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A Theater for All Seasons Blooms in the Desert

You could hear them first, the wild wail of the pipes and the battle beat of the drums. Then they marched on stage--the pipers, drummers and dancers of the Queen’s own Highlanders, the oldest military band in the world. Next came the scarlet tunics of the Regimental Band of Her Majesty’s Coldstream Guard. There were 90 performers in all at the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert.

I saw the pipe bands last season and they will be back this season because of the superb instinct of director of development Nancy Dolensek.

When I moved from Pasadena to the Coachella Valley 2 1/2 years ago, I was bereft at what I thought would be the lack of good theater.

I found the McCallum is a magnificent theater and the programs are presented by the likes of Bobby Short, Michael Feinstein, Harry Connick, Harry Belafonte, Lou Rawls, Manhattan Transfer, Pearl Bailey, Bernadette Peters, Henry Mancini, Robert Morse in “Tru,” Roberta Peters, Jean-Pierre Rampal--what pleases you?

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Dolensek has an unerring feel for what the Coachella Valley audiences will like. The theater also brings the richness of live performances to the children of the desert and brings up a new audience as the kids fall in love with theater.

The facilities are beautiful. The green room, where performers gather to wait for cues is like the dining lounge in a country club you can’t afford to join. The Muses asked performers to sign their names on the wallboard partitions in the dressing room section and now the walls are covered with the signatures of the aristocracy of the theater. The star dressing rooms could house a family of four. The amethyst glass chandeliers were made in Murano, Italy.

The Muses/Patroness Circle is the McCallum’s support group, founded in 1988 by a group of women of volunteer experience and open generosity. Helen Korman is the president of this group and leads her members to all-out efforts. In three years, the Muses have donated more than $650,000 to the theater.

The fund-raiser of the season for the Muses is the Constellation Award Ball to be given Nov. 18 at the Stouffer Esmeralda Resort. Gov. Pete Wilson and his wife, Gayle, will present the awards to Carlton and Keleen Beal and Bill and Marilyn Tennity, “distinguished benefactors.”

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Among Muses projects was the presentation earlier this year of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” the Robert W. Service poem set to music and starring the children of the Coachella Valley.

Dolensek wanted to present a project that would show the McCallum was for everyone. She prevailed upon dancer/choreographer Jacques d’Amboise, who had been a lead dancer with the New York City Ballet.

The Muses pulled it all together, beginning with the auditioning of 2,000 boys and girls; 400 children were finally chosen at tryouts. The logistics were staggering. The 400 boys and girls from kindergarten through the sixth grade even had to be fed during rehearsals and performances.

Three local dance teachers did all of the early rehearsals after a trip to New York for a cram course in the d’Amboise technique.

In the cast were four children from the Braille Institute, one blind and three partially sighted. They danced as snow crystals. “Everyone cried,” said Dolensek’s assistant Ruth Froelich, “because they were so beautiful.” The Braille teachers told Froelich that the production changed the children’s lives.

And so the Muses go on, blessedly stage-struck and in love with the long, golden valley.


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