You have to hand it to Selma.
A couple of years ago, all the city had for a performing arts center was a dream, and not a very glamorous one at that. The old Gateway Furniture store downtown, which had been purchased by the Selma Redevelopment Agency as a possible theater, wasn't in good shape.
Prior to that, theater productions in the old Selma Cultural Arts Center were staged in a converted church that lacked any backstage space. Cast members waited to make their entrances on the lawn outside.
Then came a bit of good luck: the roof on the furniture store collapsed.
Yes, that counts as a good thing. The building was insured. The city took that money and combined it with proceeds from the sale of the old arts center to the local hospital. With the resulting $2 million, community members working through the Selma Arts Council raised an additional $500,000 — all without help from the state and federal governments.
Selma certainly got its money's worth.
The resulting building, which opens officially Saturday with an inaugural performance of "The Sound of Music" by the Raisin' Cain Players, is a stunner — especially when considering the price tag.
This isn't some generic box. Boasting a design from the acclaimed Fresno architect Arthur Dyson — the student of Frank Lloyd Wright whose signature projects include the University High School campus at Fresno State — the new 12,000-square-foot Selma Arts Center features two large, diamond-like-shaped geoforms in front. Attached are steel-frame canopy cantilevers that could accommodate translucent glass in the future.
A patio in front of the building extends out into the street to create a space for audiences to gather before shows or at intermission.
Most of the other buildings along Selma's downtown High Street are many decades old, built at a time when bricks were plentiful, labor was cheap and craftsmen performed intricate masonry and terra cotta work.
In contrast to the beautiful patinas and textures of the older buildings, Dyson wanted to do something completely opposite — something that would say, "This is an arts center." Because of the budget, he knew he'd only be able to use simple wood framing and stucco. "We tried to keep it clean, simple and pure," he says. "With a little imagination, this is what we came up with."
The canopy is outfitted with a lighting system that will allow different colors — or even images and text — to be projected on the front of the building.
The interior of the building might be simple, with clean lines and minimalist design, in keeping with the modest budget, but it doesn't skimp on technology.
A cutting-edge, computerized lighting system using LED lights, which burn much cooler than regular lights and allow an almost infinite variety of color combinations, is in the unenclosed lighting booth, which hangs in a balcony over the 260-seat house. A sound designer added elements to get the best acoustics possible.
A large stage area and ample backstage space, along with a basement for dressing rooms and for the cast to congregate while not on stage — no waiting outside on the lawn required — complete the picture.
"You know who was on the building committee — all the actors," Dyson says with a laugh.
The space is meant to be more than just a home for the Raisin' Cain Players, Selma's longtime community theater, and the city's children's theater, called the Cool Kid Players. Because of the flexible space, it can be used for dance events, concerts and to highlight the visual arts, along with theater.
"We want this place to be so busy that you couldn't say there's a prime tenant," says Randy McFarland, an arts council board member and producer of "The Sound of Music."
Juan Guzmán, another board member and Fresno City College professor, points to Selma's rich history of writers and poets — which will get attention at the center as well. And a Latino Music Series starts Nov. 1.
Often smaller communities devote a huge amount of resources and attention to local sports, says Ken Gray, Selma's mayor and a prime mover and shaker behind the new center, along with his wife, Marla.
That's fine, Grey says, but he also wants people to know Selma supports the arts just as enthusiastically.
"We're excited about the opportunity it gives for our young folks growing up here," Grey says. "There have been a lot of people from Selma who have gone on to the arts and entertainment fields as a source of employment. This is a great jumping-off spot for them to go on to a career."
Selma has a long and rich history of supporting the performing arts. Charles Frederick Unger, who opened an opera house bearing his name in 1888, opened a second in 1906. Both structures are now gone.
Hanna Nielsen York, who plays Maria in and assistant directs "The Sound of Music," performed as a child in "Oklahoma" at the C.F. Unger Opera House (a later building named for him) in Selma's Pioneer Village, another prior home of the Raisin' Cain Players. (She remembers the floor caving in at one performance.)
"When the curtain goes up on Saturday, it's going to be so exciting, such a huge step for the community," she says.
Director Dennis Adkins notes that core members of Selma's theater scene have long joked about the presence of Unger's ghost in various venues used over the years. Could it be that he didn't care for the worn, imperfect condition of the theaters?
Adkins doesn't know if Unger will make his presence known at this new venue, but it's hard to imagine him being anything but pleased.
"Plus the acoustics are so good," he says, "that we'll be able to hear his whispers."
"The Sound of Music," through Sept. 29, Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St., Selma. (559) 891-2237, tickettomato.com. $15-$25. Opening night fundraiser $75.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.