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VALLEY BUSINESS | THEATER STAGES: THE MONEY'S THE THING

Stellar Performance

Glendale Venue, Unlike Most Legitimate Houses, Is a Profitable Operation

May 16, 2000|KATHLEEN O'STEEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tim Dietlein knows all about stage lighting. He's a whiz at building sets. He's also good in the front office, planning seasons of shows, arranging group ticket sales and handling whatever other stage crisis might occur.

And, when his workday is over at the Glendale Centre Theatre, Dietlein's often busy rehearsing. The shaved head he's currently sporting is in preparation to play the king in the theater's upcoming production of "The King and I."

Dietlein, 40, learned the can-do spirit from his grandparents, who founded the theater, and his parents, who later ran it. And it's made the Glendale Centre Theatre something of an anomaly in the world of legitimate theater: It's a profitable business.

"I believe we are the longest continuously operating theater in Southern California," says Dietlein, who owns the theater with his wife, Brenda. "And we've never been dark in 53 years," says the third-generation owner.

The 440-seat theater in the round is open seven days a week, except for a few days each year at Christmas.

Dietlein wouldn't disclose revenues, but said owning the theater allowed him to buy a house.

Based in a charming New Orleans-style brick building on Orange Avenue in Glendale--which Dietlein's grandparents built in 1964--the theater offers up to four different shows each week, including a main stage musical, a comedy, a children's Saturday matinee show and a smaller production on Monday and Tuesday nights. Season packages usually include seven shows (three musicals and four comedies).

Not included in the season pack is an annual production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," which is such a favorite among the theater's faithful clientele that the show usually books up weeks, if not months, before the holidays.

The theater also offers summer acting workshops for children and a Shakespeare program geared toward students. And, since 1984, the Dietleins have run a costume and make-up business, housed in a three-story warehouse a few blocks away.

"We now have 40,000 costumes for rent," Dietlein says. "In addition to our Halloween business, we also rent to the studios, especially to Jay Leno's show. Our costumes were even in 'Titanic.' "

It's a sideline that Dietlein contends only makes enough money to pay for itself and supply an elaborate array of new costumes for the theater's ongoing productions.

The Glendale Centre Theatre was started in 1947 in a former church by Dietlein's grandparents, Ruth and Nathan Hale.

Over the years it has maintained its loyal following by sticking to a couple of steadfast rules: only offer shows that are family friendly, which usually means older musicals and comedies ("We get calls if there's even one swear word," laughs Brenda Dietlein), and keep ticket prices low. The most expensive ticket, $19, is for a Friday or Saturday night musical. Season passes are usually around $75, but can cost much less for matinees or midweek tickets.

"We've always believed that theater is for the common person," Dietlein says. "And our patrons, for the most part, are on fixed incomes. So it's important that it remains affordable."

The theater pulls many of its patrons--often in busloads--from as far away as Fresno, Palmdale, Camarillo, Santa Barbara and Lake Arrowhead.

"I would say no more than 15% of our audience is from Glendale," Dietlein says. "We just have a loyal following who have been coming for years, many of whom have left Glendale, perhaps to retire, but still keep coming back to us."

Yet making the theater work as a business has meant making some concessions. The theater is not a union house and thus does not pay union wages to its actors. The actors who bring such shows as "Brigadoon," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Father of the Bride" to life receive a small stipend for their services. "It covers their gas and a meal," Dietlein says.

Yet he contends that the actors--perhaps half of whom, he says, are members of the Screen Actors Guild and the rest young talent waiting for their Hollywood break--love to work at the Glendale Centre Theatre.

"They play to packed houses, they have spacious dressing rooms with showers and they are not required to do anything but act," says Justin Eick, an actor hired to help the Dietleins handle marketing, producing and other assorted jobs.

"If you worked in an Equity Waiver theater [which is no longer in existence and required reduced payments for actors], you changed in a closet and often you would have to do everything from selling tickets to building props and cleaning, in addition to acting," he says.

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Those jobs are often left to Dietlein, his wife, 14 full-time employees and 20 part-timers, including stagehands, ticket sellers and employees at the costume shop.

The Dietleins themselves say they work very long days doing a wide variety of tasks, from building props and acting as house manager to taking tickets at the door at night.

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