In 1958 Louis Flynn was cast as Elwood P. Dowd in "Harvey" at the Richmond Community Players (RCP), in the building that now houses the Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond. Also included in the cast were Lou Capeluto, Earl Link, and Lavorah Spradlin. Slated to run for four weekends, "Harvey" ran for 10. Earl Link then convinced the RCP board to rent the theatre to Louis and Bettianne Flynn for a production of Louis' new play "The Orchid Sandwich." The Flynns handled all aspects of the production, including Bettianne's very successful campaign of ticket sales to local clubs, which continued throughout her lifetime. Starring Sherry Sailor, Phyllis Adams, and Lou Capeluto, "The Orchid Sandwich" opened in early 1959, was scheduled to run for four weeks, and ended up running every Friday and Saturday evening for six months, finally closing that summer!
RCP then resumed their operations and the Flynns began the search for their dream-a place where the whole family could enjoy quality, live theatre. That dream was realized in the form of the abandoned Vista Movie Theatre at the corner of Blake and San Pablo (now the home of Atlas Liquor Store). Bettianne Flynn made plans to meet with the owner Pete Claudianos, who lived in Reno and owned several motels there. In fall 1959, Bettianne boarded a bus to Reno with a ticket paid for with $9 borrowed from Father Ashey of St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in El Cerrito. She met with Mr. Claudianos in his limousine, negotiating as they drove from motel to motel while he checked on his properties. Several motels later they finally agreed on a price, a three-year lease was signed on November 1, 1959, and Contra Costa Civic Theatre was born.
The Vista Theatre was in sad condition. Empty, vandalized several time, it had no stage, no light fixtures. Thus began the hard work of refurbishing the theatre with a dedicated group of volunteers, including Fran Dyck, Carol Edwards, Guy Foster, Lynn and Ed Kessler, Earl Link, Betty and Charlie McCarthy, Madeline and Eddie Quinn, Mariano Soldanini, Virginia and Jack Stone, Joe Storelli, and others, many of who were members of St. Patrick's Episcopal Church. A few even put up their homes as collateral for a bank loan.
During this time Betty McCarthy and Bettianne began their Pocket Theatre classes for children, a project unique to the area. Before this, there were only adults performing for children, with no opportunities for children to get onstage. In December 1959 they were indeed performing, and the program became the cornerstone of CCCT's activities today.
On February 5, 1960, the opening night curtain went up on CCCT's production of "Dear Ruth," which included in its cast Bob Campbell, a former State Assemblyman. That initial season included productions of "State of the Union," "The Orchid Sandwich," "Harvey," "Personal Appearance," and "Our Town" (directed by Sam Elkind).
The theatre mounted five productions in its second year. Musicals were added in 1962, with "High Button Shoes" being the first. That same year the theatre suffered another crisis when a three-day torrential rain caused a flood in the theatre during a performance of "Solid Gold Cadillac." City Hall was fairly indifferent to the situation until Bettianne Flynn made an appearance before the City Council that prompted the Richmond Independent to run a story with the headline, "New Storm Hits El Cerrito." As a result, new, larger storm drains were installed on San Pablo Avenue near the theatre.
In summer 1962 CCCT toured to Squaw Valley with its production of "Send Me No Flowers", and in summer 1964 it took "The Orchid Sandwich" to Guerneville. This practice of taking the show on the road wasn't repeated until 1993, when Nunsense traveled all the way to Budapest, Hungary, thanks to arrangements made by director George Johnson.
In 1968 the building housing the theatre was sold and many people thought that might signal the end of CCCT. But they reckoned without the dedication and energy of the Flynns. With the help of Manuel Marcos at Mechanics Bank, the theatre took up quarters in the Harding Auditorium at Harding Elementary School and mounted successful productions there in 1969 and 1970. Because the school and community also used the space, CCCT had to store all of its set pieces, furniture, and costumes elsewhere, with Elmer Freethy donating storage space.
It became more and more evident that CCCT should have its own, permanent home to develop and expand its performance capabilities, as well as to build and store sets, costumes, and props. The original plan called for building an oval-shaped theatre (designed by El Cerrito architect Barbachano) at the present site of the Recycling Center, near the quarry. Because of the high cost of building the structure, installing utilities, and many other obstacles, that idea was scrapped.
In 1970 Bettianne Flynn in her inimitable way urged Richard Brown, El Cerrito's City Manager, to let CCCT take over the empty Boys Club building at the corner of Pomona Avenue and Moeser Lane. The building, consisting of two World War II PX buildings joined together, was basically a shell. The city had planned to tear it down at a cost of $6,000 but finally agreed to lease the building to CCCT at one dollar per year. In October 1970, the kids were the first to perform at the new space in "Rally Round the Flag, Boys." There was no stage and the audience sat on folding chairs.
The price tag for renovation of the building was $20,000, a huge amount of money in 1970! CCCT raised the money from numerous sources, including dinners, dances, and cocktail parties. However. the bulk of it came from "The Magnificent 20," 20 families who personally guaranteed a $20,000 loan for $1,000 each, granted by Central Bank. Here is the roll of honor:
Groundbreaking for the new theatre began in March 1971, with countless other people, including Ken and Patsy Berndt and Corinne Brennan, helping in any way they could. They worked nonstop for nine months, with some people taking vacation time from work to help out at the theatre. Robert Fites served as treasurer during the construction. The only paid labor went toward the building's foundation and sheet rocking for the stage; the remaining volunteers were paid in food at the work parties. Seats for the new theatre were obtained from the old Lux Theatre, a burlesque house in Oakland. There was a hitch, however. The only time the volunteers could get into the theatre was between 4 and 8 a.m. So, for several Saturdays mornings promptly at 4 a.m., a group went to the Lux with screwdrivers in hand, unscrewed the seats, and brought them back to Pomona. Numerous volunteers scraped off the gum and reupholstered, painted, and installed the seats.
Finally, with a new stage and 199 seats to sit in, CCCT held its grand opening on Friday, July 23, 1971, with "Play It Again, Sam." Straight plays were done until 1973, when the theatre gave its first production of "My Fair Lady," starring Judy Whiting. "The Sound of Music" was included in the season of 1974, "Harvey" was repeated in 1975, and was followed by "As the Silent Stars Go By," a Christmas play by Louis Flynn. A 1976 article in the Oakland Tribune stated. "Started on a shoestring, CCCT has turned into one of the best community theatres in the country." That same year the theatre did a repeat production of "The Orchid Sandwich," starring Dee Jay Martin and featuring Pat Parker in her first production at the theatre. In 1977 the theatre settled into its present schedule of producing two straight plays and two musicals each season. In 1978 the El Cerrito City Council renamed the building that houses CCCT the Flynn Building.
Throughout the years, CCCT has acquired and fostered a wealth of talent from the community. For many years Louis directed most of the productions, as well as acting in many of them, with invaluable support from such people as Sheila Shaffer (set design), Betty McCarthy, (directing and costumes), Aubrey McClellan, (set construction), Joanne Gabel and Dorothelle Fites (music direction), and Eleanor Weigand (choreography). Ken Berndt served for several years as president of the Board of Directors and Hal Edwards was treasurer. Many of these people shared their skills with CCCT young people, fostering a new generation of theatre workers that now includes Kathleen Flynn Ray, Matt Flynn, Kim Mayer, Catherine Schutz, and Maryse Weigand Young. Kathleen teaches drama at Head Royce School. Matt Flynn, who continues to design many of CCCT's sets, is based in Los Angeles and works as an art director for prime-time television. Third-generation Flynns, Maureen and Alex Ray, have appeared in several CCCT productions. They both work as counselors at Summer Drama Camp, and Alex is house manager for CCCT productions. Louis, now 86, serves as Founding Artistic Director, ably assisted by Artistic Director Mark Manske and Associate Artistic Director Kate Culbertson. They oversee an artistic advisory committee in choosing plays, musicals, directors, and staff. Louis continues to delight audiences with his cameo roles in most of the productions.
Other talented people who got their start at CCCT now work in professionally in the entertainment industry. Robert Tuterice, who managed props at Blake and San Pablo, has designed costumes for movies and TV, including "Moonlighting," and has worked at Pasadena Playhouse. Joe Paulino, who played the young boy in "A Thousand Clowns," is now a major voiceover artist. Maureen Duffey, remembered for her performances in "Hello, Dolly" and "Annie Get Your Gun," toured with a national company of "Les Miserables." Ray West is a technician for Big Ape, a division of Lucas Arts. Long involved in lighting and sound for CCCT productions, he and brother Mark are also remembered for their roles in the female version of "The Odd Couple."
Another popular young performer, Dena Martinez, acts, directs, and teaches throughout the Bay Area. Nina Auslander Meehan, founder and director of Active Arts Theatre group, also teaches and directs throughout the area. Kirsty Cates, who was in "Sound of Music," has performed in "Wicked" on Broadway and in touring companies. Katie Rieman, on the CCCT Drama Camp staff, works as stage manager for ACT and Berkeley Rep. Myles Nye, Camp playwright and staff member, is currently working in Los Angeles and on the "Survivor" show as a consultant.
Today CCCT continues to grow. "Live at CCCT," a greatly expanded young people's division originally guided by Betty McCarthy, Alice Greenwood, and Dorothelle Fites, is now thriving under the leadership of Kathleen Ray. It provides year-round classes in musical theatre, Pocket Theatre, voice, and more. Begun in 1989, the wildly successful Summer Drama Camps each year introduce more than 200 young people to the hard work and excitement of live theatre. To reach new audiences, CCCT, under the guidance of Kim Mayer and Todd Ewing, launched its PlayMakers Series in 1996 to offer contemporary, and/or lesser-known works in a "second-stage" setting. PlayMakers was discontinued in 2005, when CCCT expanded to a five-show season. But its spirit lives on through shows such as the 2007 production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."
CCCT has a broad base of support in the community-through its subscribers, donors, volunteers, and City Hall. In 1988, supporters contributed $11,000 toward the much-needed repair of the theatre's roof. In 1994 the theatre made a major commitment to its future with 'Three Years for CCCT,' its first large-scale capital campaign. Working closely with the City of El Cerrito and the City Council, the Board of Directors raised money for building improvements to meet requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act and to install a modern temperature-control system in the auditorium. The fund-raising was supported by a loan and grant combination from the City, a major donation by the Cerrito City Club, and the balance from individual donors. In 1994 the theatre's first permanent staff member, a part-time administrator was also hired.
In 2000, CCCT's Board of Directors launched a major capital campaign-Staging Our Future. Chaired by Marge Collins, it helped secure the theatre's future for another 40 years. Young people who wielded shovels in the Pomona Avenue groundbreaking ceremony, have grown up to become part of the volunteer staff and to serve on the Board, and another generation of actors is taking center stage. As CCCT approaches its 50th anniversary, it continues to thrive through the efforts of its enthusiastic volunteers, who are unquestionably the "Community" in community theatre.
2009-10 marked CCCT's 50th Anniversary. The occasion was celebrated by a 50th Anniversary Gala as well as a Reunion Cast Party. In the past forty-nine years, CCCT has presented more than 200 productions, as well as numerous other play readings, events, and children’s shows. We have staged intimate dramas and splashy musicals, from solo performances to casts that fill the stage. We have always believed that good theatre must contain all that life contains — the seemingly insignificant and the extravagantly momentous. CCCT truly is a community theatre. We can proudly say that every facet of our organization involves members of our community — from the friendly faces in the office, to the lighting and set designers. As a volunteer-based nonprofit community theatre, nothing is more important than the people who spend time with us at the theatre.