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Theater once thriving, now unused

Helena Guan

Once a stage for Mills traditions, Greek tragedies and community involvement, the 80-year-old Greek theater behind the Music Building is now closed-off and eroding.

Graffiti is flaunted on its stage walls. Remnants of art projects, empty liquor bottles, what appear to be small bon-fire ashes, and previously, a shopping cart, have come to decorate the cracked stage and steps of the traditional Greek-styled, open-air theater.

“During this past year, the theater has deteriorated a lot because it has been closed off while renovations to the Music Building take place,” said Karen Maggio, associate vice president for Campus Planning and Facilities.

Although the theater is a part of the Music Building complex, Maggio said the Music Building renovation does not include any work on the theater.

Restoring the theater would be “phase three” of the Music Building project, but it has yet to find funding. Maggio said work on the theater will likely not begin until after the completion of the Graduate School of Business in 2009.

It is premature to say what will be done to the theater, but Maggio anticipates Mills will “have to redo the landscaping, do some drainage and underground work. and just clean up the place,” she said.

While its unkemptness may exude an appealing mystery, the theater’s neglect has recently become more obvious. Incoming freshwomen have no idea what or where the theater is.

Eva Damrosch, a first year student and dancer, hadn’t heard of Mills’ Greek theater, even on the campus tour. “If it was allowed, I’d do all kinds of performances [at the theater],” she said.

Traditionally, Convocation was held at the theater until 2003 on account of “near accidents” and logistical problems, according to Director of College Events, Linda Northcott.

“It gets very hot and we had a lot of complaints,” recalled Northcott, who has worked at Mills since 1997. “And the footing is not good for older people and those with mobility problems.”

But Maggio said accessibility issues are not a problem, as lower seating is accessible from the Music Building.

Still, even prior to the Music Building renovations, the Greek theater had not hosted a campus-wide event in years. Administration officials and the library’s resources were unable to track an actual date, or year, of the last formal Mills event held at the theatre.

Still, the Mills website boasts the Greek theater as the “perfect setting for academic gatherings. music concerts, dance and other performance arts.”

Senior Mandy Dissanayake said that even though the theater is “kind of gross looking. I still think it’s really beautiful there and it’s a shame that Mills doesn’t use it.”

In an attempt to use the theater, Dissanayake said she and her friends tried to throw a small “black-light” party there during her freshman year.

“There wasn’t any alcohol or anything. and we did get [the party] approved by the College,” she said, “but public safety still shut it down.”

Twenty years ago, such events were taking place. Mills would invite students from nearby colleges and universities to attend themed dances at the theater.

John Sheehan, a former Cal Maritime Academy student, attended a disco-themed dance at the theater in 1989, and noticed that “many of the girls were already paired up with each other.”

“I think some of the ladies noticed we were trying hard and came to our rescue,” Sheehan said. “We danced and laughed the night away and my roommate met his soul mate.and now wife.”

Maggio, who has worked at Mills for 28 years, said she also recalls the evening dances at the theater, as well as the major concerts by groups like the Pointer Sisters.

In the 1930s and ’40s, ancient Greek tragedies with full orchestras and dance performances were performed at the theater – then known as the Outdoor Theater and Open Air Theater, respectively.

The scene today is much different. The Greek theater looks unoccupied, with the exception of the occasional Oakland resident like Ronnell Williams, 37, who makes the theater’s purpose leg strength training.

Making his way up and down the theater steps, Williams cleared debris from his path – a regretful indication of the theater’s unofficial use as a party spot and arts and crafts dumping ground.