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For children’s theater, there’s no place like home

Members of the Spokane Children’s Theatre, from left, Stephanie Graybeal, Daryl Brender, Judy Brender, Dustin Sorrell and Jerry Uppinghouse, are shown in the 147-seat theater’s new location at 2727 N. Madelia St. The grand opening will be Friday at 5:30 p.m. (Dan Pelle)

After 66 years of nomadic existence, Spokane Children’s Theatre finally has a place to call home.

On Friday, the organization welcomes the community to take a tour of its new facility. Located in a light industrial area just south of Gonzaga Prep, the row of white buildings doesn’t much resemble Broadway’s Great White Way.

“I tell people from the outside it looks like the black and white part of the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ but the inside will blow them away,” said Jerry Uppinghouse, development director.

Indeed, from the lobby and concessions area, to the double doors opening to reveal rows of raised seating, the facility sports the polish of a professional theater. There’s even a green room with lighted mirrors and designated dressing rooms for girls and boys.

Backstage, rows of cubbies hold children’s schoolbooks or snacks, and there’s plenty of storage space for props. Brightly painted bricks on the backstage wall tell a story. The bricks are part of an ongoing fundraising campaign to help finish the theater. For $10 you can buy a brick and decorate it. “It’s our finishing wall,” said Uppinghouse, smiling.

This new home has been a long time coming.

Uppinghouse said, “We’ve been looking for a long time. It’s hard to find a building that will house a theater.”

The program was launched in 1946 by the Junior League of Spokane. The list of those who’ve been involved with the organization over the years reads like a Who’s Who of the Spokane theater scene. Names like Jean Hardie, Dorothy Darby Smith, Troy Nickerson and Kathy Doyle-Lipe pepper programs and production notes.

With the quality of talent the theater attracts, you might think it would be a pricey program for parents. You’d be wrong. Ticket sales have been the major source of income, along with support from the community.

“There are no membership fees, no fees for the kids to audition, and no ticket sales requirement,” board member Judy Brender said.

And there’s a difference between children’s theater and youth theater. Uppinghouse said children’s theater involves performances that are suitable for children, but the roles aren’t necessarily played by kids. “Youth theater is done with kids playing all the parts – even adult roles,” he said.

Including adults in its productions has made Spokane Children’s Theatre a true family experience. Brender said the current production, “Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” features four moms and a dad.

That’s part of the attraction for Phedre Burney-Quimby. She got involved with the organization at 13. “Children’s Theatre was a fun place for me to learn a lot about my craft,” she said.

Burney-Quimby grew up and left Spokane, living and working in San Diego for nine years. “I did theater and sang in bands,” she said.

When she returned to Spokane she reconnected with the theater. “Once you’re part of the Spokane Children’s Theatre family, you’re always part of it,” she said. “You can be gone nine years and step right back in.”

Since 2010, Burney-Quimby has acted and directed with the group and is currently on the board. Now her three young daughters are involved as well.

She said it’s been a delight for her to see the theater find a home. “I’m so glad I came back when I did. This theater is going to be beautiful.”

Board secretary Stephanie Graybeal agreed. “Having our own space will ensure we’ll be here for years to come,” she said.

Her daughter Abbey, 12, has appeared in several productions. “I love acting,” she said. “The directors give you lots of opportunities even if you don’t have lines. They make you feel really involved and part of the show.”

Matthew Read, 10, knows just what she means. He was initially reluctant to audition, but his mom pushed him. “I’m glad she did,” he said. “I like acting and I like the people I work with.” His experience has prompted big dreams. “I think I would love to do Broadway shows someday,” he said.

Read’s enthusiasm illustrates an important long-term goal of Spokane Children’s Theatre. As the 67th season debuts in its new home, Uppinghouse said, “We’re ready to attract a whole new generation.”