ALAMEDA -- At one time, Alameda residents could stop by 1409 High St. for a quart of milk or a loaf of bread, but since 1957, "shoppers" have been stopping by for something a bit more substantial -- food for the soul.
Once the site of Hagstrom Grocery Store, the brightly colored former storefront has been home to the Altarena Playhouse for the past 56 years. But 2013 actually marks the company's 75th anniversary of presenting comedies, dramas and musicals to delighted patrons. Before buying its current home, the theater had rented a variety of spaces on the Island.
Several events will mark the milestone anniversary including a permanent historical library at the playhouse that opens Friday; an anniversary gala on May 4; and an exhibit at the Alameda Museum from June 1 through 30.
Altarena historian Susan Dunn has spent the past eight months cataloging photos, programs and other memorabilia and scanning it all into a digital file.
"It's actually been fascinating," Dunn said. "So many people, especially Dick Shore, who was artistic director for many years, kept meticulous records."
According to Dunn, programs for 390 of the 410 shows have been found, and she's hoping to locate the missing 20.
"I just wish I could have met some of the people who made the theater what it is today," she added.
Maybe Dunn can't personally meet Shore or the Altarena's first artistic director, Valentine Newmark, or William Woodall,
Dunn, with the help of other volunteers, especially actress Rae Gaeta, has put together binders detailing the Altarena's rich history. These binders, complete with photographs, will be available for perusing in the theater lobby.
"Our current artistic director, Fred Chacon, has made a lovely cabinet for the binders with beautiful lighting," Dunn said. "My goal is to add a flat screen monitor where the theater's historical database can be accessed."
Doris Goodman founded the theater company in December 1938 with the first play, Daniel Rubin's "Riddle Me This," performed in April 1939. Then called the Alameda Little Theatre, productions took place primarily at the Adelphian Club and the Alameda Hotel with a few at the Encinal Yacht Club.
"When William Woodall became artistic director in 1948, he realized that the theater needed its own venue to survive," Dunn said. "He rented a warehouse at Neptune Beach, and the actors, board members and theater membership built the theater. Volunteerism was a founding principal of the company then, and it still is today."
The company continued to perform in the warehouse, dubbed the Hideaway, until it purchased the Hagstrom Grocery Store in 1957. With the new venue came a new name. The ALT came from its original name, Alameda Little Theatre, with "-arena" added to make it "Altarena." Too small for traditional proscenium-style shows, the novel space featured theater-in-the-round productions, and to this day the company is known for its innovative and more intimate staging of shows.
Organizing the Altarena's history turned out to be the perfect project for Dunn. Formerly an IT project manager and software designer, the newly retired volunteer became hooked on putting together the historical display.
"It was wonderful finding something that matched so well with my skill set," she said. "Of course, I had no idea what I was getting into."
Helping Dunn sift through the boxes of memorabilia was Gaeta, who began acting with the company in 1951.
"Rae has been instrumental in getting this extensive project completed, and she's been a continual source of encouragement," Dunn said.
She also credits Artistic Director Fred Chacon for his enthusiasm and support.
"It's really exciting to connect with people who were a part of the theater so long ago," Chacon said. "Several generations have contributed to what we know today as the Altarena Playhouse. I love to hear their stories."
The library debuts at the opening of Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage" on Friday. For tickets to the comedy, which runs through Feb. 17, call 510-523-1553 or go to www.altarena.org.
For more information on the 75th anniversary celebration of the Altarena Playhouse or to contribute memorabilia, contact Susan Dunn at 510-337-1354 or via email email@example.com.