Bill and Kelley Brennan were in New Zealand when the pandemic closed the border, but their travel refund has become part of a fundraiser to restore the Solvang Festival Theater. | Credit: courtesy

Community-minded citizens of the Santa Ynez Valley are turning the disappointment of canceled cruises and vacations into more generous charitable gifts in 2020 and 2021. Good causes during the pandemic range from stocking local food banks to rebuilding the Solvang Festival Theater.

“There has never been a better time to support efforts to feed our most vulnerable residents,” said Erica Flores, “and yet, this is no time to forget the soul-nurturing magic of live performance right here in the valley.” Erica — People Helping People’s Communications and Development director — has recently joined Theaterfest’s Board of Directors because she sees the value of supporting the full range of community needs.

The beloved 700-outdoor-seat theater was built 46 years ago and has housed thousands of professional theater performances and countless live concerts over the years. It brings tourists to valley businesses and provides a venue for other nonprofits to gather and raise funds for their own good causes. But now — due to all that wear and tear — it urgently needs a major restoration.

Artist’s rendering of new box office for Solvang Festival Theater

When Lois and Sonny Brown, valley residents for more than 12 years, learned their planned cruise to the Greek Isles had been canceled and was unlikely to be rescheduled in the near future, they decided to replace their disappointment with the joy of giving. Lois is on the Solvang Theaterfest Board of Directors, so they didn’t have far to look for a worthy cause. They settled on a naming opportunity in support of the $4.7 million rebuilding campaign. “We have always loved serving local wines at the bar in the Patron’s Garden before PCPA performances and live music concerts,” Lois said, “so we will be lending our names to that bar. What better way to use canceled travel funds than to pass along the joy of live performance to future generations?”

Theaterfest boardmember Erica Jane Flores spoke of the “soul-nurturing magic of live performance.”

During the pandemic year, Lily Carey was able to give generously to a number of nonprofits, including Direct Relief, UCSB Arts & Lectures, local Rotary, and Theaterfest. Lily sees all types of performance arts as “necessary for everyone’s sanity.” But she has an additional reason to support live theater: Her grandfather, Harry Carey — who appeared in movies alongside John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart — was a playwright and acted in New York theater before coming to Hollywood. So Lily looks with special affection at the PCPA performers who take the stage of Solvang Festival Theater each summer. “The performers are fantastic,” Lily said. “Even judged against performers in major cities, they are amazing. Besides,” she continued, “this wonderful outdoor theater is the gem of the valley. As a community we have to do whatever it takes to be sure it will continue to thrive.”

Santa Ynez Valley residents Bill and Kelley Brennan were vacationing in New Zealand last March when borders began to close due to the pandemic. Having to leave New Zealand early was a huge disappointment, but the travel company came through with a refund. As more and more activities closed here at home, the Brennans had time to reflect on the many summer evenings they’d enjoyed over the years at the Solvang Festival Theater — sitting under the stars, sipping wine, catching up with friends and neighbors. “It just seemed right,” Kelley said, “to put this travel refund toward helping to rebuild the theater, doing our part to ensure professional live theater and music for future generations of valley residents and tourists.”

Paul and Suzi Matthies were expecting to visit France and to take several trips to Seattle and Connecticut to see their children and grandson. “But it’s a great feeling to realize the travel budget we couldn’t use this year due to such a terrible thing as a global pandemic can be re-channeled to do good in our community,” said Suzi, noting they had supported the local YMCA, Theaterfest, Santa Ynez Valley Community Kitchen at St. Mark’s-in-the-Valley, Bethania Church Weekly Food Distribution, and Atterdag at Home.

Sonny and Lois Brown decided to donate the cost of their canceled cruise of the Greek Isles to the $4.7 million rebuilding campaign.

Community residents have stepped up in big ways and small to support local nonprofits this year. When the 2020 summer PCPA program had to be cancelled, Star Patrons, who participate in a drink-and-dine reception before each play, almost universally donated their program costs back to the Solvang Festival Theater to help offset the loss in revenue due to COVID-19 closing.

These nonprofits — and all the nonprofits in the Central Coast community — urge residents to be as generous as they are able. Whether to feed the hungry or support those programs and venues that make our area special — it is needed more than ever.

Solvang Theaterfest is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation with the goal of providing a unique live performing arts venue that promotes the highest quality experience for artists and audience members in a space that is safe and accessible to all. To learn more about the campaign to rebuild the theater, please email

Ann Foxworthy Lewellen is vice chair of Solvang Theaterfest.


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