Altarena Turns 75

But don’t expect these folks to act their age.


Published:

Chris Duffey

The Altarena Playhouse on High Street is celebrating three-quarters of a century in Alameda this year, with a gala, a museum exhibition, and a new historical library of theater.

Susan Dunn, Altarena’s historian, is one of the driving forces behind this year’s festivities. She helped organize the archives, and the new library was officially opened in January; Altarena is still looking for archival material from 1939 to the present. (If you have any old programs, ticket stubs, or other material, contact Dunn at Altarena.)

The lobby of Altarena now boasts flat-screen televisions showing videos from past shows and interviews with actors and directors. The historical archive, set in f a niche near the front doors, catalogues every show since the theater opened its doors at The Hideaway at Neptune Beach, a dance-hall style building at the foot of Sixth Street. They served beer and peanuts, veterans remember, and the audience could throw peanuts at the stage and hiss at villains. The hall had a large field for parking, and alumnae actor Rae Gaeta recalls having to groom the parking area between shows. 

“We used to have to rake that sucker to keep the weeds down. I would ‘emote’ and then go rake,” Gaeta says wryly. The theater group, then known as Alameda Little Theatre, performed there from 1949 to 1957, when the current theater spot was purchased and transformed from a Hagstrom’s grocery store. The Hideaway at Neptune Beach burned down, and the new theater was christened Altarena, from the initials of the group (Alameda Little Theatre) and the arena-style of theater-in-the-round.

Owning its own theater space is perhaps the main reason why Altarena continues to exist while so many other small companies have faded, Dunn says. Hundreds of local and regional actors have stood in the spotlight at Alameda’s own, one of the oldest in California. Board member John Cashman has performed here as well as toured nationally with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Gaeta acted in her first play at Altarena in 1951, and her most recent in 2008. She auditioned at the Hideaway, then went on to perform at the Pasadena Playhouse and the College of Theater Arts. She rejoined the theater later and has served on the board. Many others have also gone on to perform on grander stages.

A Reunion Gala is planned for May 4 at  the Elks Lodge, and all Altarena-philes are encouraged to attend. “We are actively looking for Altarena alumni,” says Dunn. “We want to gather stories about Altarena. There will be a roving videographer” at the gala to capture stories and faces. During the month  of June there will be an exhibition at the  Alameda Museum, including a timeline,  costumes, highlights, videos of past shows, and other multimedia exhibits. (Visit  www.alamedamuseum.org for hours of  operation.)

In another nod to its past, the Altarena is celebrating the anniversary by using only alumni to direct this season’s shows. “That was one of the criteria for this year—bringing the alumni to the fore,” Dunn says.

In an era where patrons can watch any television show or movie on demand, in the palm of his or her hand, why would anyone still go to the theater? “When we sit at home in our TV chairs, or go to the movies, or even attend plays at large houses, we are still anonymous, and having an individual experience. When we attend a show at Altarena, we are a community participating together in a shared experience,” says Dunn.

“At Altarena, the audience is really part of the show not demonstrably so much as internally. When you see a powerful show like August Wilson’s Fences, or a feel-good show like Gypsy, you are facing not only the actors and action, but the audience across from you is experiencing it, too. It’s a spiritual community voyage that we do together.”


The Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St. Visit  www.altarena.org or call 510-523-1553 for information on the 2013 season, tickets, gala information, or to share your stories and memorabilia.

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