Pomona College aims high as venue’s prospects rise

There was jubilation among a small cadre of representatives from Pomona College and the community who gathered Sunday at Walter’s Restaurant for wine, hors d’oeuvres and a screening of the latest episode of VH1’s Storytellers. 

The featured artist, Taylor Swift, whose album “Red” currently graces the top spot in the US charts, comported herself beautifully during the filming, but that wasn’t the primary source of excitement.

It was the venue.

Thanks to the efforts of Harvey Mudd students, who won a national contest to host the taping, the special was recorded at Pomona College’s Bridges Auditorium. With colored lights bathing the 22,000-square-foot ceiling, famously embellished with a gold and silver leaf rendering of the Zodiac, the 2500-seat theater has never looked better.

For Bridges manager Sharon Kuhn and production manager Kurt Beardsley, it was a bit like seeing your daughter coming down the stairs in a prom dress. 

“They took what we had already, this beautiful ceiling, and just highlighted it. Everything was glowing,” Ms. Kuhn said.

After the taping, a member of the VH1 production staff noted the significance of Bridges’ prominent placement, according to Mr. Beardsley.

“They said, ‘After tonight, 100,000 people are going to know your building.’”

A little less than a week since the debut of Storytellers—a half-concert, half-confessional program where superstars share the inspiration behind their songs—there have already been some calls from people interested in the venue. VH1, in particular, has expressed a desire to use Bridges Auditorium again.

It’s a pleasing development for the Bridges team, which has set its sights on attracting more nationally-and internationally-known presenters and performers. It hasn’t always been easy.

Bridges, one of the largest college venues in southern California, has until recently been in a state of benign neglect. For the 16 years Ms. Kuhn and Mr. Beardsley have run the auditorium, they have been the only full-time employees. They have worked with a non-existent budget, using rental fees to keep the lights on and the venue running. To put the feat in perspective, most college performing arts spaces of similar size are run by a staff of at least 40, and have a base budget of at least $1 million.

Predictably, the theater has racked up a list of needed repairs and renovations, beginning with an update of the 81-year-old wiring, an aging sound system and dimmers dating from the 1970s. About 15 years ago, the level of support for Bridges from Pomona College reached its nadir. With the administration unable or unwilling to allocate resources to the storied theater, Pomona sold Bridges Auditorium to the Claremont Colleges Consortium for a nominal $1.

Considering the scarcity of resources, the roster of top-caliber performers to hit the Bridges stage in recent years is pretty impressive. In 2011, for instance, the venue played host to Bill Gates, LMFAO and comedian Aziz Anzari.


Building the next stage

Ms. Kuhn and Mr. Beardsley hope to do even better, however, with the institution of a regular season packed with headline-grabbing visitors.  And for the first time in years, they have the firm backing of Pomona College administration. 

Pomona College President David Oxtoby, who in 2003 became the college’s 9th president, has emphasized the importance of the arts throughout his tenure. In 2010, as part of his Daring Minds campaign, Mr. Oxtoby pledged that Pomona College would redouble its efforts towards supporting the arts.

With this in mind, the college has made plans for a new studio arts building, which will serve as headquarters for faculty and students working in the visual arts. The building, which will be 36,000-square feet and employ environmentally sustainable design, will be located just north of Seaver Theatre, across the way from Bridges Auditorium. The groundbreaking for the project is slated for next fall.

The Bridges team has also begun to feel the effects of Dr. Oxtoby’s arts emphasis. It started with a $1 investment. With that nominal fee, Pomona College re-acquired Bridges Auditorium 3 years ago.

“I’m thrilled,” Mr. Beardsley said of Bridges’ return to Pomona College.

The next boon for Bridges was the addition of Christopher Waugh, associate dean of students and director of student activities, to the Pomona College administration in July 2011.

To some, Dr. Waugh’s purview at the college may seem a bit daunting. Among his many duties, he oversees Pomona College’s Smith Campus Center, the campus radio station KSPC 88.7 FM, the Outdoor Education Center and Bridges Auditorium.

Rather than being overwhelmed, however, he says he is invigorated by the prospect of helping Bridges thrive. There was quite a bit of wow factor when Mr. Waugh, who hails from Lake Forrest College in Chicago, first laid eyes on the auditorium.

“It’s absolutely stunning. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen, both on the outside and the inside,” he said.

In Mr. Waugh’s brief time at Pomona, Bridges has received some much-needed updates, including environmentally-friendly LEED stage lights and an investment in ticket-purchasing software. Pomona’s administration has finished its benchmark study of how other college venues are resourced.

“The college is absolutely looking at ways we can create a sustainable staffing pattern for the space,” Mr. Waugh said. “In the past, Pomona was about bringing world-class leaders, speakers and artists to the colleges and to the surrounding colleges and community. We’re interested in bringing back the classic Bridges.”

It’s great news for Ms. Kuhn and Mr. Beardsley, who are hoping that, with a little help, they can implement their plan for a regular season. An ideal season, they say, would feature 2 anchor performances by world-renowned musicians. With these put in place, the season could be supplemented by other concerts booked on a more spur-of-the-moment basis. A dream season for Bridges would also include, among other offerings, a production or 2 of a nationally-touring theater act and a movie screening—for instance, a cult-classic double header of Ed Wood’s campy ‘50s sci-fi films. The latter idea was inaugurated this year with a Halloween screening of the classic silent horror film Noferatu, accompanied by the music of Hobo Jazz.

According to all concerned, no matter how big the schedule gets, the Pomona College venue will continue to host shows put on by local schools and theater companies, productions by the Inland Pacific Ballet and free lecture series open to the public.

Mr. Waugh also says he hopes to connect with Claremont Colleges faculty further, using their network and areas of expertise to bring more thought leaders to the campus,“world-class folks who are at the vanguard of their disciplines.”

As the college moves forward, assessing needs and goal for Bridges, Mr. Waugh said he feels fortunate to have Ms. Kuhn and Mr. Beardsley in place.

“It’s a wonderful staff and, while I technically serve as the official director of Bridges, the day-to-day work is clearly done by Sharon and Kurt,” he said. “My role is to provide leadership and oversight in helping them do what they are experts at—to advocate for resources and to give them latitude to do the good work they do.”

Ms. Kuhn and Mr. Beardsley’ recent work has netted the college a varied and exciting roster of shows in the coming weeks. 

The youth-centered Theatre Experience of Southern California (Tesocal) will present “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” on November 17 and “A Christmas Carol” on December 18 and 19; British comedian/writer Eddie Izzard will take the stage on December 2; and the Inland Pacific Ballet will present its annual production of The Nutcracker on December 15 through December 23 and perform its Cinderella on April 20 through 21.

And, as the piece de resistance for a season reflecting increasing variety and prestige, the “Red-Headed Stranger,” country singer Willie Nelson, hits Bridges Auditorium on February 28.

For more information, visit the Bridges Auditorium website at www.pomona.edu/administration/bridges-auditorium.

—Sarah Torribio




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