Cambria playhouse told they must act on fire safety quickly

Tribune file photo by Joe Johnston

Cambria’s only theater must close Sunday and won’t be allowed to reopen until fire safety improvements are complete, code enforcers said.

Since its opening in 1976, the Pewter Plough Playhouse has become a cultural institution in San Luis Obispo County, a venue for drama, comedy, musical extravaganzas and staged readings.

In late 2007, fire and county building-code officials gave theater operators a list of measures that needed to be taken to ensure public safety. According to the theater, everything has been done except the most expensive measure: installation of a sprinkler system that would douse a fire in the aging structure at 824 Main St.

Safety officials have agreed to extend the theater’s deadline through the end of the current play’s run, but a firefighter must be present at all performances.

The sprinkler system must be in place before the theater can reopen, authorities insist. The Plough’s county building permit for sprinkler installation expires July 31, according to a conditional extension granted by county code-enforcer Art Trinidade.

The nonprofit Pewter Plough Players organization established to run the theater and allow donations has begun an appeal to the community to “Get behind the Plough.” Details are still in the planning stage for a series of fundraisers featuring music, food and wine.

Trinidade said county officials are trying to balance a cultural resource with community safety. “Finally, we had to draw a line in the sand,” he said, “and say, ‘You’re not doing any more plays until you have the sprinkler system in.’ ”

County requirements control what’s needed structurally, and the fire department’s jurisdiction covers fire regulations. Trinidade said a 2003 nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100 people “spurred all fire districts to look at public-assembly buildings to make sure they’re meeting the codes.”

Some measures completed

Trinidade, current Cambria Fire Chief Mark Miller (then fire marshal) and then-Fire Chief Bob Putney inspected the Plough in 2007 and found conditions “not only woefully inadequate, but downright dangerous.”

According to a list from James Buckley, son of Plough founders Jim and Olga Buckley, about $22,000 worth of upgrades done since then include:

• A new emergency exit from the building’s northwest corner;

• New staircase and decking;

• Upgrades of electrical systems, including stage lighting; and

• Securing theater seating to the floor.

Before the safety improvements, the theater sat 61 patrons. With installation of a new exit, that was cut to 58 seats. As part of being allowed to remain open, maximum attendance has been set at 45, further cutting the theater’s revenue stream.

“They need to fish or cut bait,” Trinidade said. “If the community wants the theater to continue, they need to do some fundraising.”

A rueful Jim Buckley, 97, told The Tribune that paying for the sprinklers would not have been an issue if he had not been one of 2,500 county victims of the Estate Financial investment fraud. Buckley said he lost $1.16 million.

Seeking audience support

In staging up to five shows a year since it opened Dec. 9, 1976, the Plough has seen some 1,700 characters cross its stage, entertaining an estimated total of 7,800 audience members.

The Plough estimates about half of those are locals and half are visitors, “from San Diego to San Francisco,” Buckley said.

Now, he and the other Plough board members hope those local restaurants, hotels and residents that profit financially and culturally from the playhouse’s presence in Cambria will help it out.

“People come up to me after the shows,” he said. “They say, ‘What a wonderful thing you’ve been doing for the community all these years.’ It really makes it all worthwhile.”