Ferndale Repertory Theatre, affectionately FRT, is now in its 44th year, making it the oldest (and largest) of the North Coast’s resident community theatres. The company, which began as Ferndale Little Theater in 1972, is housed at the Hart Theatre building, built in 1920 in the Victorian Village of Ferndale.
Through the leadership of Artistic Producing Director Leira V. Satlof, a dedicated Board of Directors, and a county-wide cadre of multi-talented volunteers, FRT is a vibrant part of Humboldt County’s performing arts scene, producing multiple main stage productions throughout the year, as well as a number of special events.
Most theatre companies start with a core group of actors and directors looking for a place to perform. Sometimes that means a storefront, a church basement or a school auditorium. In Ferndale, the theatre building came first, supported by a community that, in turn, invited actors, directors, and other artists to participate in their vision.
The Hart Theatre was built in 1920 and was used for 30 years as a venue for silent films, traveling theatre companies, and, later, for talking pictures. The theatre closed in 1956, and seemed consigned to a life of darkness. By the early 1970s, however, the community of Ferndale was experiencing an artistic boom, with dozens of artists settling and working in the town. When a group of Ferndale residents raised the possibility of renovating the old movie theatre as a playhouse, a remarkable and energetic community including businesses, merchants, artists, Navy personnel, farmers, and ranchers came together, and thus the Ferndale Little Theater was born in 1972. In 1979, Artistic Director Charlie Morrison proposed developing a repertory company, and renamed the venue Ferndale Repertory Theater. Although the repertory company itself was short-lived, the name has endured.
Among the early believers in the theatre were Mrs. Harris (Marty) Connick, who led the community effort, and Tom Dimmick, owner of the Hart Theatre building. Mr. Dimmick not only helped to fund the renovation work, but eventually sold the building to the non-profit group at a figure far below market value; on his death in 1998, the building was gifted to the theatre group. Mr. Dimmick’s generosity provided the company with a stable home, which has gone a long way to helping ensure its continuing success.
The First World War was over, the soldiers were home, and the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918 was beginning to fade away when heirs to the Hart family estate determined to build a fine new theatre especially for the showing of motion pictures.
Located on the former site of Alford’s Drug Store on Ferndale’s Main Street, the new building wasn’t even finished when Ferndale’s Postmaster Erickson declared that it blocked out the daylight so that he could “no longer do Uncle Sam’s business at his present location.” A few months after his complaint, which was front page news in the Ferndale Enterprise in the fall of 1920, postal inspectors agreed and the post office was moved out of the shadow to a new location.
The audiences were delighted with their new theatre, which was one of the first in northern California to be built specifically for the showing of motion pictures. Leased by the P&B Motion Picture Circuit, The Hart Theatre opened on December 8, 1920 with a showing of “The Mollycoddle”, a lavish silent adventure comedy with Douglas Fairbanks, accompanied by a pianist hired from the Minor Theatre in Arcata. There was also a live show with “The Musical Thoms” (musical novelties galore), consisting of violin imitations and popular music played on bottles and soup bones. Admission was a quarter for adults and fifteen cents for children.
The Hart Theatre was in continual use for almost forty years, hosting touring vaudeville companies as well as showing movies, and many Ferndale couples fondly recall their first date at the Hart. The movie house closed in 1956, and the building languished until 1972, when it was reborn as a community theatre during a time of particularly rich artistic growth in Ferndale and the surrounding communities.
The small town of Ferndale boasted as many as five theatres back in the 1870s, of which The Hart is the only one to survive in active use. Despite a serious fire, many renovations, countless changes in ownership, and several financial breakdowns over the years, it still stands today. And although it stopped showing movies many years ago, the building was never converted to other uses and has remained a theatre for almost a century.