The History of Hillbarn Theatre
“Pride mixed with nostalgia…at the opening of the new Hillbarn Little Theatre…” wrote theater critic Barbara Bladen in The San Mateo Times dated May 27, 1968. She continued, “The collective lump in the audience’s throat was as big as the theatre itself as the evening divided itself into ceremonial and theatrical. By the time the play [Dark of the Moon] started, there were few dry eyes.” So began the 28th consecutive season of Hillbarn Theatre as they were finally in their permanent home in Foster City, California.
Hillbarn Theatre was founded by Robert Brauns and Sam Rolph. It was developed as an outgrowth of the Peninsula Little Theatre (PLT), a community theater founded in 1936 and operated under the auspices of the Adult Learning Division of the College of San Mateo (CSM). Hillbarn Summer Theatre was Robert Brauns’ brainchild after he had experience New England Summer Stock Theater. Brauns, Rolph and Ralph Schram, who started Palo Alto Players, set out to find a barn in the summer of 1941. The Pingrey Barn on a hill at 43rd Avenue and Hillbarn Court in San Mateo was Hillbarn Theatre’s first home. Very funny catastrophes defined those two years in the barn; the smells were horrible, the infrastructure questionable and yet they still mounted six shows in six weeks during the summer.
In the summer of 1943 a survey of theater throughout the country was published and it was said of Hillbarn,”…its standards of production match or surpass those of professional summer theaters in the East. In choice of plays it ranks above the east. A summer theater which can make a success of Ibsen, Moliere, Sardou, and Wilde, and which in three years can introduce five new authors to the stage in premiere performances, seems to indicate a theatre-going public in San Mateo of greater discrimination and sophistication ever dreams possible in California.”
Hillbarn had two more homes before its permanent move to Foster City. It enjoyed seventeen years in the derelict chapel on the old Borel estate on El Camino Real in San Mateo. Hillbarn and its founders were noted for their flexibility—on and off stage. Hillbarn had attracted national attention during the war. Stanford Professor Wendell Cole termed the phrase “flexible staging” to Braun and Rolph’s unique staging concept; they had turned the liability of strangely configured spaces into an asset. This was a new concept. They were able to reconfigure any space of audience and actors within the same space which was completely different than the proscenium stages of the time.
Simultaneously, Brauns and Rolph had to remain flexible off the stage as well. Audiences were often cold and they would serve coffee to keep them for the second act; that tradition of free coffee continues today. In 1950, the Borel Chapel was closed by the fire department. Completion of the run of the original play Dorothy was done at the CSM auditorium. Renovation of the aging theatre was completed at the expense of the Brauns three years later in 1953. Unfortunately, only seven years later in 1960 the theatre was condemned to build the Highway 92 overpass. Bettendorf says, “With ‘flexibility’ Brauns and Rolph handled all crises, and many of their boldest, more far-reaching innovations were as a result of their original, creative solutions to problems. Many of these solutions are now commonplace theater practices, but few know that they originated with a little community theater in San Mateo, in the 1940s and 1950s.
Carlmont Shopping Center in Belmont provided Hillbarn’s home from 1962 to 1968. The San Mateo Times in 1961 stated, “the theater will open its fall season in September …to coincide with the opening of the [Charm] Restaurant which is still under construction. The Camperdown Elm, who’s sheltering branches during moonlit coffee intermission became as famous as the building, has been offered to the City of San Mateo Park Commission, but cost of moving it is prohibitive, and it will fall before bulldozers. The bell which summoned theatre-goers at the beginning of each act was…given to 15-year old Lindley Cotton…the inscription of the bell reads: “Grace Chapel –San Mateo Homestead-1908-Donation by A. Borel.” Cuttings from the original Camperdown elm created a new tree which along with the bell was moved, in 1968, to Hillbarn’s fourth and final location in the new Foster City; they continue as traditions to this day. Unfortunately, the bell was stolen on September 25, 2004; one day after Hillbarn opened its 64th Season. UPDATE: On September 3, 2010, the day of the opening of the 70th Season, a concerned citizen discovered the bell in a scrap metal shop in San Leandro. His phone call lead to the recovery of the bell and the presentation to the audience on opening night–an auspicious beginning for the 70th season. Present for the bell presentation was the Mayor of Foster City Rick Wykoff who generously presented a 70th Season Proclamation, City Council Members Charles Bronitsky, Pam Frisella, and Art Kiesel. Also present was T. Jack Foster, Jr. and members of the Borel family who gave the bell to Hillbarn: Kristi and Bob Spence.
What brought the theatre to Foster City: T. Jack Foster, Jr. reminisces in a 1995 interview, “I guess the gift [of the land] was made thirty years ago (sic). Hillbarn at that time was in a crisis of some sort and looking for a home. So I thought, ‘Any community should be excited about having Hillbarn in the community,’ and so I came back and talked to my Dad and brothers, and said, “Why don’t we see if we can capture this for Foster City?’’ We were interested in all aspects of a new town, including culture, and here was a cultural opportunity to land the theater.”
With the gift of the land, the Foster family assisted with the cultural life of the new community. Architects Robert Blunk and Vic Wandmayer donated their services to design and provide plans for the new building; they also worked with the suppliers. Wally Nafis and Robert Eggli donated their landscaping services. Wells Fargo bank under the banking direction of Carl Ward arranged a low interest loan. Many, many people assisted with the fundraising to make all of it happen. In less than ten years the membership paid off the mortgage.
Yet, the next crisis was on the horizon. The founders were aging and wanted to retire and simultaneously, due to the taxpayers’ revolt of 1978, Proposition 13 caused the Adult Education program of the College of San Mateo to cut the theater offerings and the salaries of Brauns, Rolph and their Box Office Manager were eliminated.
Although many talented artistic and managing directors came and went, the period between 1978 and 1998 was a difficult period for Hillbarn Theatre; they were trying to define themselves without their founders and without the funding and support from the College. As Board President, Foster City resident, T. Jack Foster, III, the son of T. Jack Foster, Jr. who had given the land to Hillbarn Theatre brought in two new board members: his sister Lee Foster and Diane Griest. Together with the Board of Directors they created a series of new guiding initiatives that would make the aging theater viable again. Barnraising 1998 was born and began the process of revitalization that continues today.
Within two years Lee Foster, was made Executive Director; she was given the mandate to hire a top-notch artistic director to bring the production values of the theater up. In May 2001 Toni Tomei, a highly respected actress and director who had formally worked at Palo Alto Players and at Peninsula Center Stage, was hired to direct the show 1776. During that period she replace Kay Kleinerman, the first Artistic Director, who had followed through with the Board of Director mandate to form the Hillbarn Conservatory whose object it was to train children year round in theater arts and to build an audience for the next generation. The Foster City Parks and Recreation Department offered to assist Hillbarn with the marketing of the Children’s Conservatory. This important partnership exists today. Toni set out immediately to improve the artistic aspect of the theater and to recreate relationships with the artistic community. Toni significantly improved the production values at Hillbarn, now the task was to improve the quality and consistency of the music. In 2005, Hillbarn hired Greg Sudmeier as Resident Musical Director. Veteran technical director Lee Basham, known for his innovative sets and quality of detail, made his mark over this ten year period leaving in 2010 after seeing the theatre back on its feet.
While Tomei was busy improving things on the stage, Foster was working on different fronts and was developing a relationship with the Foster City community. In her first year as Executive Director, she was asked by the City Council to replace the roof; it was a huge blow to a new Executive Director that already had enormous fiscal problems. With the help of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the City of Foster City and the fundraiser, Raise the Roof, the three entities split the $90,000 bill three ways and the community kept its theater with its brand new roof that was completed in January 2002. Since then Hillbarn replaced the front yard–above and below ground-added air conditioning and is currently trying to replace the bathrooms.
Other initiatives completed the renaissance the theater was experiencing. Wells Fargo Bank, Chicago Title, Applied Materials, and the Peninsula Community Foundation (now Silicon Valley Community Foundation) became huge annual supporters of the theater. Additionally, local groups including the Lion’s Club, the Rotary Club of Foster City, and others joined in. 2003 saw the completion of a one-year strategic planning process that interviewed over 300 supporters of the community theater. Hillbarn realized how important they were to the community. Six initiatives were realized that would ensure artistic quality and fiscal soundness which would create a community theater that would endure forever (see Hillbarn mission). In November 2004, Hillbarn Theatre paid off accumulated debt and remains debt free today. Executive Director Lee Foster was given the 2008 Bravo! Award by Congresswoman Jackie Speier.
By 2009, the economy was reeling and simultaneously Executive Director Lee Foster had left to pursue other interests.
Hillbarn is the 6th oldest continuously operating amateur theater company in the nation and is the oldest company in San Mateo County. Since 1995, Hillbarn won a Theater Critics Circle Award, was accepted at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival, was honored with several mayoral proclamations for excellence in theatrical production and education, three Dean Goodman Awards for Artistic Excellence, and a Foster City Honors Award for the Executive Director in 2003. In a 1994 interview with former Artistic Director Scott Williams, he said: “Hillbarn is an idea. Hillbarn began as a vision of Bob and Sam, essentially, and it has stayed coalesced around their vision. People who came here understood they had the vision, and it was an extraordinary one…They created a good feeling, a great viable organization, and they had a marvelous ability to bring people into the process.” Hillbarn will remain forever a legacy to their memories and a benefit to the cultural life of the citizens of Foster City.