ALAMEDA -- The glitz and glamour of Broadway had nothing on Alameda this past weekend as the Altarena Playhouse celebrated its 75th anniversary at the Alameda Elks Lodge.
Women in gowns from hot pink to gold lame and men in tuxedos and splashy suits adorned the lobby as over 300 guests celebrated the milestone anniversary in style. Originally founded by 15 actors in New York City in 1868, the Elks Lodge provided a fitting venue for the theater's celebration.
Participants at the event renewed old friendships during the cocktail party, which also featured a silent auction and display of theater memorabilia. Photographer Clayton Mitchell provided prom-like reunion photos for guests, who were also encouraged to do a video interview for inclusion in the Altarena's library archives.
"People came from all over the country to join this celebration," said anniversary committee chairperson Susan Dunn. "This has been a great project, and it's so gratifying to have such a large, enthusiastic crowd attend."
Rae Gaeta, who began acting with the theater in 1951, couldn't agree more.
"I feel like I'm 18 again and at my first cast party," Gaeta said.
While attendees Denise Neal, Steve Rogino and Dori and Dale Robinson recalled stories from their time together in the 1968 production of "The Old Maid," others such as Maggie Roster came to honor family members who had been involved with the Altarena.
"My mother Enid Cohen performed in shows from 1953-57 and my dad Julius did a lot of the photography and publicity for the theater," Roster said. "I feel like I spent my childhood backstage at the Altarena."
She must have liked the theatrical experience considering she went on to marry a professional actor and her son, Joel Roster, is a well-known local actor, director and playwright.
Among the honored guests were founder Doris Goodman's granddaughter Suzanne Ochs, who played a recently discovered recording of her grandmother from a 1941 interview.
"It's so wonderful to hear her voice again," Ochs said. "We had such a special relationship both on and off stage."
Goodman and Altarena's first artistic director Valentine Newmark began the theater in 1939 with seed money coming from a Works Progress Administration (WPA) grant. The first production, a murder drama entitled "Riddle Me This," took place in April 1939 at the Adelphian Club on Central Avenue. The fledgling theater company performed in several venues until securing its current location on High Street in 1957.
Remembering those early days of the theater was Dorothy Karvasales, who performed in 1947-48, and Ken Kofman, whose family owned the Alameda Times Star and provided editorial support from the 1960s on. Another honored guest was 85-year-old Tom Donato. The musical director from 1981—1999, Donato met his future wife Deanie when she became a stage manager at the Altarena in 1987. The two became somewhat of a legend for their dedication to the theater and to each other.
Following the cocktail party, guests ascended the ornate staircase to the grand ballroom where a slide show featuring publicity and production photos from many of company's shows elicited much laughter and applause from the crowd. As the sumptuous dinner by PBS Catering came to a close, current artistic director Fred Chacon began the night's live entertainment, which included scenes and musical numbers from more than 20 shows. The revue concluded appropriately with the song "There's No Business Like Show Business" from "Annie Get Your Gun."
Ralph Marinara, currently a professor at the College of Alameda and a performer at the Altarena in the late 1980s, summed up the feeling for many in the crowd.
"So many wonderful people have been involved with the Altarena over the years," he said. "It's a genuine community asset."