Oklahoma! in 1982. Kathy Brombacher surveys the stage with Choreographer Ed Perez. Musical Director James Cook is at the piano.
A FIELD OF DREAMS
Once upon a time is a good place to start when telling the story of the Moonlight Amphitheatre.
The city-owned-and-operated venue in Vista went from being a field of dreams to becoming one of Southern California’s most spectacular entertainment spots, with year-round programming and creative opportunities for rental space. But it took more than 30 years for the Moonlight to become what it is today and like the shows we present, it’s a story we love to tell.
“We are one of the reasons people come to our city and I’m excited about continuing its traditions,” said artistic director Steve Glaudini, who the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle named “Producer of the Year” in 2014.
“We are unique. You see people dining on the patio or picnicking on the grass before the show. You see kids running on the hills and then they are watching a musical under the stars. It’s magical.”
The magic began back in 1976, when the Vista City Council committed $50,000 for a flag pavilion to honor the nation’s bicentennial in Brengle Terrace Park.
The Amphitheatre's Dedication Day and Bicentennial Celebration July 4, 1976.
The Parks and Cultural Foundation, which later became the Vista Foundation, took charge of fundraising and the community was treated to a big patriotic celebration.
When the spirited red-white-and-blue festivities were over, there remained a simple cement slab in the midst of a serene, pastoral landscape.
Kathy Brombacher, a Vista High School drama teacher, would walk along the park’s rural paths and dream big. She had earned an M.F.A from the University of Denver, and had developed advanced skills in acting and direction.
Her students were performing in musicals on campus for about 100 people, with music piped in from a small ensemble in a separate classroom.
Brombacher looked at that cement stage in the park and imagined a live orchestra, better scenery, fabulous costumes and generations of people who could attend an outdoor production.
Jack Price, who was superintendent of schools at that time, supported the idea because there wasn’t a permanent place for live musical and drama productions in the area.
The Vista Unified School District supplied a grant to launch an adult education theater program and the City of Vista approved the use of the park.
Brombacher worked with a group of volunteers and academics to form the Vista Summer Theater Festival and staged the first musicals, “Oliver!” and “The Boyfriend” in 1981.
On a side note, there’s a love story here. Brombacher chose a youngster named Bets Malone to perform in “Oliver!” and Bets grew up to be an accomplished stage actress who served as a flower girl at Brombacher’s wedding and became wife to Glaudini, our artistic director. But we digress.
Eventually, the Vista Summer Theatre Festival was brought under the umbrella of the city and in 1984, renamed the Moonlight Amphitheatre. The Vista Foundation became the Moonlight Cultural Foundation, the venue’s nonprofit fundraising arm.
As Moonlight’s Producing Artistic Director and founder of Moonlight Stage Productions, Brombacher began to see her dream realized.
BEHIND THE SCENES
In the beginning, restrooms were Porta Potties and a spigot back stage was used to fill paint pails for washing hands.
“We built walls and platforms and sometimes when the wind came up, the walls would blow off the stage,” Brombacher remembered. "That wasn’t unusual.”
Throughout the 1980s, the venue became more developed. Technical equipment was rented and park improvements included a drama support facility housing a kitchen and restrooms. Roads were paved, and parking areas were established. In 1989, Brombacher left teaching and became a city employee.
"Jim Porter and Cathy Brendel were my bosses at the City of Vista and they had everything to do with Moonlight's progress,” Brombacher said. “For 30 years we worked on our vision and I learned so much about business, budgets and planning. I am completely indebted to them because they mentored me through every step of Moonlight's development."
In 2000, Daniel Kays was hired as a technical director. “The challenge at the time was that the majority of the jobs were volunteer positions and the stage had to have repairs because it was beaten down by weather,” Kays recalled.
“We had to constantly rebuild and the sun would beat down on the black stage while we were working, so those were hard times. But we did amazing shows with nothing.”
Kays became Managing Director in 2004 and he and Brombacher worked toward the goal of a new stage house and building a supportive team.
“He came from a background of being a professional stage manager and he’s very passionate about being part of a growing theater,” Brombacher said.
MOONLIGHT'S HAPPILY EVER AFTER
In 2009, the $13 million renovation was completed and Moonlight was finally equipped with a modern amphitheater funded by foundation support and revenues from a voter-approved proposition to raise the city sales tax.
“All of sudden, we were able to do almost any show you could think of on that stage,” Brombacher enthused.
“The dream for the future was that we continue to work to our potential for audiences. We opened with ‘42nd Street.’ We had done it in the past but we could never raise a curtain, we could only pull it across from a ground-supported structure.
Moonlight Amphitheatre Today.
The show opens with a dance audition and the audience just sees the knees to the feet. The idea of revealing a stage of tap dancers, with a grand drape that magically rose into the air, was part of the thrill of opening the theater.”
Brombacher became Artistic Director Emeritus in 2012, when she recommended Glaudini, an award-winning director, producer and former equity agent, to carry on her legacy.
“Steve has a great understanding of producing and he’s acquainted with an incredible array of directors, actors and the Actors’ Equity Association,” Brombacher said.
“We created a group of people that understand that Moonlight is greater and more powerful than any of us individually. The best thing we can do is serve our art and our community together. The quality of Moonlight productions continues to be stronger every year."
“At Moonlight, they like it big and we are going to give them big,” Glaudini said when he reflected upon his reputation for bringing unprecedented growth to the Moonlight with one record-breaking show after another.
The 2014 staging of “Mary Poppins,” for instance, broke all box office records, with more than 20,000 tickets sold. That same year, the city declared March 12 to be Steve Glaudini Day.
The 35th Anniversary of Moonlight is all about celebrating the past and looking forward to Moonlight Presents, a series of new performing arts programming that begins in 2016.
Broadway classics and modern musicals will continue to be presented on summer evenings. And from January through March, the enclosed stage will be home to a series of cabaret dinner shows, in addition to adding a diverse line-up of concerts and events to the schedule.