When first asked to do a piece on Bakersfield Community Theatre and its history and plans for the future, what comes immediately to mind is a place where people may write, produce, rehearse, and act out plays for a crowd. And that is not an incorrect summation. But, when you start to think about it, there is much more to it than that.
This may sound odd, but type in “community theater” on the Internet and one of the first things that comes up is a definition by Wikipedia. It gives a long definition, which is not included here, with the exception of this one sentence, “Community theatre is understood to contribute to the social capital of a community, insofar as it develops the skills, community spirit, and artistic sensibilities of those who participate, whether as producers or audience-members.”
‘A real community project’
Bakersfield Community Theatre is said to be California’s oldest continuing community theater, having operated since 1927. According to the theatre’s website (bakersfieldcommunitytheatre.webs.com), it all began when Gilmore Brown of the Pasadena Community Playhouse gave a speech to the Woman’s Club of Bakersfield in November 1926.
In his speech, he spoke about the possibilities of a community theater in town. “Sincere workers and promising talent will be found in unexpected places if the proposition is presented as a real community project,” he said.
Brown’s words were taken to heart, and the Bakersfield Community Theatre was created in early May 1927. To be the oldest continuously running community theater in California is one thing, but it is also believed that the local theater is the second-oldest this side of the Mississippi River. The oldest is the Tacoma Little Theatre in Washington State.
But, the theme of this column is “history in the making,” and, that is just what the Bakersfield Community Theatre has been doing for the past 80-plus years.
Looking for a new home
In 1961, the nonprofit purchased the building at 2400 S. Chester Ave., where they have operated with both youth and adult performances ever since. The building has undergone some renovations over the years, but there are several factors that are making it difficult to continue in the building.
Board member Bruce Tilser said BCT hopes to move into a new facility to better serve Bakersfield. It is currently looking at several downtown locations that may suit its needs.
The organization keeps a scrapbook, which details the theater’s history of plays. Flip through the pages and familiar faces pop out, including Mel Khachigian, who used to work out at Jack LaLanne’s Health Club. (Actually, he is in a few pages.)
Having worked there in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I recognized many faces, and learning something new about them is always nice. There are so many people who have had a hand in the plays held at the theater; there is no way to mention all of them.
Looking at BCT’s website, another familiar name pops out – Thomas G. Robinson. My first meeting with Robinson was several years ago as a committee member on the One Book, One Bakersfield community reading project.
As it so happened, Robinson’s connection to BCT went far beyond being a board member, as noted on the website. He was also an actor, director and set builder, to name a few. One of the plays he directed was “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow in Enuf.”
The play, written by Ntozake Shange, is about the struggles and triumphs of seven African-American women throughout their lives. According to Robinson, the show was a huge success, playing nine times with each ending in a standing ovation. (Incidentially, the first play to be performed by BCT was Frank Craven’s “The First Year.” It was held at Bakersfield High School on Oct. 31, 1927 before more than 400 people.)
There are plenty of great memories, but board members are hoping for an even better future.
Added BCT’s executive director Ed French, “I have chosen to stay with this theaer in hopes that in 2027, when we reach our 100th birthday, I can say I helped achieve that.”