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3-alarm fire heavily damages iconic children's theater in Arlington

07/05/2012 1:47 AM

07/05/2012 8:04 PM

ARLINGTON -- Since March, leaders of Creative Arts Theatre and School have been trying to sell the nearly 50-year-old building that has housed the iconic Arlington nonprofit since 1983 so they could move to a less costly site.

On Wednesday night, with a prospective buyer lined up and a possible closing date about 10 days away, that plan may have gone up in smoke.

In a scene as exciting as any July Fourth fireworks display, firefighters worked for hours to extinguish a three-alarm blaze at the multistory former church building at 1100 W. Randol Mill Road. At one point, firefighters were ordered to evacuate the structure so that two ladder trucks could be used to attack the fire from above.

The school was closed for the holiday, and nobody was inside when the fire began, Battalion 1 Chief Brian Cudaback said. A passerby noticed smoke coming from the building at about 9 p.m. and called 911, he said.

Upon arrival, firefighters saw smoke billowing out of several places and made entry into the front of the building, Cudaback said. They repositioned after determining that the fire was in the rear, but the thick smoke made it difficult to access an area where the flames had reached the bottom of the roof.

"We think we have it under control now," he said at about 11:30 p.m., after firefighters had re-entered the building.

The cause of the fire had not been determined, he said. Fire investigators were waiting on the firefighting operations to end so that they could go inside.

About a block away, leaders of the nonprofit waited for word from fire officials and talked with alumni who stopped by or called.

Executive Director Heather Simmons said she and her husband arrived a few minutes after firefighters did, after being notified by a board member whose son had driven by and seen the fire. The board member alerted fellow members and the staff, and from there word spread quickly.

"My phone is in my car now," Simmons said. The news of the fire "is on Facebook, and everyone's wanting to know what's going on. I've gotten calls from North Carolina, South Carolina, Washington, California and New York. But I can't answer them, because I don't have any information yet."

When the CATS board moved to put the building on the market, Simmons and Producing Director Merri Brewer cited upkeep costs that threatened to sink the 35-year-old nonprofit school, which teaches children about acting, singing and stage production.

The pair took the helm of CATS in 2010 and led an effort to spruce up the interior and expand the auditorium. Auditions were opened up to the community rather than being restricted to enrolled students.

Last year, a crisis struck when five of the building's seven air-conditioning units went out amid the record-breaking summer. One required immediate replacement.

The drought also ruptured water pipes, but the damage wasn't detected until an $800 water bill showed up.

"The building is our biggest asset and our worst nightmare," Brewer said in October. CATS supporters came to the rescue, but Simmons, Brewer and the board decided that enough was enough. They are in negotiations for a smaller site a few minutes' drive away and had hoped to wrap up an agreement in the same time frame as the pending sale, they said Wednesday night.

To prepare for a move, CATS held a fundraising event in late April, with alumni joining current students for a look back at favorite shows and songs.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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