F or 33 years, the Pewter Plough Playhouse has been Cambria cultural institution, a venue for drama, comedy, musical extravaganzas and staged readings.
Since late 2007, however, fire and county-code officials have given the theater operators a list of measures needed to ensure public safety. According to the theater, all that officials have asked 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, allowing it to finish the current play’s run on Feb. 28, but a uniformed firefighter must be present for all performances.
The sprinkler system must be in place before the theater can reopen, officials insist. The Plough’s county building permit for sprinkler installation expires June 30, according to a conditional extension granted by Art Trinidade, who heads up the county’s code-enforcement staff.
Estimated installation cost
is $32,000. The Plough’s management is seeking permission to install sprinklers first in the actual theater, which would cost roughly $17,000, and install sprinklers in the lobby and bathrooms later, allowing it to generate revenue to cover the costs.
But the nonprofit organization Pewter Plough Players, established to run the theater and allow tax donations for donors, plans to make an appeal to the community for its support through a series of fundraiser, including events featuring music, food and wine. Details are still in the works.
Trinidade said they’re balancing 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 on the East Coast that killed 96 people “spurred all fire districts to look at public-assembly buildings to make sure they’re meeting the codes.”
He, current Cambria Fire Chief Mark Miller (then fire marshal) and then-Fire Chief Bob Putney inspected the Plough and found conditions “not only woefully inadequate but downright dangerous.”
According to a list from James Buckley, son of the Plough founders Jim and Olga Buckley, about $22,000 worth required repairs done since then include:
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.
During the theater’s present play run of “Finishing Touches,” the Plough’s management is paying $90 a night for a “fire watch,” to have a firefighter stand by during performances. That’s one of Miller’s requirements to help assure people are safe when they’re in the building.
The fire chief is consulting with the state fire marshal, fire-safety engineer and sprinkler- system designers about phased sprinkler installation.
But as of Tuesday, Feb. 2, Miller said he wasn’t optimistic about such a plan being practical, cost-effective or even feasible from an installation standpoint.
Trinidade said, “We allowed them to have their current run, as long as they maintain the fire watch. “But at some point, you have to say you can’t do the fire watch forever. You have to meet life-safety standards, including automatic fire sprinklers.”
By the end of February, he said, “they need to fish or cut bait…If the community wants the theater to continue, they need to do some fundraising.”
The Plough currently has only $500 in reserves. Before the round of safety improvements, it had launched a fundraising drive that included sale of seats that gave credit to the donors, and other steps that had been hoped to raise enough for an endowment to handle ongoing expenditures.
But board members say those funds were depleted, and it will be reaching out the community for support.
A rueful Jim Buckley, 97, said this would not have been
an issue if he had not become one of 2,500 county victims of the Estate Financial investment fraud. Buckley said he lost $1.16 million.
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,” the elder Buckley adds.
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 year.’ It really makes it all worthwhile.”