It is months away from the 25th anniversary of the Fremont Centre Theatre.
And what did founders and co-artistic directors Lissa and James Reynolds get for a present?
And — for a theater where actors perform and audiences react — that’s not a good thing.
Where once there was the laughter of children learning lines, now there is stillness. Where once actors wore costumes, those clothes and their accoutrements now rest on metal racks at stage-left. The playbills and photos from past shows still decorate the walls. The lovely courtyard awaits an opening night gala and the theater itself is as dark as the pandemic, which has hung over the city for the past year.
“It’s a silent theater. It’s not a good feeling,” concluded Lissa Reynolds. “There is a sadness because you came here [before the pandemic] and there were the kids and the rehearsals.”
The kids belong to the Young Stars Theater group, which has been putting on “junior” plays with actors age 3 all the way through high school. The quiet troubles also upset the two actors, John and Gloria Bennett, who have run the school for youngsters out of the Fremont since 2008.
Gloria Bennett said that the emptiness was so “tragic” that she couldn’t even bring herself to visit for a while. She kept imagining those empty seats — and those kids that enjoyed just the experience of acting.
“We created a unique family just from teaching them how to do something,” she said.
The Reynolds originally saw a “For Rent” sign on the building. The building being rented had been an insurance company. When the Reynolds saw the space, they saw how it might be turned into a theater, so they started a business called Classes Unlimited that became very successful and allowed them to rent more spaces in the building.
About five years later, they decided to follow their original dream, and start a theater in 1997. Reynolds — I will be referring to Lissa when I say Reynolds — said that when they started thinking of starting the theater, the landlord asked if they were interested in buying the building.
“He gave us a timeline which we were able to meet,” she recalled, “so we became a theater and a landlord at the same time.
“At the time we were happy that it would last a year,” Reynolds added. “How can I be sad?”
But if that sounds like a concession speech, forget it.
When I asked Reynolds how long she expects to keep the theater going, she answered, “From here to eternity,” which sounds like a movie title if I ever heard one.
The location hosts other tenants, several of which had to give up their leases, but others have stayed, including the popular Fiore Restaurant on the corner of Fremont Avenue and El Centro Street. Reynolds said that the bank worked with them, and the building got several new tenants.
And James Reynolds has gone back to work after the pandemic halted production on “Days of Our Lives,” where he has been seen for the past 40 years.
The children’s program also has struggled, but the Bennetts said that they got several generous donations, received PPP money and are preparing for a virtual fundraiser. They have also been doing online lessons in various aspects of the theater, and presenting online productions.
But online doesn’t beat the real thing — either for the Bennetts or the youngsters.
“We’ve created a unique family,” Gloria Bennett said referring to the group of youngsters, who learn how to do everything from singing, to dancing, to acting and various elements of production.
The company does eight to nine shows each year, and charges $20 a ticket. Reynolds said that she has noticed that the concept has brought more members of the community into the theater. If you’ve only driven by the theater, or wondered what it is all about, you should go to a production once shows are allowed to start again.
“I look out at the audience now and there are more people from South Pasadena coming to see their kids,” Reynolds said. “We were surprised how much South Pasadena cared.”
The theater sits on some pretty prime real estate — right across the street from the post office on 1000 Fremont Ave.
“We definitely have had interest from buyers,” Reynolds said. “It is a beautiful building in the center of the city. It would be hard to think of selling since the theater is our home away from home.”
The Reynolds’ real home is also in South Pasadena.
A change in guild pay scale regulations was a factor why the theater went from professional shows to readings and amateur adult and children’s’ productions. The theater has a history of presenting new works. The author Ray Bradbury produced the plays he wrote at the Fremont, and would do an opening night speech, that might last a half hour.
“The audience was spellbound by him, not expecting such a treat,” Reynolds said. “He was such a friend of our theater, and we miss him dearly.”
Another playbill on the wall advertises Reynolds herself starring in “A Woman of Independent Means,” which was the longest-
running show at the theater; she also took it on the road for years. Some of her other fondest memories include when her son Jed performed on the Fremont stage as baseball legend Jackie Robinson in play called “National Pastime,” and when she and her husband did a two-person show together called “And Where She Stops Nobody Knows.”
So, I asked, what was the most popular show ever at the Fremont?
“That’s like asking us who is your favorite baby,” she answered. “We and most of the audience loved them all.”
And, she added the team of Reynolds and Reynolds — who were friends for a long time before marrying — are not resting on their laurels. She hopes to do another play with her husband. They’ve only done one which she described as “heaven.”
“We never started this theater to get rich,” she said.
“We are too busy in our lives to reminisce,” Reynolds added. “We prefer to think of the present and the future.”
Information about the Fremont Theatre, its history and activities can be found on its website at FremontCentreTheater.com. Tickets for the auction and donations for Young Stars Theatre are at YST321.givesmart.com.