In the earliest days of Solvang, the Danes pursued their love for amateur theater with unabashed enthusiasm. Not a week went by without a theatrical production or skit being performed by the locals in Dania Hall, Veterans Memorial Hall, or the outdoor hollow of Atterdag Bowl. Even in the darkest days of the Depression, singing, levity, and wit filled the town with light.
But after World War II and the move to transform Solvang into a Danish village, such productions dwindled into obscurity without much notice.
By the 1970s, with tourism a resounding success in the town, a sense of restlessness emerged for the Danes of Solvang. The town’s major festival celebrating their Danish heritage and folk customs, Danish Days, had grown considerably. Over the years, there developed an unspoken competition between annual Danish Days committees to do something new and clever.
Roger Nielsen (grandson of 1912 grocer Marcus Nielsen) was cochairman of the 1971 Danish Days committee when he hatched a plan to bring theater back for Danish Days. For Nielsen, a third-generation Solvang Dane, the days of non-stop amateur theater productions in Solvang had long since passed yet he wanted to see the town’s heritage celebrations carried into the evening. Because theater had once been such an important part of Solvang’s heritage, the idea gathered support from local Danes.
Nielsen met with Donovan Marley, artistic director (1964-1983) for the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts program at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, who greeted the idea with enthusiasm. A production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was the choice for a three-night production. Solvang Danes would construct a temporary stage in Fredensborg Canyon, fittingly near the site of the original Atterdag Bowl.
The production was a wild success and immediately prompted the idea of building a permanent outdoor theater in Solvang. The recession and gas crisis underway in the country was affecting Solvang’s stream of tourist visitors, which had slowed considerably. The idea of drawing tourists interested in culture and providing visitors a reason to stay overnight, further encouraged a movement to build the Solvang Festival Theater—Theaterfest.
Encouraged by the success of the Danish Days Hamlet production, the Danes acted quickly and formed a committee whose purpose was to expedite fundraising and building construction. They were determined not to lose momentum and local enthusiasm for a permanent theater in Solvang by burying it in endless paperwork, meetings, and delays.
The committee was affectionately, and with the greatest respect, called the “Danish Mafia” by Donovan Marley.
“They didn’t allow anything get in their way,” Marley said. “Plus they were really good cooks. I even grew to like pickled herring and red cabbage.”
Everything to do with the theater project was fast-tracked. The project began in earnest in January of 1974, and opening night was optimistically set for August the same year. In any other town, the deadline would have been ludicrous. In Solvang, it was going to happen.
The creation of the Solvang Festival Theater was entirely by community. Design plans were donated. Cash was donated. Materials were donated. Construction was done at material cost only. Carpenters, plumbers, and ventilation crews worked at cost. The bulk of the labor was donated. Even permits were skipped (at a time when such things weren’t mandatory) in the interest of saving time and effort.
Downtown sites considered for the theater’s location were Dania Hall and the old Roeser’s Feed Store—both under consideration for demolition at the time. In the end, long-time drugstore owner Leonard Parsons agreed to sell two of his lots on Second Street for the project. But in the press to finish, the structure was built before full transfer of ownership took place. Typical to the Danes, verbal agreements carried full weight of trust. Parsons had even been told that if the operation didn’t work out, the committee would have the building torn down and Parson could recover his property.
After an inspired suggestion by Monty Roberts (owner of “Flag Is Up Farms” on Buell Flat), it was decided to use the pole barn construction technique for the theater. This plan greatly enabled the self-imposed August deadline to be met because pole barn construction was easier and cheaper to complete. More important, the 52-foot tall stage, supporting the weight of lighting and equipment, would have superior structural integrity. Tree trunks, such as those treated PG&E telephone poles used for the theater, are capable of absorbing as much as 2000 psi of tensional stress due to the connective fibers in the wood—far exceeding the strength of conventional platform construction. Additionally, the deep burial of the poles could handle far greater sheer stress from weather and wind.
Donovan Marley and Solvang architect Earl Petersen worked long nights and weekends together, under pressure of the imminent deadline and completed the entire design in a remarkable two months, blending practical theater aspects with Danish ambiance in the architecture. Most of Marley’s and Petersen’s ideas were sketched on restaurant and coffee shop napkins or hashed out directly at the vacant theater site—and sometimes, they’d actually work on a real drafting board. The intensive coordination was successful in that the Danish elements of the theater disappeared when the lights went down so that the audience could immerse themselves into the scene and feel of the play.
Groundbreaking day for Solvang Festival Theater was June 11, 1974. With locals Erling Pohls and Johannes Jaeger heading the construction team, work crews spent seven days a week, sometimes as much as 16 hours per day on the site. By August 8, a mere 58 days later, the first performance of Once Upon a Mattress was held.
The opening night deadline had miraculously been met, with “nuisance” items like permanent seating (later filled by overstock seats from Yankee Stadium), an actors’ restroom, and permanent dressing rooms to be finished later.
The non-profit venture attracted 6,537 attendees during its short first season. Every year thereafter the numbers grew, and today about 40,000 people attend performances and community events annually at the Solvang Festival Theater.
The Danes’ objective of elevating the legitimacy of their community was achieved in full. With their clear commitment to the performing arts, the community’s image, sophistication, and respectability was raised in a way that mere shops had been unable to achieve.
INFO: Special thanks to: Donovan Marley, Roger Nielsen, Earl Petersen, and Erling Pohls. Elverhøj Museum of History and Art. Solvang history panels in the “Solvang Room” exhibit. Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts. Allan Hancock College. PCPA and Solvang
Theaterfest history. http://www.pcpa.org/
All historic images courtesy of Elverhøj Museum of History and Art.