Noe Valley Voice April 1998

Eureka! A Theater Is Reborn

By Richard Dodds

It has been a riches to rags story for the Eureka Theatre, which shut down just months after its greatest artistic and financial triumph. But a longtime Noe Valley resident has set out to revive the once-vital theater that gave birth to Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize­winning Angels in America.

"I hear about a lot of artistic souls in Noe Valley, and I'd like to hear from them," says Bill Schwartz, who has lived in the neighborhood for the past 23 years.

Schwartz, a former public relations executive, became the executive producing director of the nearly dormant Eureka Theatre in the summer of 1996. In the 18 months since, he has been gathering volunteers, scripts, and funding to help stage a comeback. He also has been lining up a new home for the theater.

That home will be the former Gateway Cinema in the Jackson Square District (at 215 Jackson St. near Battery). Schwartz says renovations on the movie theater will begin next month.

"We hope to be done by July," he says, "and to open our first play in October." The $100,000 tab to convert the cinema to a playhouse is almost all raised. "If you can create a theater in downtown San Francisco for $100,000, that's a terrific opportunity, not only for the Eureka, but also for the theater community and the city," Schwartz notes. "We want to open up the space to music, lectures, poetry, school groups, and things like that. It's a wonderful location."

Since its founding 25 years ago, the Eureka has had several homes, most recently on 16th Street at Harrison. For decades, it was considered a pioneer in experimental theater and an exciting component in the city's cultural life. Ironically, that very success led to the loss of some of the Eureka's most creative people. Many top actors, directors, and playwrights went on to find jobs at such major theatrical institutions as the American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Rep.

As its artistic vision wavered, the Eureka's once-loyal audience began heading to other theaters or they just stayed home to watch videos. The Eureka laid off its staff, gave up its lease, and stopped producing plays in 1992, less than a year after Angels in America thrust it into an international spotlight.

Still, the theater held onto its name, an office space, and a board of directors. "There was a pulse," Schwartz says, "but it was faint."

About two years ago, Schwartz was asked to join the board. Having sold his PR firm for a tidy sum in 1991, he now had the time and the resources to sign on. But Schwartz wanted more than a line on his resume. "I said, 'I'm not interested in the board, but I'll tell you what, I'll take over the thing and see if I can get it back on its feet.'" He assured the group that not only would he work for nothing, he'd also make a large financial contribution to the Eureka's future. "It was an offer the board couldn't refuse."

Schwartz, 58, is not a theatrical neophyte, but most of his show-biz experience dates back to his younger days. The Brooklyn native helped produce several summer stock seasons in Long Island and worked as a company manager for Broadway and off-Broadway productions. He was also the road manager for comedian Alan King.

"Alan King fired me and then someone else fired me, and I said theater is not for me," Schwartz says with a smile. "I was not a good cheerleader."

When his girlfriend was offered a job in San Francisco in 1974, Schwartz decided to move west. "I was sort of between careers and I said, 'Hell, why not?'"

Eventually, they married and made Noe Valley their home. They bought their first house on Valley Street for $35,000, moving to Sanchez and then Alvarado streets while rearing two children, now 21 and 16. Schwartz is now divorced, but chose to stay in the neighborhood. He lives on Elizabeth Street near Grand View.

"Noe Valley is one of the few places in the city where I feel a sense of community," Schwartz says. "I feel like I belong to something, which I don't feel elsewhere."

When Schwartz started Hi-Tech Public Relations in 1982, his first office was also in Noe Valley, at 24th and Sanchez. "It was just a telephone and a typewriter," he recalls. However, many of his clients were emerging Silicon Valley companies, and the business took off. "I caught the wave," says Schwartz. But after nine years of deadlines and attitude, he felt "kind of burned out on Silicon Valley," and he sold the business.

He replaced the grind with volunteer work and reconnected with his theatrical past when he organized two theater events for the Holocaust Oral History Project, featuring Ed Asner. The shows, one at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco and the other at the Town Hall Theater in New York, honored Chiune Sugihara, who was known as the "Japanese Schindler" for helping Jews escape the Nazis in 1940.

"When I finished that project, I was looking around for something else to do." That's when the Eureka fell in his lap.

Schwartz realizes that he faces a formidable challenge. Recent years have not been kind to medium-sized theaters.

"But I've gone over the numbers again and again with accountants to see if I'm crazy, and I'm not," he says. Schwartz figures if he can sell just 40 percent of the tickets in his 200- to 300-seat auditorium, the theater will survive.

"I think we can do better than other theaters because of the space, the Eureka's following, and the management I will provide," he says. "And I think the plays we will present will bring in audiences who are looking for intelligent and provocative experiences at the theater."

There are skeptics, however, including Steven Winn, theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Winn offered a pessimistic appraisal in a Chronicle story last year, which also included some jabs at Schwartz. "I thought the article was unnecessarily negative," Schwartz says. "I just didn't understand it. It's not fair to criticize me as some rich dude who wants to put on plays. I do have an artistic vision. I want to do plays with spirit and substance and that can stir things up. We want to entertain with ideas."

Schwartz plans to launch the reborn theater in October with Jonathan Reynolds' Stonewall Jackson's House. He called the play -- a runner-up for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize -- "a very provocative piece concerned with African Americans in a white community. It relooks at slavery in a most unusual way."

Another likely offering in the Eureka's three-play season will be San Francisco playwright Lynn Kaufman's Shooting Simone, a work that focuses on the relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Schwartz also plans a "Discovery Series" of new plays culled from the many manuscripts that continue to flow into the theater.

"When I first walked in here, there were about 300 plays piled up. It seemed irresponsible to let them just gather dust, so I drafted a volunteer reading committee of what you might call regular people." One of the Eureka's four play-reading groups meets monthly in Noe Valley at the home of a volunteer.

The Discovery Series will makes its debut on April 6 at the Cowell Theater with a staged reading of Menachem's Seed, a play by Bay Area author and scientist Dr. Carl Djerassi about the emotional consequences of reproductive technology. It will be preceded by a fund-raising buffet dinner.

Over its 25 years, the Eureka Theatre has survived numerous traumas, from a devastating fire in 1981 (at a church at Market and Noe streets) to staff turnovers and chronic financial shortfalls. But when the doors closed in 1992, it appeared that the final curtain had come down.

With a boost from Schwartz, the Eureka may again be rising from the ashes. But will the new theater look anything like that earlier organization?

Yes, Schwartz says emphatically. "There is a continuity based on our history. We know who we are and what we are here for."

For more information on the Eureka Theatre, call 243-9899.