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Fullerton Civic Light About to Move Out of Town

February 23, 2010

It used to be that regional houses could get theatrical sets once Broadway productions ended. “That idea died with the hippie generation,” says Griff Duncan, co-founder and managing producer of Fullerton Civic Light Opera Music Theatre (FCLO). “Theatre all but died with the hippie generation. The audience dropped out.”

It took another decade and a half before the National Alliance of Musical Theatre formed. It brought together regional theatre producers with a common goal: stage great theatre, and have the sets they need. Duncan says, even today, it’s a challenge to mount a Broadway show. “After the New York run, these shows go on national tours. We can’t get them until they’re done. That can take years. So the Alliance solved that problem.”

Members of the Alliance, including Griff Duncan, have written and produced such shows as Yeston & Kopit’s Phantom of the Opera, Grand Hotel, and Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden. “That’s a show,” Duncan says, “that’ll never go to Broadway. Stephen knows it. It’s too expensive. So he worked with us on it.”

Mention the cost of theatre in New York and Duncan laughs. “You can hardly ever open a show on Broadway. It costs $12 million on average. That’s why shows more often come from London, where labor costs are cheaper.” Duncan knows labor costs. He has 30 years of Fortune 100 company experience, he says, negotiating labor contracts with most major unions in the U.S. “Yeah,” he adds with a smile. “It’s helped.” 


Since co-founding Fullerton Civic Light Opera with his wife and artistic director, Jan Duncan, in 1972, FCLO has staged more than 150 musicals. The company has grown, Griff says, to one of the 100 largest musical theatres in the country. “And what many people don’t realize,” he says, “is that we are the Number Two set and costume producer behind Pittsburgh CLO.”

If it weren’t for the rental business, Duncan says they would have been out of business long ago. We’re standing inside a former Lincoln Mercury dealership, circa 1942, on Commonwealth Avenue in Fullerton. It houses the box office, administrative office, sewing room, hat room, rehearsal hall, construction yard, and costume warehouse. “We have 14,000 square feet here and another 20,000 square feet not far from here. We can costume 40 Broadway musicals and provide scenery for about 30.”

The set-building portion of the facility is full of numbered duffle bags, stacked on rafters, full of backdrops. There are sign boards of shows, the familiar Evita cut-out, and much more. Mostly, there’s room to build sets and paint canvas. Across the small parking lot is a warehouse full of costumes on hangers: soldier uniforms, marching band attire, Old West clothes, knightwear – everything you might need to stage The Music Man, Carousel, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Camelot, or any of a few dozen more venerable shows.

It’ll cost between $3,000 and $15,000 to rent sets and costumes. “Our customers include South Bay CLO, Moonlight Stage in Vista, Children’s Theatre of Southern California, McCoy-Rigby’s La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts,” Duncan says. “We even rent to Temple City High School, Fullerton High, Buena Park High School.” Wait, in the age of cuts to arts programs throughout California, public schools can afford to rent from FCLO? “Yes,” Duncan says. “They may not get the whole shebang, but they can come in and spend a grand or two on costumes and part of a set. In some cases, they spend ten grand. We give them discounts if they pull their own clothes off the racks; it saves on my labor costs.”

As for schools, Duncan boasts of FCLO’s John Raitt Awards for Youth. “We send judges to schools around Southern California to watch their plays. Twenty-three schools in four counties. Nederlander [think Pantages] works with us on this, along with John Raitt’s family. The judges give out a Best Actor and Best Actress award and we give the winners scholarships to attend college in New York.”


“We’re operating in a deficit,” Duncan says. “We have a $2.1 million budget. About a third comes from our rentals, about 40-percent comes from subscriptions – and that’s down from 60-percent – and the rest from single ticket sales and fundraising.”

Like so many theatres battling their way out of the recession, FCLO is looking for new ideas. “For the first time ever, we’re taking our shows out of town,” Duncan adds. “We’ve booked a few dates in at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido for Backwards in High Heels, the Ginger Rogers story, which ends in Fullerton this weekend, as the same show opens at International City Theatre in Long Beach. The show was double-booked because, as Duncan puts it, the former licensing company in Florida had no idea Fullerton and Long Beach were so close. “The authors took the show back, stripping the Florida company of licensing rights.”

“Escondido’s theatre looks just like the Paris Opera House. It’s beautiful and seats 1,600. We’ll do five shows there. Ticket sales, I hope, will make up what we need this year.” He’ll also take this year’s productions of Brigadoon and the Johnny Cash based Ring of Fire to Vista this summer. In October, he’ll stage the world premiere Jane Eyre, a musical based on the book by Charlotte Bronte, in both locations.

“Long time subscribers tell me they don’t want to see the same show over and over again and I don’t blame them. We’ve done Brigadoon, with all its pageantry, before, but it’s been 15 years. So we’re okay with that,” Duncan says.

“One of our problems,” Duncan admits, “is perception. We’re in Plummer Auditorium. The city poured $3 million into the theatre with air conditioning, new seats, better sound. But it’s on the campus of Fullerton High School. We draw top names to our shows, but people are uninformed. They think we’re doing high school-quality productions! We’re not.” He sounds glum when he adds, “I don’t get people who’d rather pay twice as much to see the same stars in Los Angeles. They just don’t know.”

That FCLO is on a school campus adds to the financial misery. “I give the school $40,000 for every production and I can’t sell beer or wine. I can’t turn a night at the theatre into an ‘event’ with a good restaurant. Ticket sales used to support the cost, but they don’t now. So I’d better give them a damn good show.”

And, he says, FCLO offers big productions. “We used 20 actors in Backwards in High Heels. Long Beach [International City Theatre] is using six [most of whom play various roles].” 


Fullerton Civic Light Opera Music Theatre decided years ago to stage Miss Saigon. The show, when the producer goes all out, can be very theatrical. “I wanted to drop a pink Cadillac onto the stage. I found one up in Washington. It wasn’t pink.

“The farmer, whose land it was rusting on, said it had no engine. ‘Great!’ I said. I gave him $500, spent another $500 on shipping it here, then put $14,000 into restoring and modifying it.” He turned the 4-door sedan into a 2-door convertible, added a golf cart engine, and sprayed it pink. “And my set designer said he could fashion a chopper that could drop down as well. Both pieces, along with the rest of the set, are in Tokyo right now.”

I asked Griff Duncan if he ever believes ‘less is more’. “Oh, sure,” he said. “Depends on the show. Oklahoma! is a good example. It demands a lot of open space. You don’t need to distract the audience with things you don’t need.” That, he adds, is where good actors come in. “It’s the Star Wars Syndrome. Take a show like Wicked with so many special effects, audiences begin to expect it. And, sure, that’s expensive if you do it every time.”

Today, all Duncan needs, is a better economy, and for people to believe that Fullerton Civic Light is neighborly, but doesn’t put your next door neighbor on stage.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Robert permalink
    March 17, 2010 1:16 am

    We attended “Backwards in High Heels-the Ginger Rogers Story” at our California Center for the Arts, in Escondido, which was produced by Fullerton Civic Light Opera Music Theatre. This was a very touching and special musical for us, because it brought back fond memories of all the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies which we have seen. Ginger and Fred made a wonderful dance team on the silver screen, as do the two actors in this musical, who portray them so genuinely.

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