Back in the late 1970s, musical theater was growing rapidly from coast to coast. Semi-professional actors looking for a chance to perform on stage had several opportunities. But kids? Not so much.
On a new episode of I Made it in San Diego, Voice of San Diego’s podcast about the region’s businesses and the people behind them, Paul Russell talks about how he filled that niche and built a kids’ theater side job into what he said is now the largest youth theater program in the nation.
In 1979, Russell got a job teaching drama at Christian High School in East County. The high school shows he produced were so popular in the community that the vice principal persuaded him to start Christian Community Theater. Christian Community Theater brought together dozens of churches and, for the company’s first-ever production, kids and adults starred in “The Sound of Music” at an amphitheater on top of Mt. Helix.
The show was not great, but the community loved it – especially the parents of the kids who performed. The parents wanted more, and they asked Russell to put together a theater program for children – something after school that would teach kids how to act.
So in 1981 in his garage in El Cajon, Russell and his wife Sheryl officially started Christian Youth Theater. By the end of their first year, enrollment doubled. In their first decade, they grew from one location in El Cajon to eight locations all over San Diego County.
Early on, though, the nonprofit grew too much, too fast. More than once, the debt piled up so high, the company came close to shutting down. But Russell said big donors would step up to help, or they’d find other ways to keep things going.
“I am not a great businessman, but I always surrounded myself with a board that was way smarter than me,” he said. “I didn’t want ‘yes’ people. I wanted people to help solve my weaknesses. And so business people would come along and say, well, look at your profit centers. Expand on those and cut those programs that aren’t able to support themselves.”
In 1995, Christian Youth Theater opened a location in Chicago, and from that point on it expanded to other cities.
Russell’s passion for teaching kids the arts has never waned.
“I believe in it so much because I really do believe we’re changing kids’ lives and developing character one stage at a time,” he said.