It may not have been the stuff of Biblical strongman Samson, but Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and a team of big-ticket donors to Ensemble Theatre Company donned hard hats and protective goggles, grabbed on tight to some ceremonial ropes late Thursday morning, yanked in unison, and brought crashing to the ground an equally ceremonial interior wall (to which the ropes were attached) at Victoria Hall, thus marking the official groundbreaking for Ensemble’s new downtown digs. If all goes according to plan, the “New Vic” — dramatically remodeled and refurbished — will be open for theatrical production sometime in September 2013.
In the meantime, the 80-year-old hall — once home to Santa Barbara’s last independent movie house and subsequent home to three high-profile nonprofit agencies — will be the scene of a $10.5-million construction project. When the dust settles, the new theater will sport 300 seats. The New Vic will be much bigger than Ensemble’s current home at the Alhecama Theatre, which, despite the cozy, intimate setting, was the subject of much grumbling about not-so-comfortable seats, minimal bathrooms, and notable lack of ventilation. By contrast, the new theater will be capable of hosting musical productions with full-fledged dance numbers, larger casts, and much bigger, more elaborate sets and backgrounds. To accommodate this, the roof line for portions of the New Vic will be popped 11 feet higher than the building’s highest point, bringing it to 55 feet and just five feet shy of the city’s maximum allowable height.
Ensemble, Santa Barbara’s oldest theater company, has been seriously looking for new space for more than a decade. Initially, it seemed Ensemble would find a home somewhere shoe-horned into the new Granada parking garage, but those plans fizzled, and Victoria Hall — an old church at 33 West Victoria Street — seemed a natural fit. After all, it had served as a theater for many years. Negotiations between the Vic’s owners and Ensemble were problematic at best. Ensemble creative director, Jonathan Fox, described them as “serpentine” and “labyrinthine” during his speech at Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony. Even that was an understatement, as Ensemble’s efforts to find a new home would escalate into a complicated, full-fledged he-said-she-said showdown with the Council of Christmas Cheer — better known as the Unity Shoppe — over use of the theater’s space.
Without belaboring the details, the Council eventually agreed to move, under duress, and the Ensemble board — lead by attorney Derek Westen — could set about raising funds and navigating the city’s design review process, which in some aspects, were one in the same. (Many cited Westen’s role in these negotiations as pivotal to the success of the endeavor.) Early on, Santa Barbara’s City Council — acting as the Redevelopment Agency — committed to appropriating $1 million to make Ensemble’s move and makeover happen. The new-and-improved theater would provide the missing link to City Hall efforts — dating back 20 years — to establish a thriving arts district north of Carrillo Street. Even after the California Supreme Court abolished all California Redevelopment Agencies early this year, city officials and Mayor Schneider fought to ensure that their prior commitments made to the Ensemble Theatre Company were honored.
That $1 million helped give Ensemble the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in its fundraising efforts. So, too, did early donations from the likes of Michael and Ann Towbes, Sarah Miller McCune, and Leni Fe Bland. But even with such stellar heavy hitters, Ensemble found itself raising millions at a time when donations were drying up and the competition for philanthropic largesse could not have been more intense. Thanks to last minute donations, Ensemble just barely met its its goal of raising $8.5 million in time for the groundbreaking ceremony. It still has another $2 million to go for immediate construction costs and then another $4 million for an endowment. Little wonder that creative director Fox would quip, “I’ve had so many mazel tovs I feel feel like it’s my bar mitzvah, which means I’m expecting checks from all of you.”
It remains unclear what the name of the new theater will be. Naming rights, Fox said, are going for $3 million. Likewise, it’s unclear if the theater company — which has survived 30 years — will retain any ties, even in name, to the Ensemble.