Salinas' cultural institutions get the budget axe.
Thursday, August 23, 2001
The Salinas ARIEL Theater''s phone didn''t ring July 26 when casting calls went out for the winners in the state''s $101 billion budget. The nonprofit organization''s hopes were dashed as their request for $100,000 to pay for much-needed renovations ended up on the Governor''s cutting-room floor.
The theater, officially named the Wilson Theater after major contributors Tom and Karen Wilson, began as a nonprofit organization in 1989. The then-homeless theater company put on productions all over the county, in whatever spaces would accommodate them, and finally decided to look for a permanent home in the mid ''90s. With former Friends of the Sea Otter executive director Susan Brown at the helm--in a position funded initially by a grant from the Packard Foundation--the theater was able to raise enough money to remodel and retrofit the former Ford''s Department Store in downtown Salinas.
Despite financial backing by the Packards, the Harden Foundation, AT&T Pebble Beach Charities, the city''s Redevelopment Agency and local fundraising efforts, it ultimately became necessary for the ARIEL to petition the state for help with retrofitting and construction costs. In 2000, the theater requested a $100,000 allocation. But the request never made it out of the Legislature committee where it was first introduced.
This year the theater tried yet again for the $100,000 allocation, with the help of Sen. Bruce McPherson, who says it was his "key request."
In its second bid, the theater made it through committee and into conference, only to be cut later by Gov. Gray Davis as a result of what McPherson calls "personal payback time" because McPherson didn''t vote for the governor''s budget. "It was a clear message to tell me he didn''t appreciate my lack of support," McPherson says.
Davis'' office insists that nothing could be further from the truth. "Having to cut McPherson''s pet project was not a personal pique," says Sandi Harrison, the governor''s assistant finance director. "We had to tighten our belts across the board, and it was not personal retribution."
The ARIEL Theater was not alone in its disappointment. Most of the $25 million in requests statewide by community projects were rejected. A remaining $6.5 million was allocated to local cultural projects statewide, but none of the money made its way to Salinas.
The Salinas Senior Center and Sherwood Hall were among the many ultimate victims of the Governor''s pen.
McPherson says he was "deeply disappointed" over the budget rejection and considers the ARIEL Theater''s overall community importance immeasurable. "The theater helps to make the community whole, and I''m deeply driven to try again next year with the support of the public education system, the private sector and a broad range of community representatives," he says. Steve McShane of McPherson''s office says Brown''s well-organized proposal, enthusiasm and commitment inspired the senator''s attempt to see the request through.
According to Brown, the theater''s intended purpose is to interpolate art, culture and entertainment to the community''s children and families. The theater operates a series of classes for children as young as 4 years old, teaching them about performance, as well as responsibility and commitment. "The key is giving the children tools they can use in everyday life," says Brown.
Once the children have been immersed in the curriculum, they have an opportunity to perform in a project ranging from short plays like The Little Red Hen to full-fledged performances like Peter Pan, a recent city-sponsored production. In addition to its own performances and academy, the theater has an open-door policy for other local nonprofit organizations as the need arises. "If another nonprofit doesn''t have the room for something they''d like to do," she says, "our 200-seat theater is available to them."
Brown says she was disappointed upon hearing the news that the theater was one of the many programs cut from the budget, but is headstrong in disallowing the cut to stop the theater''s development.
In the meantime, she is gearing up for the holidays and preparing the children for productions of two upcoming projects: Rock Nativity, which is geared toward the theater''s teen actors; and It''s Sad, So Sad, When an Elf Goes Bad, a play the theater''s kiddies will put on.
Brown says she''ll continue to reach out to the community, believing that fundraisers (which make up for about 30 percent of the theater''s total revenue) and the generosity of the local residents and foundations will ensure the theater remains in the spotlight and out of the red.
Salinas residents like Tammy Gasperson hope Brown''s efforts prove to be a success. "There''s not much for my girls to do here outside of sports," she says. Gasperson took her young daughters to see ARIEL''s production of The Fabulous Fable Factory, and praises the theater''s outreach to the community''s children. "Of all the things that could have been cut," she says, "it''s really too bad it had to affect our kids."
Melissa Pass, whose daughter Alyssa and son Tyler have both taken part in ARIEL productions, sees the theater as an integral part of her children''s creative growth. "It''s not about making it in Hollywood," she says, "it''s about teaching the children self-confidence, public speaking, respect and hard work."
Brown sees the theater as "a work in progress," she says; "five years at least, and all for the betterment of the community and its children." She hopes the third time''s the charm when she tries again next year to secure state funding. Until then, she is excited about a murder-mystery dinner- theater fundraiser planned for the fall. "I''m not going anywhere," she says. Brown is determined to see the theater through to its fruition. "It''ll happen."