Borrego Sun - Since 1949

History of BSPAC


Last updated 3/25/2021 at 9:54am

The history of the Performing Arts in Borrego Springs usually comes as a surprise to anyone not closely associated with this unique desert community.

Lon Chaney Jr. of the famed theatrical family started a community theater group in Borrego in 1950. The Little Theater Group performed before limited audiences at the old Hoberg Resort Hotel (now the Palms Hotel at Indian Head) which in the 40s and 50s hosted such glitter as Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby and Marlon Brando. Paula “Polly” Baker, very well known in the East as Paula Dale with the Greenwich Theater, New York City, picked up the torch left by Chaney in 1952. In 1955 the group presented “Years Ago”, written by Ruth Gordon. A success, the group was invited to present the play for the entertainment of patients at the San Diego Naval Hospital.

The Little Theater Group reorganized in March 1954 as the De Anza Players with Polly Baker as producer-director. Barbara Bartko became deeply involved in the De Anza Players in 1961 when Baker’s duties at the Borrego Sun newspaper took more of her time. Bartko’s theater training started in Cleveland and continued in Long Beach. A popular artistic director, she held the reins of the organization until 1971, serving as both president and artistic director. Bartko directed over 50 plays during her career. De Anza Players performances were presented on the wing-less proscenium stage at Borrego Springs Elementary School.

In November 1978, the inactive De Anza Players supported the organization of the Sunrise Players. Lisa Bruce and Joan Wright (Warren and Toni Young’s daughter) organized the group, whose first production was Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” presented in March 1979 at the Elementary School. Under the artistic direction of Jared Fey, a professional actor and member of Actors’ Equity, Sunrise Players second production, “The Grouch,” a Greek New Comedy by Menander, was performed in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Palm Canyon campfire center and then taken to the North County Renaissance Faire in Vista.

With tremendous local support of community members, businesses and irreplaceable fund-raising efforts of Betty Stout, Jared and his wife, Rosemary, were able to present quality community theater productions for eight years. Sunrise Players most ambitious project was the musical “Oliver” with a cast of more than 130! The joint production by Sunrise Players and Borrego Springs High School (BSHS) was an acclaimed success. Proceeds allowed Sunrise Players to present a $1,000 donation to the Associated Student Body at BSHS as the school’s share of profits. Jared Fey continued as artistic director until his passing in 1985. Sunrise Players’ last production, “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday”, was presented in March 1987 under the artistic direction of Rosemary Fey.

Thanks to the efforts of Dori Holladay, then general manager of the La Casa del Zorro resort, the Little Fox Dinner Theater opened in May 1987 in the Casa’s Kiva Room. Jacqueline Kerr Dye, (professional actress, member of Actors’ Equity and a founder of San Diego’s Gaslamp Theater), was the producer and Artistic Director. In January 1990 the Little Fox presented “Some of These Days,” an original musical production by George Duning and Gayle Dunne based on the later years of the famous 1930’s entertainer Sophie Tucker. The production featured six songs made famous by Tucker, another six by Dunne and one on which Dunne collaborated with Hollywood prize-winning composer and Borrego resident, George Duning.

In 1991, Varina French, founder of the Borrego Dance & Fitness Center in 1986, began working with Jimmy Corsaro and Sharon Andrews of Way-Off Broadway Productions to create the Borrego Springs Performing Arts Center. The three served on the original Board of Directors along with Virginia Perrin, Jere Hansen, Collette McKee (head of the Children’s Theater), George Duning, Rose Grant, Susan Wetzel, Frank Murillo and Richard Plunket. The Borrego Springs Movie Theatre has been transformed into the present Borrego Springs Performing Arts Center with a seating capacity of 177.

Robie Evans was the Artistic Director and Ray Evans was the Technical Director of the Performing Arts Center for many years. Austin Custodia served as Artistic Director from 1997 – 2010; Currently, Board Member Tony Reilly directed the two plays for 2012 – 13 season, continuing the tradition of live entertainment in Borrego Springs.

During the 1950’s, Borrego Springs was a favorite hideaway for Hollywood stars, including:

Gale Gordon [1]

Burgess Meredith

Charles Laughton

Raymond Burr

Leo Carrillo [1]

Andy Devine

Lon Chaney Jr[3]

Clark Gable

Ruth Gordon

Montgomery Clift

Will Rogers

Bing Crosby

John Wayne

James Arness

Frank Morgan [2]

Marilyn Monroe

[1] Borrego Springs’ Honorary Mayor

[2] Borrego Springs’ first Honorary Mayor

[3] Founder of community theater in Borrego Springs