After more than 30 years of serving as a prime location for concerts and theatrical productions in Brentwood, the theater, which has become a community icon, will close its doors to make way for the new state-of-the-art Theatre at Edna Hill – three times the size of the existing theater – scheduled to open in January. The Bristow Theater will be torn down in March during spring break, but no plans have been made for the vacant space.
Edna Hill drama teacher Bart Schneider said the closing of the theater brings about the same emotions as saying goodbye to a dear friend.
“I know it’s just a building, but this place is special and means a lot to a lot of people. As soon as you walk through the main doors you just know that this is a magical place. I’m really going to miss it.”
But before the theater closes its doors forever, Schneider has planned a special farewell event, inviting students past and present to share their stories and memories of the theater on Saturday, Dec. 19.
“It will be a very spontaneous evening,” said Schneider, who has run the drama department since 2002. “There’s no script to follow. We’ll open the doors and just let people be in the theater and enjoy these final moments in a place that is full of 30 years worth of memories. If some students come up to me and say ‘Hey Mr. Schneider, let’s sing ‘Grease Lighting,’’ I’ll say ‘sure’ and we’ll have an improvised performance. The event is scheduled to run from six to nine, but if people still want to hang out afterward, that’s OK, too. I know it’s going to be hard to walk away from this place.”
Bill Bristow, the theater’s namesake, brought the theater to Brentwood in 1975 when he was superintendent of the Brentwood Union School District. The district purchased the theater from Diablo Valley College, located in Pleasant Hill, for $3,001 and had the theater transferred over to Brentwood in labeled sections.
Bristow’s wife Patty, who was a physical education teacher at Edna Hill at the time, said all of the pieces of the theater’s exterior were hauled to Brentwood and then laid out on the basketball courts adjacent to the theater’s future home. “Needless to say,” recalled Patty, “we didn’t play basketball that year.”
It took the entire school year, but laborers throughout the community, who donated their time, were able to put the theater back together just as it stood on the DVC campus 30 miles away.
“The construction of that project was a typical Bill Bristow project,” said Kathy Leighton, whose family construction business was involved in the reconstruction of the theater. “He had a way of getting the whole community involved to the point where you felt like you were missing out if you weren’t a part of it. Every contractor in town played a part in getting that theater together.”
Patty said when it was time to screw in the theater seats, people from all over far East County showed up at the theater armed with screwdrivers ready to pitch in.
“It was a real community effort,” Patty said. “It was made by the community for the community. And it wasn’t just for productions at Edna Hill. All the local theater groups used that theater. The Liberty High School productions were held there before the performing arts center was built, and the Brentwood Community Theater used the theater for its productions, too. It was used by everyone, and that is what Bill wanted. He wanted to share it with the community.”
Since the theater’s opening in 1976, hundreds of plays and concerts have been held at the theater. “The Music Man,” Bill’s favorite play, was the first production performed on the stage. As a tribute to Bill, who died this past April at the age of 73, Schneider said the Edna Hill drama students will perform “The Music Man” for their spring show as the inaugural performance at the Theatre at Edna Hill.
“We have a beautiful new theater waiting for us, but it’s bittersweet,” said Schneider. “I know the old theater is tattered and smells kind of funky, but that’s part of its charm. There is a special energy in that place, and I hope we can carry that energy and spirit over to the new theater.”
Claire Fink, a freshman at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, said her favorite memories of her time at Edna Hill Middle School were spent in the Bristow Theater. “I had band class for four years in the classroom behind the stage. I remember being in the play ‘Hello, Dolly’ in that theater, having assemblies in the theater. I had a theater class in the Bristow Theater. I was even in a spelling bee in that theater.
“I love the theater because of all the good times I had there. The Bristow Theater may be old, but that’s why it’s so cool … I remember in band class when my teacher, Ms. Breitenbucher, said that she moved the podium, and cockroaches came crawling out from underneath. I also remember during the play, and also in band and theater class, we would either see mice or hear them running around. I think that most of my memories from Edna Hill come from the Bristow Theater.”
Edna Hill Principal Kirsten Jobb said she hopes the old theater’s magic – minus the mice – will be transferred to the new facility and set the stage for new memories for the entire community: “So many students have such wonderful memories in that theater, but we’re really excited about our new facility. It has state-of-the-art equipment and the ambiance is outstanding. It’s absolutely beautiful on the inside. It looks like a theater you’d find in the finest cities.”
While no plans are in place to disassemble the theater and move it to a new location, Jobb said she hopes that some pieces of the old theater can be incorporated into the new one. Schneider has his eye on a few items he’d like to transfer to the new facility, including a piece of the signature wall, which includes the John Hancock of all the students who have participated in Edna Hill productions in the past five years.
The farewell evening on Dec. 19 begins at 6 p.m. with an open house at which Schneider will offer opening remarks and invite others to share their stories. The stage will be decorated with set pieces from past productions and photos from the many events that have taken place on the stage over the years, including plays, band and choir concerts, and academic ceremonies.
Patty Bristow said she will also make a few remarks, and plans to bring along friends who were involved in the theater’s early years, including the theater’s first drama director, Nancy Torres, and former Edna Hill Principal Jack England.
The send-off event will also feature a tribute to Kayla Shepard, the Brentwood teen who died in a car crash in October. Shepard was involved in performing arts and honed her acting chops on the Bristow stage when she was a student at Edna Hill.
“Kayla was a really special girl,” Schneider said. “She kicked off her performing arts career in this theater, and we want to pay tribute to her. She was an incredible person and we want to do something to honor her.”
The details of the tribute are still in the works, but Schneider said they’ll do something special around 7 p.m. to honor her memory.
Schneider is also collecting photos and artifacts from past productions held in the theater to be on display during the farewell event. Those desiring to contribute to the display may e-mail Schneider at email@example.com.
The Bill Bristow Community Theater is located at 140 Birch St. in Brentwood. For more information, call the school at 925-513-6440.