© 2010 Parker Anderson and Jack D. Wilson
Update note: The power of the Internet and blogs by citizen journalists has proved itself again. After this installment was originally published, emails were received first from Roger Pearsall and then from Ron Swartz, partners and founders of Timberline Productions. They provided additional information about their involvement in the renovation of the Elks, including a 1982 brochure for the Gala Re-Opening that we had not seen before. Roger and Ron rented a building on Union Street owned by Don Head that was directly behind the Elks. That building housed Timberline Production while it was in Prescott. It grew into a nationally recognized corporate events and presentation business based in Phoenix with 150 employees at one time Thank you Roger and Ron for sharing your part in the history of the Elks Opera House.
This installment is called “Turmoil” as the period from 1981-1999 was turbulent and saw many changes and challenges where the very existence of the Elks Opera House was called into question. But, before we get into that period of time, let us flash back to one of the events that was a precursor for the turmoil – the move of “Bill the Elk” to Prescott Valley.
Removal of “Bill the Elk”
“Bill” was removed 1971 and taken to the Elks Club, B.P.O.E. #330 when they moved to their new building in Prescott Valley. He was destined to stay in Prescott Valley for 35 years before his return to Prescott. A future installment will go into detail about the return, restoration and reinstallation of “Bill the Elk” atop the Elks Opera House.
After the long-time manager Claude Cline retired in 1980, owners Don Head and Phil Toci signed with a group called Timberline Productions to take over management of the Elks Opera House. Timberline continued to run the Elks as a movie theater until very early 1982 (January or February), when Don Head and Phil Toci announced they were going to bring back live entertainment full-time.
In a January 19, 2011 email to Parker Anderson, Ronald Swartz relates the involvement of Timberline Productions with the Elks Opera House:
“My partner, Roger Pearsall, and I had expressed our interest in the theatre as a historic site to owners Don Head and Phil Toci. Don approached us to help them return the theatre to operating condition so that motion pictures could once again be shown. Also, it was Don Head’s longer term desire to bring live professional theatre to Prescott. We agreed to assist with the renovation and the replacement of the motion picture equipment. Bill Otwell (Otwell & Associates) was brought in to oversee the rehab.
The lobby was reconfigured with a new concession stand and new rear entrance to the auditorium. Restrooms were moved and rebuilt. The projection booth was upgraded, additional power provided for new projectors and film platters. Rigging in the stage house was re-assessed. A new main curtain and projection screen were installed by Curran Productions of Los Angeles (The winch and rigging for the chandelier were also installed at that time). The theatre interior was repainted and the seats reupholstered. House lighting was upgraded with replica period brass fixtures. Upon completion, the theatre was re-opened as the Elks Opera House. Timberline Productions managed the operation of the theatre as a movie theatre for a period of approximately two years. The financing as well as the direction of the renovation was in the hands of the owners, Head & Toci.
In the fall of 1981, Don Head expressed his desire to move to live theatre. The role of Timberline Productions in the Elks Opera House changed to that of technical advisors. Don Head created the Prescott Center for the Performing Arts as a non-profit organization to run the theatre and establish a live theatre season. He hired Gilbert Laurence from Los Angeles to be Managing Director. Laurence hired the Megaw Theatre, Inc. of Northridge CA to stage a season of plays that included Romantic Comedy by Bernard Slade, The Rainmaker by Horton Foote, The Corn is Green by Emlyn Williams and the musical, Company by Stephen Sondheim. These were all first-class productions with scenery, lighting and professional equity-waver casts. The productions were well received by those who saw them but alas, the top ticket price of ten dollars was a little steep for the locals who complained “Why spend 10 bucks to see people we don’t know when we can go to the Fine Arts and for 4 bucks see all of our friends in Music Man and the HS band will perform as well.” Who can counter an argument like that. Other lesser groups were booked with similar results. There were a couple of fine classical concerts that performed in the Elks that fall with one being a performance of the Phoenix Symphony (They raved about the acoustics).
Timberline Productions was not active in the management or booking of the Elks Opera House after the establishment of the Prescott Center for the Performing arts.”
The Prescott Center for the Performing Arts were fine people who had the best of intentions, but they booked top quality professional before they had the money to pay for them–they counted on advance ticket sales to bring in this money, and when the ticket sales did not materialize, disaster hit. The acts cancelled in droves, and the stewards took to holding rummage sales in a desperate bid to raise money. Acts that did perform included the noted actor Kevin McCarthy playing Harry Truman in a one-man show, GIVE ‘EM HELL, HARRY! Also the Sons of the Pioneers performed. However, many shows cancelled because they were not paid, including Vincent Price who was going to appear live, and did not and a professional tour company of MAN OF LA MANCHA also cancelled.
While this was going on, ownership of the theater changed again. Don Head and Phil Toci sold the Elks to the Arizona Community Foundation. Simultaneously, this was when the Elks building was divided into two separate properties, condominium style. The Arizona Community Foundation went looking for new stewards to manage the Elks. Yavapai College stepped forward and took over management until 1992, when they built their own performance hall. Then Prescott College managed the Elks until 1999. In a July 24, 1994 Daily Courier article, reporter Karen Despain commented that:
“Kristi Edwards is the Elks Theater General Manager. She emphasizes the perennial “community theater” orientation of the Elks Theater …present day productions feature a spectrum of Prescott College Programs, the Cowboy Poets, a dancers’ workshop recital each May, at least one Prescott Fine Arts Association event a year, the Prescottones, an actors workshop and, of course, the Arizona Jamboree musical shows during the summer months, Edwards said.”
During the tenure of both colleges, the Elks Opera House hosted a wide variety of entertainments, both professional and locally produced.
On July 24, 1994 Karen Despain was working as a reporter for the Daily Courier and wrote the article “Elks Theatre to celebrate 90th anniversary (Landmark ‘opera house’ is grande dame of Prescott community performances).” The story chronicled an anniversary party planned for February 18, 1995:
“The Soiree will begin with a champagne reception and dinner at the Hassayampa Inn. Then, celebrants will cross Gurley Street, where they will be treated to a stage play. Dessert and coffee with the cast after the performance will cap this momentous event.”
Courier reporter Lauren Millette on September 22, 1995 wrote “Elks Theater plans beer tasting benefit” which quoted Kristi Edwards, Elks Theater manager stating
“Approximately 50 of America’s finest microbrews and classic beers from all over the world will be served as a way of raising funds to preserve and repair the roughly 100-year old theater.”
On April 30, 1999 Daily Courier reporter Sandy Moss wrote an article “Elks Theater feels its age” that detailed the failing systems, including the boiler and lighting at the Elks.
Prescott College back out
The Daily Courier ran an editorial on December 21, 1999 “Community needs to rally to Elks Theater” Which noted:
“Prescott College, which has managed the historic Elks Theater for the past seven years, has turned backed that responsibility to the owner, the Arizona Community Foundation. The foundation is offering the theater for lease or for sale.”
As this installment draws to a close, the Elks teetered on the edge of total collapse; however, that changes in our next installment.
This is the fourth in a series about the Prescott Arizona Elks Opera House in Prescott Arizona. In the next installment, we will cover the period of “Resurrection and Preservation” in the period 2000-2008.
If you have fond memories of the Elks, we encourage you to share those via a comment. Also, please let your friends know about this series of articles about a true gem in Prescott Arizona.
About the authors
Parker Anderson is the official Historian of the Elks Opera House. He spent thousands of hours compiling all known bookings in the first 100 years of the Opera House.
Jack Wilson is the former Mayor of Prescott Arizona. He has had a long interest in history having founded two neighborhood historic societies in Chicago. He was instrumental in providing the funds that allowed “Bill the Elk” to return from Prescott Valley to his rightful perch atop the Elks Opera House.