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South County Theater Struggles to Find Home

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The South Orange County Community Theater is used to uphill battles, but its struggle to win a permanent home in the historic San Juan Saloon building may be the steepest yet.

The theater would like to occupy the building--which is leased by the city and has been vacant for almost a year--rent free. But at least two of the City Council’s five members seem eager to rent the building out commercially, to a Western clothing store. A decision is to be made Oct. 1.

“A Western mercantile, haberdashery type of store would fit into our downtown very well, I think,” Councilman Gil Jones said this week. “I’m committed to making a change to something that will bring in some revenue.”

Revenue apparently wasn’t a criterion earlier this month during discussions over the San Juan Capistrano Decorative Arts Study Center, located in a building owned outright by the city. The council voted to dismiss more than $60,000 in unpaid rent and to grant the center a four-year lease rent free.

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“When you do things like that, you set precedents,” said community theater president B.J. Scott. “If you don’t want to set a precedent, you shouldn’t do it.” Scott argued that her troupe, like the Arts Study Center, would help preserve culture in the historic city.

But council members say a theater would bring parking and traffic problems to an already congested downtown. The saloon building is at 26755 Verdugo St., across the street from the newly constructed Franciscan Plaza shopping center, which includes a five-screen movie theater, and next to the newly refurbished depot restaurant.

Scott, though, notes that “we don’t need 300 to 500 seats; we need something like 70 to 80. We would rather do more smaller productions than a few large ones.”

Jones further has argued that the 70-year-old saloon would have to be remodeled extensively to become a theater. ‘I foresee the theater people would have problems restoring the place,” he said. “The layout doesn’t seem conducive to a theater, and I just don’t think it’s the right place for a theater.”

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“We need some angels,” Scott said Wednesday. “If we could get an outpouring of support on Oct. 1, maybe that would carry it for us.”

Finding a home has been a problem for the small company throughout its not-quite-three-year history, Scott said, describing how the troupe has bounced around several outdoor locations and had to battle the elements.

And the weather wasn’t the worst of it: The company was staging Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Bluff Park in Dana Point this summer, and between shows, vandals nearly destroyed the stage and sets, doing an estimated $800 damage. The company wound up moving to Lantern Bay Park for its final performances.

Furthermore, Scott continued, “we need a place to rehearse. That is a major hurdle, finding rehearsal space. We are constantly on the phone.”

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In spite of it all, the company is in the black, Scott said, having launched four productions: Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” William Hoffman’s “As Is,” an original murder mystery, and “Wives of Windsor.”

Scott vowed to fight on, no matter what the council decides.

“We will have a theater building,” she said. “If not in San Juan, it will be someplace else.”


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