Musical Theater Faces Bankruptcy

Times Staff Writer

The Firelite Dinner Theatre filed for bankruptcy last week after 10 years of dishing up musical entertainment and meals from converted warehouses in East Ventura industrial parks.

Owner Kathryn M. Taylor said the theater will continue through the year's end, with "Fiddler on the Roof" running until Nov. 19 and "The Sound of Music" scheduled for the holidays.

After that, barring what Taylor calls "a miracle," the theater that brought Ventura County such chestnuts as "Li'l Abner," "Annie" and "Oklahoma" will go dark for good.

"The bills piled up really high," said Taylor, picking her way among the painted wood trees and fake chimneys of the theater where she spends up to 16 hours a day when shows are running. "We could no longer juggle everybody and keep the place in any form of balance."

$35,000 Loan Repaid

Taylor said the Firelite Theatre never turned more than a meager profit. But it limped along with determination, weathering an eviction and even repaying a $35,000 loan several years ago.

Financial problems mounted last year after construction costs for a new kitchen ballooned. The unanticipated increase stretched an already taut budget to the breaking point and last week, unable to meet creditors' demands, Taylor gave up.

The Chapter 7 bankruptcy action filed Oct. 5 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Los Angeles listed assets of $5,197 and debts of $201,265.

This week, local arts administrators expressed surprise and sympathy for Taylor's plight.

"I'm very sorry to hear this. They've done some fine work and they've worked bravely here against all odds for a number of years," said Maureen Davidson, executive director of the Ventura Arts Council, a nonprofit group funded by private and civic organizations.

While it never aimed to be the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Firelite Dinner Theatre brought lively musical drama to residents of Ventura County and the West San Fernando Valley.

"It doesn't seem to be an issue of whether the theater is challenging or whether it plays the tried-and-true standards that are going to be popular," Davidson said. "Those theaters that are doing the challenging pieces are not doing any better. It certainly reflects something about the state of the arts in Ventura County."

Taylor's first theatrical experience came when she was unceremoniously shoved into the role of stage manager for a Firelite production of "Cabaret," in which her husband Kendal was playing a character role.

"He was on-stage. I was backstage," she recalled. "It was very exciting."

Purchased in 1982

In 1982, Taylor and her husband bought the four-year-old Firelite Theatre with $35,000 borrowed from a friend who had mortgaged his house to come up with the money. The theater--which was then on Market Street in an East Ventura industrial park--had been for sale for almost a year with no bidders and was slated to be closed.

She underwent an education by fire. With each performance, Taylor learned how to run a theater. The 83-seat facility flourished and built an audience. Overhead was low--community theater actors aren't paid--and Taylor chipped away at debts each month.

In January, 1986, the new owner of their building evicted the theater. Taylor said she hunted for a new location for six months. Downtown Ventura seemed ideal, but $50,000 was needed to reinforce the old brick masonry buildings lining Main Street. The Ventura Avenue area was relatively cheap, but there were no places large enough.

Triple the Rent

Taylor settled on an empty 7,200-square-foot warehouse on Transport Street, off Telephone Road. It was three times as big as the original space, triple the rent and lacking a kitchen. But she was desperate.

Last February, after building a sound stage, she borrowed $25,000 to install a kitchen in her new, 125-seat theater, so she could serve dinners that would draw additional patrons to the deserted industrial park for an evening's entertainment. That, combined with a decision to feature several artistically adventuresome shows like "Head Over Heels," proved her undoing, Taylor said.

She said it would take at least $100,000 to resurrect the Firelite, but she remains optimistic.

"I'm hoping to put things on hold long enough to figure out a better plan to raise more money and get a backer," Taylor said. "After 10 years, this theater has proved itself. It should not go away."

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