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Say it ain’t so: Candlelight Pavilion will close Sunday – podcast

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Stories of longtime businesses closing their doors nearly always involve an entity decidedly past its heyday, reluctantly giving way to market forces that have rendered it unprofitable.

This is not that kind of story.

Simply put, the Candlelight Pavilion has plenty of audience, but not enough parking. So, the  beloved 37-year Claremont institution — having served up first-rate dinner theater to three generations — is closing, with its final curtain call set for Sunday afternoon.

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And how do the Candlelight founder’s torch-carrying offspring feel about that?

“I think Mick and I can sum that up in one word: we’re heartbroken,” said Candlelight Producer Mindy Teuber, referencing her brother and General Manager and Vice President Michael “Mick” Bollinger.

The Bollinger family has been synonymous with the Candlelight Pavilion since its 1985 inception. Mother Lois Bollinger took over sole ownership of the Candlelight from her husband and founder, the late Ben Bollinger, after his 2018 death.

“This is our life,” Teuber said. “This is what we wanted to do until we retired and then … we would have turned it over to some other member of our family. So, there’s no joy in this for me, I can say.”

The thought of the Candlelight closing its doors would have seemed preposterous in our pre-pandemic world. The Claremont gem had thrived for 35 years, and the numbers were better than ever.

So how did we get here?

“Prior to all this happening it was a successful business plan that would have worked until we retired,” Bollinger said. “We’re heartbroken that we didn’t get to where we wanted to be as a result of these mitigating circumstances.”

After shutting down in March 2020, the Candlelight reopened June 2 of last year to sold out performances, albeit at COVID-mandated lower capacity. But when rules were eased near the end of 2021 and higher capacity was possible, the adjacent construction project — see “mitigating circumstances” — was at a fever pitch, resulting in a large amount of parking spaces formerly available to Candlelight patrons being permanently eliminated. It soon became clear there was no way to fill the house to capacity with such limited parking. Decades of sold-out houses at its 300 person capacity had kept the Candlelight solidly viable, but overcoming the loss of the portion of its audience who could not find a parking spot, in the end, proved insurmountable.

And though she and her brother are lamenting what’s lost, they both agree they are leaving with full hearts, heads held high.

“Yeah, it’s a sad story for us,” Teuber said. “But it’s also an amazing story that we have had such an impact on so many lives. It’s just … wow. It’s my greatest blessing, for sure.”

Born in 1985 from a napkin sketch and a partnership between the late Ben Bollinger and Alton (“Sandy”) Sanford, who owned Griswold’s for four decades, the Candlelight combined Ben’s musical theater knowhow and Sandy’s foodservice skills to transform an underused gymnasium into a thriving dinner theater. That arrangement held until 1989, when Bollinger took over the food side as well, intent on upgrading to a fine dining experience. Since then — and until the close of business this Sunday — that was what the Candlelight offered: an impressive wine list, strictly fresh foods, handmade ice cream, and a wide selection of appetizers and desserts, all made to order.

And, of course, the shows. So many shows! More than 255 theater productions and dozens of concerts, serving more than 1,589,000 guests.

Teuber, who has spent decades behind the scenes, has only recently been able to take a breath and absorb the impact the Candlelight has had.

“You know, that’s the focus of this story, that the community lost a piece of its heart, its art and culture, that we so proudly brought to them for so many years,” she said. “It was a labor of love, but it was with intense pride that Claremont could say, look what we have, this little jewel that brings amazing, amazing musicals and food.”

Sunday’s final performance of “Candlelight Jubilee” is of course sold out, with a waiting list of 2,000 hoping to somehow land one of 300 seats.

Chef Juan Alvarado, who’s been with the Candlelight from the beginning, will be serving his final courses of slow-roasted tri-tip, marinated chicken breast, grilled tilapia fillet and vegetarian pockets. Foodservers, buspersons, hosts, and the tech crew will support a cast made up of performers from throughout the Candlelight’s history, accompanied by a live band. Bollinger’s final signature “curtain speech” in Claremont promises to be memorable.

“And to take this walk down memory lane through their eyes and their emotions, which you’re going to see, is really a wonderful sendoff in a way that is no way sad,” Bollinger said. “It’s just, ‘Wow, look what we’ve done,’ and to show off how good our performers really are.”

Emotions are never in short supply with a theater troupe. Add in the inherent drama of a final night in a space that holds 37 years of memories, and things are bound to be heightened.

“I asked [the cast] on the first night of rehearsal, ‘Cry now, and be so incredibly thankful for your gifts and what we can give to people every night to remind them how special this is,’” Teuber said. “So the sentiment has been nothing but, holy cow, this was a great run, and we touched so many lives with art and music and food. And that’s … boy … if that’s the last thing we do, that’s a pretty sweet gig, Mick.”

Patrons have been sharing their gratitude on memory cards in the Candlelight’s lobby throughout the four-week run of “Candlelight Jubilee.” Over on Facebook, the February 4 announcement of its impending closing had at press time elicited more than 300 comments lamenting the news and paying tribute.

Fans of the Candlelight will be heartened to learn its proprietors intend to reopen somewhere in the area. Both sides of the business are ready-made — it owns everything inside its current home, both theatrical- and restaurant-related — and several surrounding communities have approached Teuber and Bollinger expressing interest in providing it a home. It also has something impossible to quantify: a built-in, loyal audience that has already made clear is prepared to follow, wherever it may land.

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind. As the final curtain approaches, not having another show to prep has been strange for both of them. And as they look back on 37 years of joyfully grinding out top-flight musical theater and fine dining for three generations of patrons, it’s time for a pause.

“We need to just regroup,” Teuber said. “This was a lot, emotionally, mentally. We want to just stop and really soul search about what the next project looks like, and where.”

So, for now, sadness mixed with pride.

“This is just so much more global than the city of Claremont,” Bollinger said. “That’s what I don’t think that people really got their head around: we have people coming in on a regular basis from Camarillo to Palm Springs, from the high desert to San Diego, and Los Angeles and Pasadena. And these people wouldn’t know what Claremont was if it wasn’t for the Candlelight Pavilion. We have people that live in other states that come in to see their parents who live here, and they fly in eight times a years to come see the musicals and to be with their parents at the Candlelight Pavilion.

“This isn’t a local community group of people that were supporting this little theater; this was a huge group, tens of thousands of people, that didn’t come from Claremont. They came from everywhere around the Claremont, that aren’t coming to Claremont any more. And that is a real tragedy for the city of Claremont.”

The millions of patrons who for 37 years sat beneath the Candlelight’s iconic chandeliers, dining, laughing, crying, and singing along, would no doubt agree.

Onward then.

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