September 2, 2008

Indoor Theater Under the Stars on Catalina Island

By Al Rudis

Are the stars out tonight?

They will be Friday and Saturday in the Avalon Theater inside the Casino on Catalina Island.

In the second act of the production of "Grease" by the Catalina Island Resort Services Entertainment Division, one scene takes place in an outdoor movie theater.

"When Danny and Sandy are at the drive-in movie, the audience will be sitting underneath a dark blue sky and twinkling stars," said Steven Sabel, the producer and director of the show.

Usually used for showing first-run films to mostly island residents, the Avalon Theater is as much a star of this production as the play, music and actors.

When the Casino was built in 1929 by William Wrigley Jr., who bought controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1919, its main attractions were the largest circular ballroom in the world upstairs and the Avalon, which was the first movie theater constructed specifically to show sound films.

Talkies were so new that Wrigley was worried they wouldn't have a future, figuring silent films could be shown anywhere in the world, but sound films would be restricted to one language, said Sabel.

"So he made sure to have the building designed to also facilitate live theatrical productions just in case," he said.

The theater has a full fly loft for sets and drops, an orchestra pit and a lighting system, all of which recently have been modernized. It also was equipped to show silent films, which it still does in special showings.

Since sound films were so successful, the equipment for live shows rarely has been used through the years. Local schools put on their Christmas concerts there, and John Tesh performed a New Age music concert about 10 years ago that was videotaped and is still for sale at stores on the island. The Santa Monica Civic Light Opera did a concert version of "My Fair Lady" in the Avalon in 2004.

The "Grease" production is the first of what is being projected as the Santa Catalina Island Company Theatrical Series. The second show in preparation is a Christmas concert in December after which, Sable said, he intends to announce a full 2009 series. The theater initiative is largely a result of Sabel's hiring as Casino operations manager and director of technical events.

"I started doing the job under contract last September," he said, "then I was hired full time in December.

"My chief responsibility is to manage the operations of the Casino building, and then secondary is I provide technical support to all of the special events that occur in the building as well as several of our other properties."

Born and raised in Riverside, Sabel has an extensive theatrical background in the Inland Empire, including performing in civic light opera productions, producing and directing high school drama under contract, founding his own dinner theater company and working in stagecraft. In 2003, he founded the Redlands Shakespeare Festival, which does three Shakespeare plays in the Redlands Bowl each May. Next year, he is playing Hamlet in one of the productions, he said.

He first connected with Catalina in another of his jobs, working for a professional stage and lighting company contracted to do special events on the island, such as concerts by Blue Oyster Cult and the Motels and the Jazz Trax and blues festivals.

That's how he met Billy Delbert, who was running the Casino. When Delbert decided to retire, he suggested Sabel apply for his job.

The Casino has nothing to do with gambling. It refers to the Italian meaning, which is "gathering place."

Designer John Gabriel Beckman created the striking art throughout the building, and before the lights go out, audiences will have a chance to view the unusual painted ceiling over the 1,148 seats.

There are only two performances of "Grease" and tickets are all general admission and $18. Despite the low ticket price, Sabel's company expects to make money through what he calls subsidiary revenues. The last boat to the mainland leaves before the play ends, meaning those attending the show will need to find overnight accommodations on Catalina.

His company is offering packages for $379 or $177 per person, including lodging, transportation to and from the island and show tickets.

"Keep in mind that we've got many different lines of business that bring subsidiary revenue - hotels, sightseeing divisions, and we own the properties that several restaurants operate out of," Sabel said. "We're providing visitors a place to stay, we're providing them with good food, we're providing them sightseeing opportunities during the day. And now we're providing them entertainment in the evening. It's almost like a cruise line that doesn't move, in a sense." Preview "GREASE"

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Where: Avalon Theater in the Casino, Avalon, Catalina Island.

Tickets: $18.

Information: (800) 322-3434,

Note: The show concludes after the last boat departs for the mainland, so there may be an additional cost for overnight island accommodations and meals. Packages including boat transportation, lodging and the show are $379 per person, double occupancy (Pavilion Lodge) and $177 per person, double occupancy (Hotel Atwater).

Sabel also is keeping costs down by hiring only non-union actors. "However," he said, "they all have experience working at regional theaters that are either just beneath union or have union contracts but also contract non-union players."

Emily Melton and Fernando Acevedo, who play the lead roles of Sandy and Danny, have between them experience at civic light operas, opera training and performances at Royce Hall in Los Angeles and Carnegie Hall in New York.

"Eventually, as we build and grow, we would like to move up to the next step," said Sabel, "where we have a couple of union guest artists in our shows."

Meanwhile, like almost everything else on Catalina Island, he has to ship in actors and sets. The sets are by professional set design company Kenmark Inc. of Overland Park, Kansas. The actors are from an open call that drew 50 performers who could commit to a week in the city of Avalon after weeks of rehearsals in Redlands. Fifteen were chosen for the cast, and they arrived on the island Monday.

And when these actors go to the drive-in, some of the Avalon Theater's special effects will come along.

As Sabel puts it, "We'll incorporate the multicolored house lighting in our stage lighting cues to make the audience feel like they're in the environment that the actors are also in."

Twinkle, twinkle, little stars.

Al Rudis (562) 499-1255 [email protected]

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