Reedley Opera House and River City Theatre Company
Rooted in History
By Jordan Venema
In 1902, a fire swept through downtown Reedley, destroying every building for two blocks except a single brick structure. The next year, and with longevity in mind, Danish immigrant Jesse Jansen constructed a brick building that not only would stand the test of time, but also become the jewel of Reedley: the Opera House.
When the Opera House was built, it was used for just about everything but the opera. Carmen or Don Juan never graced its stage, but the proto-community center was the only gathering place of its kind in Reedley.
“It was the only public space in Reedley and for surrounding towns,” says Steve Jones, the managing director of Reedley’s River City Theatre Company, which performs in the Opera House.
“It was used for so many different things – high school graduations, churches met there, and the history is that a lot of performers traveling between L.A. and San Francisco stopped here because it was a waypoint, and they could put on a few shows, then be on their way,” he adds.
Following the advent of motion pictures, the Opera House lost some of its luster, which began a long succession of businesses occupying the building.
“It was a furniture store, it was a bank, it was a feed store, it was storage,” says Jones. “Even the police station used the basement as a firing range. It just had this spiral of different things. The last thing before it closed was a mechanic shop.”
The building was actually scheduled to be demolished in 1975, when the local paper ran a campaign that prompted three families to purchase the building, says Jones. Now owned by the city of Reedley, the Opera House is home to Reedley’s River City Theatre Company, which has been performing out of the Opera House for more than a decade.
“We established RCTC as a nonprofit in 2005, but prior to that Mark Norwood (the company’s founder) was already doing shows there,” explains Jones.
As for the company, much of its core members were “friends of Mark’s, and local talent. Those people were the nucleus of the theatre company,” says Jones, who also had Norwood as a drama teacher his senior year of high school.
While River City Theatre Company began with a small, familiar core, it has grown into a reputable troupe.
“Over the years, we’ve grown so much from a small theatre troupe in Reedley, and we’ve developed quite a rapport in the valley, so our audience reaches pretty far – we’re pulling interest for our shows from Visalia, Fresno, Hanford, so really all over the area.”
Which might be all the more impressive since those surrounding areas have their own theatre companies and programs, but Jones believes River City taps into a kind of camaraderie that is rooted, like the Opera House itself, in history.
“We have a unique philosophy with how we go about theatre. We really encompass family in our company, which, going back historically – that’s theatre. Theatre companies were troupes and they traveled and lived together,” Jones continues. “So we breathe into our theatre company that we’re family, and our company exists for the audience and not any one star, or director.”
That familiar atmosphere is likely enhanced by the intimacy of the Opera House stage, which hosts year-round performances by the company, about six or seven shows a year. Shows range from jukebox musicals to full-blown Broadway-style musicals. A small cast might have only four members, but the larger musicals can have about 30 members, “which is quite unique for us because our stage is only 15 by 15 feet,” says Jones.
Tickets for a River City Theatre Company show run between $10 and $39.
The $39 ticket, which includes dinner and a show, is probably unique to the theatre company, whose own private chef creates meals unique to the Opera House. Vegetarian meals can be served upon request, with dinner starting at 6:30pm and curtain at 8pm.
Information for upcoming shows and a breakdown of their prices can be found on their website.
1720 10th St., Reedley • (559) 638-6500
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