Orange County Register
Burlesque Theater Gets Religion
Orange Playhouse To Go From Honky Tonk To Hallelujahs
By Trish Huether
ORANGE - Where chorus girls once playfully tossed lace garters into the audience, they'll thank God for the offering.
And where crowds sang "Dirty Gertie from Bizerte," they'll raise their voices to "Onward Christian Soldiers."
The orchestra pit will become an altar, the bar will display religious tracts, and dressing rooms with ghosts of actors past will house Sunday school lessons on Jonah and the whale. The grease paint is gone; they sent out the clowns.
The old vaudeville house at Glassell Street and Maple Avenue is being converted into a church.
A miraculous conversion at that, some here say. A transformation from honky tonk to hallelujahs. When a man walking by the tiny theater a block from the town plaza learned the fate of the stag, he remarked, "A church is a hell of a lot better than an empty playhouse any day."
The old Orange Theater, a mecca of burlesque in its prime, had hit the skids.
In the '20s it brought a slice of Ziegfield to the folk living among the orange groves. Then it was a silver screen popcorn palace for 30 years showcasing such greats as W. C. Fields, Gable and King Kong.
When the popcorn grew stale and the crowds grew thin, theater owner Norman Goodin leased the building to a group of production backers who promised to put Orange on the map with a "legitimate playhouse" offering a dazzling array of stars.
The Broadway of the West with the glamour of Hollywood 1930 - those were the expectations surrounding the Orange Playhouse when it opened in 1974.
Those dreams began to take form on premier night of "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" - Pat Paulsen had the lead role for the show which opened with floodlights crisscrossing the sky. Mayor Jess Perez planted kisses on guests Lucille Ball, Ruth Buzzi and Rose Marie and presented lapel pins of oranges to Howard Duff, Tim Conway and Allan Hale.
Howard Duff starred in "Born Yesterday" after "Lovers" closed, and Dean Jones was slated for "promises, Promised" after that, but backed out.
And often the walls of the 900-seat theater echoed only hollow applause at performances. The crowds just didn't show.
"The bottom fell out," Perez says. "The backers apparently backed away, and the whole thing turned sour."
Money ran out and the theater passed from hand to hand, "and in each instance bigger and better things were promised," Perez says.
One owner, who dropped the "Orange" from the theater's title, said the playhouse would take a new image, that of a community theater with backing from grassroots "Friends of the Playhouse" group.
The city granted a $3,500 loan for the struggling playhouse and gave assistance through its citizens advisory board, chaired by then-mayor Joe Temple.
"Much of the glamour and excitement was lost by then," Perez says, and when councilmen granted the loan "we were severely criticized by the community."
The playhouse carried "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Barefoot in the Park," then quietly closed its doors last summer.
But this month travelers through downtown saw commotion inside the old building again.
"I saw some people carrying in about a thousand communion cups," one man said, and a woman wondered if the religious group moving in would be composed of "weirdoes or just nice people."
Then a name made famous by Lawrence Welk was thrown up onto the marquee:
The Son Light Christian Center was moving in.
Inside the darkened entryway, theater furniture was piled up and tattered costumes were tossed out.
Heavy wooden "No One Under 21" signs were taken down from over the bar, but renovators preserved a "We Proudly Pour Christian Brothers" sign.
The six crystal chandeliers were cleaned to reflect light across the gilded walls and plush red carpet.
A "Rejoice In The Lord" sign found a place in the men's restroom, and a room used for ticket sales before became a nursery.
And inside the darkened theater, volunteer workmen extended the stage out across the empty orchestra pit to create an altar.
"We are an offshoot of the Amazing Prophecy Center in Santa Ana which folded last year," the Rev. Joe Magliato said.
Magliato, an associate pastor of the now defunct center, took 350 parishioners from there to form the Son Light Christian Center.
He describes the group as "interdenominational, Christian believers. Our main theme is Jesus Christ and in our church everyone is special."
The parishioners met in the Jolly Roger Inn in Anaheim for 11 weeks before they negotiated a lease of the orange Theater with the option of purchasing it for $250,000.
They plan to open the center with an 11 a.m. worship service and the Norma Zimmer concert on March 28.
And the building, which like some old vaudevillians "got religion" when the glory of their stage days faded, will retain some of its theatrical uses, Magliato says.
"We'll have a Thursday night at the movies here showing films like 'Ben Hur' and 'The 10 Commandments.'
"And we plan to have three layers of gold curtains behind the altar, then open them up at appropriate times during the worship services to reveal sets," he said.