Center Theatre keeps it in the family with 'Fiddler On The Roof'

The Glendale Center Theatre has had its share of magical moments over the decades. Now celebrating its 65th anniversary, the company is “family owned” by actors Tim and Brenda Dietlein, continuing a long, rich tradition at the theater founded by Tim’s grandparents in 1947.

Tim Dietlein grew up in the theater, first cleaning the floors and building sets. Later he became a producer, elevating the theater to its current professional level. Many of the cast and crew credit his tenacity and multitasking with keeping the audiences showing up, in both good economic times and bad.

“He’s very charismatic. Exhausted, he will work all day, change clothes then go out in front of packed house and say ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,’” said Richard Malmos, who plays Tevye in the GTC’s upcoming production of “Fiddler On The Roof.” “The energy and powerful charisma he brings, even after building sets all day is not phony. It’s real and the audience feels that.”

At a recent “Fiddler” rehearsal, directors and performers described what it takes to bring an iconic play to the community, especially in today’s struggling economy.

“We work very closely with the community and listen to our audiences because they are like our family,” Dietlein said. “We let them know they don’t have to go to an equity house like Pantages to see a great professional performance.”

Even when times are great and shows sell out nightly, the theater business isn’t lucrative for most people involved. The Dietleins are acutely aware that it’s financially challenging for the actors, crew and many times the audience, to support the arts.

“Unless you’re on Broadway or a national tour, it’s very hard to make a living as a musical theater performer,” said actress Nicole Ligerman, who is playing Tzeitle. “I tip my hat to GCT for paying the performers something versus many community theaters where they expect the actors to work completely for free. [The Dietleins] also feed us on performance days and give us free drinks, which isn’t usual.”

Brenda Dietlein said subscriptions are down overall but up 5% from last year. She said it is an unwritten rule passed down from Tim’s “Gramma Hill” — who was always offering a hot meal or bed to those in need — not to raise prices if they could avoid it. The current subscription prices for GCT top out at $28 versus $100+ at an equity house.

“We understand if we raise prices even $2, that means $10 to a whole family and people simply don’t have the extra money these days,” said Brenda Dietlein, who also spoke caringly about her actors like they were her children. As a one-time lonely import from Wisconsin years ago, she said her biggest goal for the actors and crew is for GCT to be their home-away-from-home — an oasis of supportive friendship because so many of them don’t have family here in Los Angeles.

She said she spends a fair amount of time persuading agents and managers to come to the theater so the actors have a chance for that “big break.”

According to Michael Shaughnessy, 60-year-old actor and former patron of the theater, an “oasis” is exactly what the GCT has become for him. “It was a revelation how supportive the cast members were to me once I joined even though I’m new,” he said.

Plays are selected a year in advance, after polling audiences and listening to requests. GCT is one of very few mid-sized theaters in-the-round, and even without room for an orchestra, it hosts full-scale musicals by renting recorded tracks. The GCT musical director, Stephen Applegate, then makes any edits necessary for the specific cast.

“We had 100 people audition for 22 roles in this musical,” Applegate said. “We try not to use the same people in each show but a lot of things come into play besides talent for our selections. We consider the look of the character and the popularity he or she has with our audience. The best singers don’t always make it in.”

GCT has traditionally been very diligent about selecting only “family-friendly” material for their patrons. But in recent years, the Dietleins have gently expanded beyond conservative classics to include edgier musicals, such as the upcoming “Little Shop of Horrors.”

The Dietleins said they are in it for the long haul and the biggest challenge is to keep the theater fresh while continuing to work with the community. “The best part is watching the audience walk out of the theater with big smiles on their faces — relaxed, after having a great night,” Tim Dietlein said. “That makes all the work worth it and what I enjoy more than anything.”

CASSANDRA M. BELLANTONI is a freelance reporter and producer. She can be reached at cassandra_bellantoni@yahoo.com.

DETAILS

What: “Fiddler On The Roof”

Where: Glendale Center Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

When: Feb. 9-March 24, Thursdays through Sundays.

Contact: (818) 244-8481 and glendalecentretheatre.com.

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