ALAMEDA -- What began more than a year ago and went into high gear in the past six months will finally come to fruition as the Altarena Playhouse celebrates its 75th anniversary with a festive gala on May 4.
"It's a real red-carpet event with what I like to call formal attire California style, which means anything goes," said anniversary chair Susan Dunn. The gala takes place at the Alameda Elks Lodge beginning at 5:30 p.m.
"Everyone has been so supportive from our board of directors to local businesses," Dunn said. She and her committee have planned three major events to honor this important milestone: a theater lobby archival library (unveiled Jan. 18) that includes photos and reviews of all the shows; the May 4 gala; and an Alameda Museum Exhibit during the month of June that includes theater history and memorabilia from 1938 to the present.
"We had no idea what to expect when we began planning this anniversary celebration," Dunn said. "But the support and participation has been amazing. Our gala is selling out, and we'll have alumni attending from as far back as the 1940s and as far away as the East Coast. It's like a big class reunion."
Finding those alums proved to be a daunting task for Dunn and her crew.
"We did all kinds of sleuthing, even visiting people in their homes. We have Jim Strehlow, son of Drusilla Strehlow, who starred in our first show, 'Riddle Me This,' in 1939 attending, as well as many people who have been involved in the theater ever since. Many of them are so excited to see other cast members whom they haven't seen for over 50 years in some cases," said Dunn, who looks forward to attendees going through the archives and seeing the shows they were in. "It seems like such a wonderful way to honor them."
The May 4 gala includes performances from alumni recreating excerpts of shows from the 1960s up to the most recent show, "Rent." There will also be a dinner by PBS Catering and a silent auction with more than 80 items. "We have many things in the auction that are theater-related, but we also have some wonderful items donated by our very supportive local businesses," Dunn said.
One of the highlights of the evening will be a 1941 audio clip of founder Doris Goodman.
"It's an interview she did about founding the theater. I was so surprised and happy to find it in our warehouse, which is a real treasure trove of information," Dunn said. "Her granddaughter will speak at the gala.
Honoring 85-year-old Tom Donato will be another highlight. Donato, a member of the Elks Lodge, was music director for many years at the Altarena. He also produced musical reviews to raise funds for the theater.
"Tom is an incredible part of the theater's history," Dunn said. "He was invaluable when we needed to do an earthquake retrofit of the building. It wasn't cheap, and the money he raised through his reviews helped us pay for it."
When the gala ends, however, Dunn and her committee will have little time to rest. They have planned a brunch and theater open house on May 5 for gala attendees, and then it's on to planning the June exhibit at the Alameda Museum. For more information about the Altarena Playhouse, go to www.altarena.org.