Group will bring back one of its original productions — “Guys and Dolls”

Published in the May 30 – June 12, 2018 issue of Gilroy Life

Photo by Marty Cheek
From left, Megan Griffin, who plays Sara Brown, and Joe Hartwell, who plays Sky Masterson, get instruction about a scene in “Guys and Dolls” from the show’s director Myra Kaelin.

The South Valley Civic Theatre’s production of “Guys and Dolls” opening June 1 serves as a nod to nostalgia. Nearly 50 years ago, the classic show about an innocent missionary falling in love with a con-man gambler was the first musical the group performed.

With SVCT’s sesquicentennial season starting in September, the nonprofit dramatic arts group decided to celebrate with plenty of pizazz. Special events include a group travel tour of New York City in July in which travelers will attend Broadway shows. SVCT will hold a big gala in January. It will also launch the Half-Century Club where theater fans receive special incentives such as discounts on tickets.

Closing the 49th season with “Guys and Dolls” provides a salute to the Gilroy Community Theatre established in 1969 by Gilroy residents Al and Frances “Pinky” Bloom. The dedicated couple saw a need for a theater group in Gilroy to showcase the talent of people who wanted to step on stage and perform for local audiences. GCT’s first show was the Neil Simon comedy “Come Blow Your Horn,” which was produced at Gavilan Community College in September 1969. A year later, the actors put a spotlight on their singing and dancing talent with the Runyonesque comedy musical “Guys and Dolls.” GCT became a nonprofit organization in 1974. The “Theater Angels Art League” (precursor to today’s “Gilroy Arts Alliance”) initially served to raise funds for shows.

In 1985, the GCT board voted to expand performance locations to include San Benito County and Morgan Hill. To reflect the broadened coverage, they changed their name to South Valley Civic Theatre. The Morgan Hill Community Playhouse with 186 seats became SVCT’s permanent home with the show “Lend Me A Tenor” in February 2003. The group performs five shows a year — a children’s show, a teen show, a holiday show, a musical and a drama.

“It’s an honor to be part of an organization that has such staying power as this,” said Joe Hartwell who plays the leading “Guys and Dolls” role of the gambler Sky Masterson. “It’s great to see that the Bay Area embraces its artistic side in the theater.”

Megan Griffin, who plays missionary Sarah Brown, started with SVCT in “The Music Man” as a child. She also performed in several teen shows over the years. The group’s lasting half a century is an indicator of how audiences have stayed loyal through the years, including times when the SVCT had financial difficulties. “The community values the arts,” she said.

Current SVCT Board President Peter Mandel imagined how the founders might see their passion for the theater arts continuing over the decades.

“When SVCT first started, the people who launched it the most were Al and Pinky Bloom,” he said. “For them to start up this little group and think it was going to last 50 years doing significant business, putting on five different productions every year — and it’s scaled up so dramatically and it’s been so successful. To have a nonprofit be accepted by its community for so many years, it’s an amazing accomplishment.”

It’s important to keep the arts alive with stage entertainment in the South Valley region that gives local people a place to express their artistic side not just onstage but backstage as well, Mandel said. Another benefit SVCT provides is getting children and teens involved in the shows, he said, listing such qualities as gaining self-respect, learning to work as a team, and building their public speaking skills by overcoming stage freight.

“Doing theater provides a lot to the community in terms of entertainment,” he said. “It provides a tremendous growth opportunity for the youth of the community.”

Scott Lynch, who will serve as the SVCT board president in the 50th-year season, described how the group has grown over the years in building its programs and workshops for youth and children.

“I think it’s such a benefit to them and their development and their poise and confidence,” he said. “This institution has been around 50 years. I think community theater is an important asset for the community and we’re looking at the 50th anniversary to continue to build on what we’ve been doing.”

The Half-Century Club will provide an opportunity for members of the community to help enhance the theater arts by becoming members of SVCT and helping to fund the group’s projects, he said. People can join by going to where they can join online. Memberships range from $50 to $5,000 and various levels provide more incentives to join.

“We look to grow a base of folks who are connected to the theater and trying to get them more significantly invested in what we do,” he said. “We challenged the board to increase membership more significantly. The goal is to bring in 500 people at $50 or more — and that’s a significant number for us.”

Mandel recalled “the vagabond years” where the SVCT shows were played throughout the region in unique places before finding a home at the Morgan Hill Playhouse. Shows were done at local high schools as well as store fronts in a shopping center. The musicals “Oklahoma!” and “Gypsy” creatively used the old barn at the Pumpkin Patch in San Martin.

“Finally getting a home with a proper playhouse was a major milestone for us,” he said. “It brought the audience some continuity, they knew where we were … For the past few shows, we’ve sold out about half our runs. The shows have been well received by the community.”

SVCT has also become more experimental with technology over the years with its sets. For the bio-play of Truman Capote “Tru,” it did its first use of rear projection to portray a night-time scene of the New York City skyline. Shows have also used flying rigs, such as “The Little Mermaid, Jr.,” and turntables such as the one built for “Guys and Dolls.”

The home theater and increasing sophistication of the audience has also given the group the courage for artistic growth. In recent years, the play selection committee have chosen more contemporary dramas such as the Pulitzer-Prize winning “Proof,” which are rarely done by most community theaters. This has encouraged skilled actors and directors to come from throughout the Bay Area to audition with SVCT.

“Over time, we usually have one play or one musical that is a little more leading edge or avant-garde,” Mandel said. “We’ve been more confident in our audience of being more accepting of shows that are a little more daring. A lot of the other community theaters do three shows a year. We do five. And they tend to stick to things that are very safe.”

For the 50th season, SVCT allowed its members to vote on shows that were favorites of the past. It opens Sept. 21 with “Aladdin Jr.” as the children’s musical. “It’s a Wonderful Life” opens Nov. 6 as the holiday show. Opening Feb. 8, “Godspell” is the teen musical. The musical “1776” opens April 19. And the season ends with “Gypsy” that opens June 14, 2019.

“This next season will be all the shows that were favorites with our audiences,” Mandel said. “We encourage people who might not have seen a SVCT show to come to a performance and discover how entertaining local theater can be.”