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California's First Theater Needs Your Help

Built in 1847 and closed for repairs for over a decade, restoration has begun but much more is needed ($1.3 million). Public funding is scarce.

If you’d like to help bring back the First Theater, donate here

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First Theater Restoration

     How difficult would it be to raise $1.3 million to repair the First Theater so it can be open to the public again?

      Most of us would say, “Whoa, that’s really a lot of money.” Or, “Are you nuts?”

     However, experienced local fund-raisers say, “That’s very do-able.” Or, “Hey, that’s not very much money.”

     Buoyed by the latter group’s confidence, Monterey State Historic Park Association’s board of trustees has committed MSHPA to step up to the plate. With the support of State Parks, it is launching a fund-raising campaign to renovate and reopen First Theater.

    MSHPA, a registered 501(3)c organization, feels the time has come for First Theater’s reemergence as a historic theatrical venue in Monterey. For our first donation, the board recently voted to contribute the entire profits of the 2017 Christmas in the Adobes. MSHPA's initial contribution is $50,000.

     A committee headed by Jan Houser, MSHPA co-president and chair of fund-raising, has begun gathering information to aid in these efforts. Essentially, this initial stage is simply to ask local foundations, grant-making organizations, and individual donors for their suggestions: Whom should we contact? How should we approach them?

     Next will come a two-pronged effort: soliciting grants from organizations and donations from individuals, as well as a series of fund-raising activities both to publicize the campaign and to earn additional capital.

     The First Theater in California, which dates to the 1840s, has been closed for more than 15 years because of unsafe conditions in the deteriorating building. Even the adjacent tavern could not be opened for Christmas in the Adobes this past December. 

     Since 2002, the Monterey district of State Parks has had a plan on its books to repair and renovate First Theater. But California State Parks has not been funded adequately for decades, so maintenance on the theater has been deferred and de- ferred again. That’s bad enough for structures on scenic State Park sites. It’s devastating for adobes that literally crumble from the bottom up as well as the top down without continuous upkeep.

     Now State Parks has identified all of the work that needs to be done and broken it down into specific projects. They have already completed the engineering phase, seismic and earthquake hazard reduction, and repair of the brick chimney. Those jobs alone cost over half a million dollars. Still ahead, and totaling more than $1.3 million, are drainage improvements to the site, repair or replacement of the roof, and — the biggies — mechanical, plumbing, electrical, and fire-suppression projects. The last phase will be upgrades to ADA accessibility.

     As it sorts through various fund- raising proposals, the MSHPA committee will be looking for those that seem to offer the biggest payoff for the effort involved.     

Click Picture to Enlarge View

A trap door above the stage remains from the old theater. --Photos by Allen C.Miller

This is one of the rooms that was originally part of Jack Swan's boardinghouse, an early addition to his saloon.

A maze of unsafe wiring, typical of what's been added to the building throughout the years.

     MSHPA will be reaching out not only to major regional donors who have supported local history projects in the past but also to theatrical organizations and individuals. Would they be willing to stage a production as a benefit for First Theater? Would they provide an endorsement for the importance of opening a very historic building to the public? Would they get behind an effort to give school children the opportunity to experience live theater as part of a field trip — and perhaps even meet some actors and actresses in person? Would prominent Hollywood players who have ties to Monterey (e.g., those in recent films and TV series using the Peninsula as a backdrop, participants in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, part- time residents) be willing to lend their names to endorsements as publicity for fund-raising efforts?

     Another idea is to take advantage of the increasing number of visits by cruise ships plying the Central Coast. MSHPA hopes to contact cruise ship operators in advance of their visits and offer a walking tour of historic downtown buildings. Each tour would be led by a MSHP docent and end with tea in one of the historic gardens, such as the Stevenson or Larkin Houses.

     Still another idea would be to stage a benefit at Golden State Theater in downtown Monterey, possibly a musical review including many of the performers who entertain during Christmas in the Adobes.

     Originally built by the English sailor John Alfred (Jack) Swan in 1845, during California’s Mexican period, the structure we know as the First Theater began as a saloon. Two years later, a large adobe section was added to serve as a multipurpose boardinghouse and storeroom.

     In 1849, it was turned over to American soldiers. A group of them, probably bored, asked permission to stage some plays there. The first theatrical performance on the site was given Monday evening, February 11, 1850. Their melodramas (with men taking the parts of women, wearing scarves over their hair and speaking in tiny high voices) proved a smashing success. The local newspaper reported that opening night sold out, at the princely sum of $5 per person. And — scandal of scandals — there were unaccompanied women in the audience.

      This and subsequent shows are thought to have been the first theatrical performances given to a paying audience in California history. Melodramas continued to be hugely popular with people of all ages. Well into the 1920s, several local theater groups used the historic site. One of those was the Gold Coast Players, who enjoyed a long-term stint that continued into the 1990s.

     It’s time that Monterey be able to enjoy the First Theater again, both as a historic adobe and a theatrical venue. All ideas for fund-raising efforts are welcome.

—By Susan Miller MSHPA Board Member, Marketing 

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