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The journey to PHAME and fortune

Posted: December 16th, 2016 | Features, Top Stories | No Comments

Jeff Clemetson | Editor

Patrick Henry celebrates the opening of its long-awaited arts theater

At the opening night of the new Patrick Henry Arts, Media and Entertainment (PHAME) facility on Nov. 29, students in band, orchestra, dance and theater shined as they took to their new stage and wowed guests with fantastic performances.

Between the performances, school officials thanked the donors and voters who made the project possible. They also gave special thanks to former San Diego school board president Kathrine Nakamura, who was instrumental in spearheading the project at the very beginning.

In her speech, Nakamura shared a story on how the journey to the opening night began.

The Patrick Henry Arts, Media and Entertainment building houses a 500-seat theater as well as classrooms and computer lab. (Photo by Jeff Clemetson)

The Patrick Henry Arts, Media and Entertainment building houses a 500-seat theater as well as classrooms and computer lab. (Photos by Jeff Clemetson)

Eight years ago, while attending a concert in Patrick Henry’s cafetorium, her husband “hissed” at her that as president of the school board she should “be ashamed” that Patrick Henry had fallen behind other schools in providing arts facilities.

That hiss initiated the eight-year-long project to build PHAME — a project that, at the time, seemed unlikely to come to pass.

(l to r) Patrick Henry principal Elizabeth Gillingham, SDUSD Board of Education trustee Kevin Beiser, Cowles Mountain Community Foundation president Katherine Nakamura and music director Matthew Kalal. (Photo by Jeff Clemetson)

(l to r) Patrick Henry principal Elizabeth Gillingham, SDUSD Board of Education trustee Kevin Beiser, Cowles Mountain
Community Foundation president Katherine Nakamura and music director Matthew Kalal.

“The stock market just crashed and we were trying to pass a $2.1 billion bond measure, Proposition S, which at that point was the largest bond measure ever passed in San Diego — great timing,” Nakamura said.

When Prop S passed in 2008, the project was still short of the funds needed to construct even the most basic building.

“Initially, this program was only for $6.3 million and that would not have included bathrooms, a lobby, orchestra pit — you know, the important things that a theater should have,” said Kevin Beiser, a San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) Board of Education trustee.

Matthew Kalal conducts the Patrick Henry High School band  (Photos by Jeff Clemetson)

Matthew Kalal conducts the Patrick Henry High School band

Beiser — who ran for and won Nakamura’s school board seat in 2010 — and his fellow trustees were supportive of the theater project as long as the funding could be secured for its construction.

So, Nakamura, former Patrick Henry Principal Pat Crowder and Music Director Mathew Kalal went to the cluster schools — elementary and middle schools that feed into Patrick Henry — to persuade them to help pay for the arts facility.

“The board wanted us to get approval to use money from the cluster schools if needed to start the project, which they got,” Nakamura said. “The principals voted unanimously to give up 4 percent of their funding to make this happen. Ultimately they didn’t have to, but that was an amazing moment.”

The reason the cluster schools were never called upon to donate part of their Prop S money was because voters passed more school funding measures — Propositions Z and 1D.

“The next time you think government hasn’t done anything for you, remember that,” Nakamura said. “That money built this building, every inch of it.”

A look inside of the new PHAME theater.

A look inside of the new PHAME theater.

Although the strongest financial support in building the PHAME facility came from the three public bond measures, Nakamura was also instrumental in garnering private donations through the Cowles Mountain Community Foundation, of which she is president. Donations help fund things like instruments for students and other needed items to make Patrick Henry’s arts programs first-class.

The first substantial donation to the PHAME project was a $40,000 contribution from Patrick Henry alumnus, actress Annette Bening. Through its annual gold tournaments and other fundraisers, the Patrick Henry Alumni Association, headed by Kevin Carlson, raised more than $150,000. The foundation is also selling sponsored seats in the PHAME theater. Donors will have their name on small plaques attached to the seat they buy, which costs $1,000, $600 or $300, depending on where the seat is.

“We have, at this point, $285,000 and are waiting for approval of a $50,000 donation . . . totaling $335,000 raised for the facility,” Nakamura said.

Another standout donation to the theater is an $84,000 Steinway grand piano given by the family of current Patrick Henry Principal Elizabeth Gillingham.

Gillingham, who was principal during the two years of construction, thanked the school’s neighbors for “putting up with the dust and the parking.”

Construction began in January 2014 and was supposed to be completed in around 26 months.

“That was last February, and you know we had rain and we had this and we had that,” she said. “It was a big contract because not only did it include the performing arts center, but it also included modernizing the entire campus, which meant new windows and air conditioning and retrofitting some things here, there and everywhere to make everything work.”

Meredith Yokoyama sings “Part of Your World” from the upcoming presentation of “Little Mermaid”

Meredith Yokoyama sings “Part of Your World” from the upcoming presentation
of “Little Mermaid”

In addition to the theater, the PHAME building also houses a computer lab and classrooms that teach video production, set building and theater management.

“The goal is instead of just having a theater manager run it, hopefully the kids can run shows that are from communities that come and use it,” Gillingham said. “They can sell tickets; they can help work the different booths that they need; they can be ushers; they can understand the lighting and help with that. There’s a lot of support. It is like a teaching lab.”

In January, the students will get to put that lab to the test when the instrumental band and orchestra put on their first full production — a holiday show. The show was originally scheduled for December but there were still a few “punch-list” items that needed to be addressed before the contractor can relinquish total control to the school district. And, Gillingham said, there is another reason for waiting until January to put on the holiday show.

“[Music director] Matt Kalal said, ‘I’ve had a taste of this building and I don’t want to do any more performances in the cafetorium. I want to wait for it.’”

Following the holiday show, the theater students will put on a production of the “Little Mermaid” in March. And that is just the high school productions that are scheduled as of right now in 2017. The PHAME facility may see even more performances from other schools, as well.

“I want to make sure that we realize that this [theater] is not just for Patrick Henry High School, this is also for all the elementary schools and middle schools — Pershing and Lewis,” trustee Beiser said. “This is also for the community, so that we can have other community events here. This is an amazing community center. That’s the vision we had in the school board — that our schools will be the center of the community. And through that partnership, we’ll continue to do great things.”

At the opening night, SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten praised the accomplishment of building a great thing like PHAME “in a time when we hear such negativity about public education.”

“Public education is alive and well,” she said. “The arts are alive and well. When the community comes together, then truly dreams can come true.”

To purchase a sponsor chair in the PHAME theater, visit cowlesmountain.org, e-mail cowlesmountain@cox.net or call 619-287-4284.

—Reach Jeff Clemetson at jeff@sdcnn.com.

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