Over a period of nearly 45 years, Jim Fillbrandt has seen many changes in Bakersfield Music Theatre/Stars. Yet the quality of its productions continues to set a standard for local audiences.
"I am proud of what we do," he said during a recent phone conversation. "I don't know of any other (productions of) 'Les Miserables' that were as good as what we did last fall."
Now 77, Fillbrandt is something of a curmudgeon. He often grumbles that he's ready to retire from his unpaid position as executive producer, mainly because of the never-ending job of raising money for the theater's annual $1.2 million budget.
He credits his wife, Jeanne Fillbrandt, as the reason he continues to serve.
"Without the support of my wife, I would have quit long ago," he said. "Jeanne and I have made it a part of our life."
One thing remains the same: his confidence in the organization's future.
"The theater's finances are shaky as they have always been," he said, "but the quality and number of the board of directors and the quality of support staff and the actors has never been this strong."
In 2013, Fillbrandt said fundraising events brought in about $47,298; fundraising campaigns and donations were $255,351; and the number of tickets sold, 10,342, made up 75 percent of the total budget.
The payroll is about $350,000 a year and represents the greatest expense. Although all of the actors work as unpaid volunteers, the theater has a staff of about 35 who draw salaries.
Audience numbers at Stars remain at about the same level. But Fillbrandt said the BMT shows at Harvey Auditorium are "slowly dying," except for children's shows and programs in conjunction with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office. Statistics from those productions tell the tale. In the past year, 3,260 attended "Kids go to Theatre" at Harvey and 2,223 people of all ages attended BMT school performances.
"We even reduced the price to $6 but we still can't get an audience at Harvey," he said. "At Stars we go for the older audience. For 20 years I tried to get the 30- and 40-year-olds but the younger people don't go because they are parents with children and they have other things to do with their time."
What is now called Bakersfield Music Theatre began as Bakersfield Civic Light Opera in 1969 at South High School, where Fillbrandt was assistant principal. (A graduate of the University of Minnesota, he was employed by the Kern High School District for 40 years, retiring as associate superintendent for personnel and labor relations.)
In the early 1970s, the productions were moved to Harvey Auditorium on the Bakersfield High School campus. Stars, the dinner theater, was started in the 1990s and the parent organization's name was changed to Bakersfield Music Theatre.
"I was in every (show) for the first 15 years," he said. "Sometimes it was only a walk-on; other times it was the lead like the King of Siam ('The King and I'), which is what most people remember me for."
These days Fillbrandt rarely appears in principal roles, although he did co-star in "The Last Romance," about two years ago.
"I don't hear well and the memorization part of it is hard for me," he said. "And singing has always been a trauma for me."
One continuing role is that of doing the audience warmup before the curtain rises on each show. (BMT president Randy Jelmini fills in on occasion.)
"It's a labor of love for me," Fillbrandt said, adding that he gets material from a large collection of joke books. "The actors don't like it because it holds up the show but we always need to make announcements."
Fillbrandt also announced a recent change for Stars -- a so-called "second season" in addition to the main season, which begins on Feb. 28
"In a week or so we'll be sending out information about our second season," he said. "This will be 10 one- or two-night shows on weekends when we are dark."