Rotary Theater History

Two Renegade Teens turn Woodshop back into a Theater  

In 1983 my best friend Mark Mekelian and I (Patrick Lozano) approached the drama teacher who was also the drama coach, at Redwood high school, Mr. Glenn Foster.

Mark and I told Mr. Foster were interested in doing the comedy by Neal Simon known as the sunshine boys. This was done on a live stage with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon

Mr. Foster did not like the play, nor did he want it to be one of the official productions that season at the LJ Williams theater. Not easily dissuaded, Mark and Patrick approached the woodshop teacher who was working in the Old theater at the Sierra Vista campus of Redwood high school. We pleaded with the teacher to allow us to use the woodshop/ theater for our play.

So, without permission from the drama teacher/coach or from Redwood high school; we set out with the blessing of the woodshop teacher to convert the woodshop classroom into a theater on the weekends. We had  to promise that we would change it back to the wood shop, putting all the sawhorses and equipment back in place before he arrived back at school on Monday mornings.

Our show ran four weekends.

The times Delta did a brief story about two high school seniors that were doing a play in the old non-commissioned theater in Visalia.

It seems that it had been decades since that theater had actually been used as a theater and it had been used as multiple classrooms and a woodshop for the last 30 years prior to us repurposing it to make it a theater once again.

After the short blurb ran in the newspaper we picked up a little traction and popularity on campus and we were able to cast the play, produce it, direct it, stage manage it, build the sets, and take the leading roles.  We did all of this with a small amount of money donated by private persons.

As promised, each weekend, as we broke the stage down we brought all the sawhorses and equipment back out so the building could be converted back to the wood shop for class on Monday.  

I noticed on the opening night that approximately four or five gentlemen were sitting in the front row and they were all wearing suits and ties.

I recognized one of the men to be Stanley Simpson. I knew Mr. Simpson from the Vintage Press restaurant where I was working part time as a busboy. My mother worked at the Vintage Press for 30 years and always attended to Mr. Simpson.  

I then noticed that the next night there were approximately seven or eight men wearing ties that came to our play.

The following weekend we had even more men in the audience wearing ties and after the performance I went out and spoke with several of the men that were present.

I was told by the men that they were a bunch of friends from Visalia Rotary and that they all remembered when this building had been used originally as a theater for plays and musical productions.

They stated that they wanted to support us as much as they could so that’s why the group kept getting larger for each of our performances.

After the show completed its run, we were approached again by the Visalia times Delta and they ran a follow up story about the two crazy seniors that pulled off a big coup having a play, after being told by their teacher, the drama coach, that the play would not be sanctioned by the high school.

The story went on to say that the play was very successful, drawing hundreds of people each night and that many people had told the newspaper that it was nice to see the old theater being used as a theater again.

I was informed by the reporter that some gentleman from the Visalia Rotary club had indicated to the newspaper that they were interested in converting the building back to a theater. They told the paper they did not want to see it going back to being used as a wood shop and they wanted to see it restored to its former glory.

Several months later the Rotary Theater of Visalia was opened to the public and we were once again on site for photographs with Rotarians to commemorate this endeavor.

There was something that told me at the age of 18, in my senior year at Redwood high school, that ‘Rotarians are cool’ and I wanted to be part of that organization when I grew up.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, but this is one of my life events that warms my heart every time I think about it.

To be an instrumental part of having the community embrace this old theater that had been long decommissioned really felt like a successful endeavor for renegade Redwood seniors.

To this day, when I give my story about how long I’ve been a Rotarian, I always include the fact that I became a Rotarian my senior year in high school unofficially.

Patrick Lozano
Past President Visalia Sunset Rotary

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