Jeff Pelline
Staff Writer

The Foothill Theatre Company and North Star Historic Conservancy are planning to bring the theater group's outdoor Shakespeare festival to the North Star House site, a bucolic setting that includes a home designed by famed architect Julia Morgan.

Details are being worked out, and a final agreement is expected in about a week, The Union has learned. The performances, at least two Shakespeare productions, are set to begin at the site in summer 2009.

"The whole community wins," said Lowell Robertson, president of the Foothill Theatre's board, confirming the talks.

Both Foothill Theatre and the North Star Conservancy are praising the deal as beneficial to both nonprofits, as well as the public: The park-like setting is better suited to the outdoor performances, and the deal brings needed visibility to the historic North Star House, which has suffered from neglect and vandalism.

The increased visibility also could help raise money for ongoing efforts to restore the site, estimated to cost millions of dollars.

Morgan is best known as the architect for Hearst Castle, buildings on the UC Berkeley campus and the Los Angeles Examiner building "once part of the Hearst newspaper empire " among other structures. The Craftsman-style, stone-pillared North Star house outside of Grass Valley was built with tailings from the North Star mine on a 14-acre site for mine manager Arthur De Wint Foote.

Well-planned Shakespeare festivals can be a popular tourism draw and recession-proof business as well " in venues ranging from Lake Tahoe to Ashland, Ore.

A group including Robertson, executive director Karen Marinovich, as well as Conservancy Board President Peggy Levine, her husband Howard, Land Trust Board president and Conservancy board member Joe Byrne, among others, quietly met this winter on the snowy grounds of the North Star House to discuss a possible deal for summertime theater.

"The deal was sealed on the spot with a handshake," Robertson said. "It was serendipity for us."

The theater group has been holding its Shakespeare Festival at the Fred Forsman Amphitheater at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, but repairs estimated at $25,000 were required to continue at the venue, Robertson said. The stage was old, and the fairgrounds offered "no real cooperation" to help fix up the site, he said.

Though it also will cost money to create a theater site at the North Star House instead, the venue has long-term growth potential, Robertson said. A lawn and sprinklers will be added, some grading will be required, and a power pole will be removed, Robertson said. The improvements will take some time.

The stage would be in front of the North Star House, providing a picturesque venue.

About 200 to 400 people would be able to watch Shakespeare at an outdoor theater at the North Star House. But it could be expanded in the future to handle more people in a bowl-like setting in the back of the house if successful.

Others that might be interested also could use the venue, ranging from Music in the Mountains to the Twin Cities Concert Association, Robertson said.

The deal is the latest coup for the Foothill Theatre Company, which has been in a financial rebound under Marinovich. The theater had fallen on hard times, with dwindling sales and high administrative turnover, but improvements are underway.

Since July 2007, the company has paid off a $110,000 debt, made up a $300,000 projected budget deficit and put about $10,000 in the bank by year-end, according to a letter sent out to donors in January.

The agreement also is a boon to the North Star Historic Conservancy. The site has been degraded by vandalism. A recent visit to the North Star home disclosed graffiti on the walls throughout the upstairs of the home.

The task of raising the millions of dollars needed to restore North Star House got a jump start last October, with a civic event honoring a $300,000 outside grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment.

About $50,000 will be used to pay for a historic structures report. Two companies, the Architectural Resource Group of San Francisco and Page and Turnbull of Sacramento, have submitted proposals to do the work.

This year, the Foothill Theater's Shakespeare play, "Hamlet," will be held in the fall at the Off Center State at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley.

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The Union Updated Apr 15, 2008 09:34PM Published Apr 15, 2008 09:34PM Copyright 2008 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.