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Final cut for the CAT

New landlord leaves Paso’s Classic American Theatre out in the cold

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The play is the thing, or so a crusty, old bard who knew nothing about real estate once said. Four hundred years later, the rent is the thing. And the thing is going up 300 percent for the Classic American Theatre (CAT) of Paso Robles.

As a nonprofit theater company, the CAT has long enjoyed a below-market rent at its prime downtown location on 11th Street in Paso Robles. But when Prudential Hallmark Realty closes escrow on the building later this month, the CAT could face an increase in monthly rent from $1,800 to $6,000.

Pati Coelho, operations manager for the theater, had heard that the current owners were thinking about selling the building, possibly within a year.

“We didn’t take it seriously. We’d heard this before,� Coelho remembered. “Next thing we heard: It’s in escrow.�

With an increase of that magnitude, the CAT has no choice but to find a new location, but the timing could not be worse. After seven years, the theater was really starting to run smoothly, Coelho reported, and the spring production of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap� just opened Feb. 25 and runs through April 16.

Prudential Hallmark of Paso Robles could not be reached for comment, but rumor has it that the theater will be converted into commercial office space. Coelho has arranged with the new owner to stay put shortly after the close of escrow. The theater has until May 1 to move all their lighting, seating, and property out of the building and into storage.

A small group of investors recently announced that they would be renovating and restoring the historic Fox Theatre on Spring Street, converting it into a multi-use, nonprofit performing arts center for music, dance, film, and theater. Like many entertainers in the area, Coelho looks forward to holding performances at the Fox, but that theater is still two years away from completion. In the meantime, it’s just a matter of finding a temporary residence.

Coelho went on to name a handful of potential temporary venues, and then explained why they wouldn’t work. Someone suggested the ballroom at McLintock’s, but the restaurant just couldn’t accommodate them. Another possibility was the American Legion building in Templeton, but they often book weddings on the weekends. Then there’s the outdoor theater in San Miguel, but who wants to sit through a summertime play when it’s 112 degrees?

As each option was ruled out, it became more and more difficult to fathom Coelho’s optimism. But she isn’t losing hope.

“I’m confident something will come up,� she insisted. “In a perfect world, the new owner would let us stay until the Fox is done. But money’s money, and it doesn’t make a lot of financial sense.�

The CAT was established in 1995 and quickly earned a reputation for quality and professionalism, presenting 11 plays in a temporary location. In 1998 the company found its current location, adjacent to the City Park in downtown Paso Robles. The group remodeled the commercial building and turned it into a 130-seat playhouse, which has already accommodated several seasons of high caliber productions. The theater’s lobby also serves as the Gallery in the Park, displaying intimate collection of local artwork.

To facilitate its relocation to a new theater, the CAT is planning two fund-raisers in the upcoming months. A Day in the Shade, a CAT-sponsored art show, will take place at Templeton Community Park on Saturday, May 7, raising awareness about the theater’s plight. They also have plans for a silent auction fund-raiser in May or June, featuring items from Carol Burnett, “The West Wing,� Carlos Santana, Gibson Guitar, and much more.

Now showing at the CAT is Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,� directed by Patricia Kane, who is also the theater’s vice president and artistic director, as well as Pati Coelho’s mother. Famous as the longest consecutively running play in show business — it opened in London in 1952 — “The Mousetrap� is a classic tale of murder and mayhem at an English guesthouse in the winter of 1948.

Once they find a new home, the CAT looks forward to producing Larry Shue’s comedy “The Foreigner� this summer, “Dracula� in the fall, and an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol� next winter.

To learn more about how you can help the CAT, or for a complete listing of this season’s upcoming productions, call the theater at 238-3859.

Staff Writer Jeff Hornaday thinks he speaks for the entire community. Contact him at jhornaday @newtimesslo.com.

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