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Thursday, July 13, 2006 | The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park is a National Historical Landmark. Built in 1927, adjacent to spectacular Yosemite Falls, it is one of the most remarkable resorts in the world. Unfortunately, it is now being administered by Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts of Yosemite (Delaware North), a concessionaire that in the view of many of us is neither up to the task nor advantageous to the gem it is managing – a destiny that is now affecting Old Town. And soon, its renowned Theatre in Old Town as well will fall into other hands.
This circumstance hits pretty close to home, because my wife Polly Puterbaugh (now Shneour), inspired by Diane Powers, a lady of talent, perseverance and imagination who put Old Town on the map, has played a defining role in the area. The bare outlines of this amazing story – that the city of San Diego (except for Mayor Pete Wilson who was strongly supportive) has been ignoring all along to its everlasting discredit – deserves to be better known by the people.
In 1973, the State Department of Parks & Recreation (SDPR) notified the Mission Playhouse in Old Town that it was going to tear down, within the year, the building it occupied. Edythe Pirazzini, the Mission Playhouse founder and director of its well-regarded and highly respected productions, asked Polly, one of its actors, to “save the building.”
At the time, Polly was performing in an Old Globe Theatre production and Senate President Pro Tem James R. Mills (D-San Diego) had called Polly to ask her for tickets to that production. After the show, Senator Mills and his wife came backstage to meet Polly in her dressing room, inviting her to join them at the “Golden Dragon” Chinese Restaurant in Hillcrest. During dinner, Senator Mills helped Polly with advice on planning how to go about saving the Mission Playhouse.
It would be wise, Mills advised, to check whether it was listed as a National Historical Landmark. After considerable research, Polly surprised everybody by being able to establish that the theater was indeed so listed. The SDPR discounted that finding and continued preparations to demolish the theater. This decision emboldened Polly to spring into action.
Armed with five thousand signatures, headed by one from Old Globe famed director Craig Noel, and invited by Senator Jack Schrade (R-San Diego), who knew and sympathized with the plight of Mission Theatre, Polly flew to Sacramento.
She was met in grand style at Sacramento airport’s PSA terminal with a limousine, courtesy of Jake Schrade, for a drive to the State Capitol. A two-hour meeting with Schrade, Mills and several of their legislative assistants ensued. Over the next several years, Polly regularly flew to Sacramento on her own dime, leading to the decision to build a theater for the first time ever by the State of California. Polly asked University of San Diego Professor Ray Brandes to undertake local archeological digs to determine a legitimate historical site where a new theater should be built to replace the Mission Playhouse.
How that new theater was actually designed and built is yet another remarkable story. Suffice it to state here that it now occupies the nub of Old Town as The Theatre in Old Town. Superbly managed and directed by Jill Anthony and Paula Kalustian, the theater has been paying Equity wages, turning a profit while disbursing to the State of California a considerable monthly rental. The theater has substantially enhanced the universal tourist attraction that was Old Town.
One of the thriving parts of Old Town was Diane Powers’ Bazaar del Mundo and its vibrantly alive environment. For more than 30 years, Diane brought color, charm, beauty, music and good food to what was once a wasted land. In addition to San Diegans, it attracted tourists from all over the world.
And it was lucrative as well, for Diane, for the State of California and for San Diego. With the Theatre in Old Town, the ambience was unique and conjured not only the Mexican past, but also the present and the future of our city.
Alas, Old Town as we knew it is no more. The State of California has killed the goose with the golden egg. What Delaware North has brought is thus far unimaginative at best, lifeless, colorless and much too quiet and empty. This is likely to extend to the Theatre in Old Town when Jill and Paula move to a more hospitable environment as Diane Powers did. Why is there such a dearth of common sense and vision around?
Elie Shneour is research director & president of Biosystems Research Institute. He is also involved in San Diego regional and in national issues involving science in domestic and foreign affairs. Agree? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.