Community Columns

Renovated theater adds shine to arts

On a swelteringly hot July morning in 1969, finding my way to Modesto Junior College for my first job interview, I was directed to the MJC Auditorium and told to wait until Professor Don Roe was finished on stage. As I waited, I watched Don and his students skillfully adjust sets and scenery for their upcoming production. I remember marveling at the size and beauty of the 900-seat theater.

When he finished, Don gave me a tour of the auditorium and shared with me the work that he, Professor Frank Delamarter and other visionaries had done throughout the 1950s to bring to MJC a performing arts facility. The auditorium was the first new building on campus since the Depression era of the 1930s. I could tell from his voice how proud he was of this accomplishment. Little did I know at the time that for the next 40 years, the auditorium would be a central focus of my teaching, directing and administrative life at MJC.

Built in 1958, the auditorium complex ushered in an era in which fine arts curricula was viewed as a necessary part of every student's general education.

Frank Delamarter was the director of theater at the time. He wrote in his dedication for the new building: "The new auditorium will support programs that are intended to encourage greater participation in the fine arts for all who take part."

With this mandate, the auditorium became a college and community treasure. For generations of community residents, the auditorium was their first impression of MJC.

Over the decades, it became increasingly evident that the auditorium desperately needed major renovations to keep up with changing technology, to meet safety requirements, and to adhere to state and national disability access requirements. In addition, the student growth in theater, music, dance, radio, television and film programs required additional space.

For the past three years, the MJC Auditorium has been closed for extensive remodeling and expansion. While preserving the original historic structure of the auditorium, the end result is the newly christened Performing and Media Arts Center.

The facility has doubled in size to include a second floor, which houses administrative and faculty offices and state-of-the-art radio, television, music recording and film studios. The second floor includes a dance studio, a computer classroom and the costume design studio.

The small lobby of the original building has been expanded to a beautiful space that will allow receptions, book signings, poetry readings, small musical ensembles and other events to occur. The new lobby is complemented by the original murals painted by faculty artist Deborah Barr.

The Little Theatre also has undergone a major transformation. The space now has its own lighting and sound booth, as well as an intimate, enclosed courtyard that will greet audience members as they enter the facility.

Audience members will enjoy performances in comfortable new seats in the main auditorium and the Little Theatre. Acoustical experts have worked hard to ensure quality sound throughout both performance spaces. Kudos are in order to the local designers, planners and builders, including architect Dennis Smith and the general contractor Acme Construction, who so admirably blended the old building with the new.

Today we are experiencing a golden age of the arts in Modesto. The renovated State Theatre, the magnificent Gallo Center and the new MJC Performing and Media Arts Center support and complement each other in this new age.

In the college setting, we will be helping to train the performers and technicians of the future. Many of these talented students will work as interns at the Gallo Center and other performance venues. We also will be helping to cultivate the next generation of audience members. At MJC, many students get their first experience with live music, theater and dance. For many of these students, it is a transforming experience and an entry into exploring all of the arts Modesto has to offer.

Students will be working with state-of-the-art equipment and technology. But it is not just the students who will benefit. Television and film Professor Carol Lancaster writes: "The community will not only be able to see creative performances, but will have access to the facility for their own projects."

The main auditorium and the Little Theatre will be available to community groups at an affordable rate, thus insuring that all performance groups in our area have access to professional performance spaces.

Area schoolchildren and community groups will be invited to tour the building with trained guides and see the creative process in action. For the first time, students from the television department will work with students from the recording department to bring to the community professionally produced concerts, recitals and dramatic productions. Americans with Disabilities Act compliance will ensure that all students will have equal access to all parts of the building.

Over the past 10 years, MJC has presented a much-hailed Distinguished Speakers series. This series will become a regular part of the Performance and Media Arts Center's yearly programming.

Past luminaries have included Mikhail Gorbachev, Maya Angelou and Yolanda King. For the inaugural year, we are proud to present New York Times columnist Frank Rich and bestselling author-humorist David Sedaris.

In a time of severe budget cutbacks, when more and more school districts are forced to severely curtail arts education, it is with great pride that I look to the commitment of MJC to continue the tradition of Don Roe and Frank Delamarter, who insisted that every student have the opportunity to receive quality education in the fine arts. MJC is proud to expand this commitment to the community.

Johnson is a retired professor of theater and an administrator at MJC.