The Friendliest Family Theater in Glendale – An Interview with Producer/CEO Brenda Dietlein

Brenda Dietlein - Photo by Chris Morris

The Glendale Centre Theatre has long held the reputation of a family-friendly showplace which caters to audiences who love good, old-fashioned, affordable, family-oriented programs. From colorful fun children’s productions to musical extravaganzas like “My Fair Lady,” the Glendale Centre Theatre never fails to delight audiences seeking affordable, family, fun entertainment. Owned and operated by the fourth generation great grandsons of the founders and their mother, Brenda Dietlein, this theater-in-the-round is truly a long-time jewel in Glendale’s crown. Currently facing the unique challenges posed by COVID-19, Brenda Dietlein agreed to interview in April 2020.

BRIGHT STAR, A Glendale Centre Theatre Production – Photo by Ashley Caven

THE GLENDALE CENTER THEATRE HAS BEEN AROUND SINCE THE 1940’S. TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT THE BACKGROUND AND HISTORY OF THE THEATER.

“My sons’ great-grandparents, Grandpa Nate and Grandma Ruth, were born and raised in Utah, members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. When the acting bug bit them, they moved to Los Angeles hoping to get into the movies; but that wasn’t to be their fate. Instead, they settled on their own theater where they could write plays, act in them, and entertain audiences. The Glendale Centre Theater was born in 1947, and their first night they had about six paying customers. They didn’t have money for royalties, so Grandma Ruth wrote plays about what she knew – religion, ethics, and the Mormon Church. To help make ends meet, Grandpa Nate worked as a milkman. In the 1950s, they outgrew their little stage and opened a 230-seat theater that they again outgrew. In 1963, they got a loan, designed a theater, and moved to their current location at 324 North Orange Street in Glendale in 1965. The 230-seat theater space on Doran Street is now a Montessori School.

“Grandma and Grandpa Hale lived above the theater to be available to constantly work on whatever needed to be done and save funds for productions. In the 1980s, the theater added musicals. Until the late 1990’s, the theater performed at least one of Grandma Ruth’s shows every year – but they became outdated. The Glendale Centre Theatre depends mainly on ticket sales for revenue. Since all the theaters have been closed, the boys and I have followed in Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Nate’s footsteps and have moved into the theater.”

CHARLIE’S AUNT, A Production of Glendale Centre Theatre – Photo by Angela Kathryn

HOW HAS COVID-19 IMPACTED THE GLENDALE CENTER THEATRE?

In early March, prior to being mandated to keep gatherings at 250 people or less, I capped performance attendance at less than 150. We stopped all performances on March 14. I can’t wait to get the green light to open so that our patrons can see WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION by Agatha Christie. We were originally slated to open March 21. The acting, staging, and sound effects are truly a work of art! When we’re allowed to reopen, the number of seats we can sell will depend on social distancing rules. I truly hope royalty companies will work with smaller theaters and only charge royalties based on actual attendance.

“I think we’ve had a big impact on Glendale. People look to this theater for social activities. Some people told me that Glendale Centre Theater is their one activity a week. Now people call on the phone to talk. This is family to them; it’s in their blood. Some patrons have been coming here for 30 or 40 years. Other patrons have even been coming here for 50 or 60 years. “

“COVID-19 has placed a huge burden on the Glendale Centre Theatre. For 74 years, patrons have depended on this theater for their social activities. Patrons call in and plead with us to reopen, stating, “I survived the Korean War and the bird flu…when are you going to open…I feel fine…the Glendale Centre Theatre is my one activity when I get to see my friends…we all meet at your theater.” The boys and I answer calls every day from patrons who just want someone to talk to. A large majority of our patrons consider this theater as part of their family. Parents of children also call and ask when we will be open because their children want “to go see a show at that little theater in Glendale…the mini Staples Center!

“The Glendale Centre Theatre is a for-profit organization and relies on ticket sales to survive. We have not heard any response on any stimulus packages that we have applied for. We will post any news on our social media platforms as soon as we hear anything. Obviously, there are financial challenges because we can’t sell tickets coupled with not knowing when we will be allowed to open or if we will receive government funds. We have heard that the Kennedy Center and NPR were funded, so we hope we will also be funded.

“So many of our patrons tell us they won’t go to other theater venues in Los Angeles because the Glendale Centre Theatre reminds them of a simple time. For 74 years, our mission has always been to allow patrons to be entertained to the extent that they’re comfortable. Our demographic doesn’t like change. It’s a “Leave it to Beaver” or Hallmark Channel crowd. Even when people move away, they come back here to reminisce about their childhood or the first theater experience they had here – or to remember time spent with their family. One woman flies in four times a year to see a show; it’s become a tradition in her family. We have another woman from New York who comes to see a show here whenever she visits Los Angeles. Out-of-town businessmen tell us they specifically stay at Hyatt Glendale when they are in Los Angeles because they love the family history and the vibe of this theater.”

BRIGHT STAR, A Production of Glendale Centre Theatre – Photo by Ashley Caven

HOW DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE OF THE GLENDALE CENTER THEATRE?

“We survived the Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy assassination, Iranian Hostage Crisis, U.S. invasion of Grenada, Persian Gulf War, Los Angeles riots, and a few recessions. However, during all of that, we were never mandated to close. We have no idea what the future holds. I’m hoping that, because we are a smaller theater, we’ll manage with the love of our patrons and government help and leadership. Right now, it’s a lot of “what if” and “when.” If the government could just give us an idea of when we can open. Our main concerns are about our staff – keeping their health insurance premiums paid – and, it goes without saying, the safety and well-being of our patrons.”

ANNIE, A Production of Glendale Centre Theatre – Screenshot Courtesy of Glendale Centre Theatre

DO YOU HAVE ANY FINAL THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS COVID-19 CRISIS? WHAT CAN PEOPLE DO TO HELP YOUR THEATER?

“The Glendale Centre Theatre is going to need patience, understanding, and all the physical and financial help we can get. Rent our theater; volunteer to answer the phone; do bookkeeping or accounting or graphic arts. Help build or paint sets. Help us at the costume shop. Give us legal advice. Write a show! If some good can come from a crisis, maybe Los Angeles theaters could create an alliance of theaters which works together and which allows them to operate more efficiently.

This crisis may also cause people to have a simpler mindset and be more appreciative of little things. We may be mandated to travel less. I’ve seen some wonderful acts of kindness – strangers helping each other, sharing survival items, sewing face masks, allowing others to go to the head of the line – strangers sharing a hello and smiles. The boys and I sit on our balcony and say “Hi, Human,” when someone walks by. It makes people laugh! This may be a reset button for Americans as we realize our neighbor is someone we can rely on and not fear. We are taking pride in community and family and what is most important – not things. As bad as it is right now, I believe we’ll get through this if we all work together.”

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