPTC board was notified of the bid’s failure to meet minimum requirements yet many people wrote in letters and emails they were surprised to discover Rainmaker’s bid was not considered.
“I don’t know why the board chose not to respond to the RFP,” Cox said.
“If this isn’t a response, I don’t know what is,” said John Rozum, an attorney and Enchanted Playhouse board member.
Rozum presented several city documents in support of the theater company’s claim that they are exclusively linked to the property. A performance agreement dated May 1, 2003 showed the city purchased the Main Street Theater from a private owner in collaboration with the theater company with the intent of “maintaining a cultural arts venue.” Under the agreement, EPTC was required to appraise the building, raise enough funds for $100,000 for a down payment, and make monthly payments on the remainder of the loan. If the purchase was not completed by May 31, 2004 Enchanted Playhouse was required to repay the city for costs associated with the purchase of the building.
Greg Kirkpatrick, who was on the city council at the time of the agreement, said staff did not include the performance agreement between the city and EPTC or a resolution outlining the city’s purchase of Main Street Theater on behalf of the children’s theater in the council’s request for proposals. On May 17, 2004, Kirkpatrick and fellow councilmembers approved Resolution 2004-04, which initiated eminent domain proceedings after the property owners, Lillian Martin and Jerald Harrah, turned down a fair market offer from the city. On Aug. 9, 2007, a judge ordered the property owners to accept $600,000 in exchange for the Main Street Theater.
“Retaining the Main Street Theater as a live-entertainment facility is vital to the long-term vitality and continued expansion of the downtown,” the resolution stated. “No other facilities currently exist in the downtown area that can serve the same purposes as the Main Street Theater.”
The resolution passed on a 4-1 vote in 2004. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Phil Cox, who again serves on the council and again reiterated his position on the item 15 years ago.
“Government should not get in the way of free market,” Cox said. “When government sticks its head into busienss things get screwed up.”
The city began leasing the Main Street Theater to EPTC on Aug. 1, 2004 after the theater company failed to come up with the down payment on a loan. The month-to-month lease was for $3,000 per month in addition to utilities. Under the lease, the exterior maintenance of the building was the responsibility of the city while the interior was the responsibility of Enchanted Playhouse. The lease also stated that failure to pay rent within three days of a notice to pay rent would result in default of the lease. According to Assistant City Manager Mario Cifuentez, the theater company is nearly six months behind on rent.
Laurel Barton, a member of EPTC board of directors, said the children’s theater company has been unable to come up with a down payment to purchase the building but has paid $402,000 in lease payments, $214,000 in utility payments and spent $37,000 in repairs since the city purchased the building in 2004. She also noted that other community groups use their theater as a venue including the 4th Wall Players, the Creative Center, University Prep High School and musical groups because it is a less expensive option than other venues in town.
EPTC board member Kelly Ventura reminded the council that all of those payments were funded through ticket sales and private donations. In a July 13 letter to the Council, he pointed out the board’s recent commitment of funds to upgrade the lighting and sound systems and expressed EPTC’s interest in purchasing the building.
“Where has the board been at in this process?” asked Councilmember Steve Nelson. “You’ve had since 2004 to purchase the theater.”
Nelson scolded the board for not informing those in the audience about the process. He said he had received emails saying he should be “ashamed” for considering the sale of the theater even though the board has been promising to purchase the property for 13 years.
“If we are going to point fingers than I’m pointing it at the [EPTC] board,” Nelson exclaimed. “The Board failed you because they didn’t come forward in an appropriate timeline.”
Another EPTC board member, Debbie Terry, said many of the members on the board are new to the organization in addition to it being an all-volunteer board. Terry apologized for not understanding the city’s process and said she was under the impression that EPTC and the city were operating the theater as a partnership.
“We never thought you would sell to a restaurant and oust us,” Terry said. “We did fail the children and once we realized it we are here trying to fix it.”
Councilmember Greg Collins said he was not in support of selling the theater to build a restaurant but agreed that the responsibility for the property being up for sale was ultimately on the EPTC board. “If there had been some follow through we wouldn’t be gathered here this evening.”
In order to sell the property, the Council needed a four-fifth’s vote to approve the ordinance on both the first reading and second reading. The sale would then take effect 30 days following the council’s approval of the second reading.
Vice Mayor Bob Link said the difference between the Main Street Theater and other sports venues is that organizations such as Cal Ripken and the Visalia Rawhide ownership pay to maintain those facilities even though the city paid to build them.
“If we are supposedly the bad guys than you didn’t get the whole story,” Link said. “This building is not an asset to the city, it’s a liability. It makes sense to give it to somebody who can take care of it.”
Mayor Warren Gubler admitted that the theater company was an important piece of the community but also said they are better thespians than businesspeople. Gubler said he was torn between the business side of his concerns and “the other side” and not wanting to be cast as Snidely Whiplash, the archenemy of Dudley Do-right, for dashing the dreams of the children’s theater company. Gubler choked up after sharing a story of acting alongside his two daughters in EPCT’s production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” before saying he would vote against the sale.
“This is not what I was intending to do tonight,” Gubler said. “Your comments were very dramatic and you touched my heart.”
It a rare twist, Councilman Nelson changed his position and provided the swing vote by motioning to postpone the sale for 90 days to give EPHT a “chance for success.” The motion passed 3-2, with Cox and Link voting to move ahead with the sale.