Arlington Citizen-Journal

Arlington children’s theater presses on despite building fires

As Creative Arts Theatre and School prepares to throw a big party to celebrate 35 years of teaching children about performing on stage and working behind the scenes, its leaders are still looking for a solution for how to sell its former home, which has been gutted by two fires.

The message ahead of the April 26 gala is simple: CATS doesn’t plan on dropping the curtain on its operations anytime soon.

“This is a period of renewal and rebranding for CATS, of seeking out new sources of revenue, of developing new relationships and continually improving our programming to serve the community,” Executive Director Heather Simmons said in a statement. “Alumni of the school have also been re-engaged as a source of strength, and were recently invited back to participate in a highly successful sold-out alumni show celebrating CATS 35th season. Every effort has been made to be present and visible in the community and media to reassure the public that CATS is still significant and championing arts education for children.”

Still, the children’s theater is struggling to find a buyer for its property, which includes 2 acres and a 27,000-square-foot multistory former church building at 1100 W. Randol Mill Road.

“It is a noose around our neck right now,” Simmons said.

Tearing down the building is cost-prohibitive because the building, dating back to the 1960s contains asbestos, she said.

CATS obtained the necessary permits for a “wet demolition” to keep the asbestos particles from getting in to the air, but the work would cost around $230,000, Simmons said. She added that she hopes that the property will sell for $300,000 so that CATS can break even.

The two three-alarm blazes occurred July 4, 2012, and Jan. 20. Simmons said the cause of the 2012 fire was undetermined and the fire earlier this year was likely caused by vagrants trying to stay warm.

Before the 2012 fire, the property was under contract, but the buyer “walked away,” and CATS only had insurance to cover the mortgage. The nonprofit lost another prospective buyer after the second fire, Simmons said.

Thieves and vandals also helped themselves to copper wiring, plumbing fixtures and other items from the building.

But Simmons said that she and a cast of CATS alumni and supporters aren’t willing to give up on 35 years of bringing theater education to Arlington. CATS now leasing a former school building on South Street downtown. There are plans to build a “black box theater” — a smaller performance space.

Plans are underway to hold summer camps, recitals and three performances.

Over the years, CATS has offered theater, dance and voice lessons to children ages 3 to 18. Some have gone on to professional careers in the field.

Mat Hames, an Austin filmmaker who grew up taking classes and performing in plays and other productions, said CATS is like an extended family.

“While a lot of kids learned teamwork through sports, we learned it by building props and sets, running around backstage, and performing and improvising scenes together,” Hames said in an email.

Frank Delatorre, a family physician in Arlington and Mansfield, offered the perspective of a parent who sent four kids to CATS, including a son, Erich, who was having trouble fitting in socially beginning around the time he was in fourth grade. His troubles were so severe that Delatorre foresaw a future of psychiatric care or worse.

“The best thing that ever happened to Erich was to attend CATS,” Delatorre wrote in an email. The tortured, uncertain youth went on to win a Betty Buckley Award as a Mansfield High student, attended college in New York and has started a company that designs and builds lighting systems for stage productions.

“CATS allows my wife and me the joy of saying, ‘We have four kids,’ ” Delatorre wrote, “instead of saying, ‘We had four but we lost one …’ ”