When Catherine Barricklow joined the first class of the Tara Performing Arts School in 1997, there were fewer than a dozen students, and instruction was in the basement of a home in Boulder. As the school’s population expanded, Tara became nomadic: The students were taught on makeshift stages around the city. “We performed in the Boulder Public Library Auditorium, at Casey Middle School — even in Kelly’s Barn, a venue on Sumac Avenue,” remembers Barricklow, whose mother, Betsy, founded the school along with Laurel and Greg Fisher. In 2001, the year Barricklow’s class graduated, they performed for the first time on a stage inside a tin Quonset-hut-shaped building known as the Nomad Playhouse. That was the beginning of a bond between the school and the historic regional theater.
The Nomad, too, had a nomadic start. Back in 1951, a group of volunteer players started performing theatrical works in a circus tent; dubbing themselves the “Nomads” — though the troupe never actually left Boulder — they quickly found a community eager for entertainment. That community soon offered support in many ways to bring the playhouse to life. Founding players and then-owners of the Boulderado Hotel, William and Winnie Hutson, gave the Nomads financial backing. Local business owner Baudie Moschetti donated the land on Quince Avenue that would become the permanent home of the playhouse.The simple theater was designed by local architect James Hunter and constructed using salvaged metal and lumber; seats were taken from a mortuary, and curtains, scenery and other interior necessities were made by the volunteer players. From its founding, the Nomad was a true community theater.
From the early ’50s to the late ’90s, the modest, 155-seat theater hosted more than 200 productions, introducing such future stars as Larry Linville (M*A*S*H’s Frank Burns) and Joan van Ark (Knots Landing’s Valene Ewing and a Tony Award-nominated Broadway actress). But by the late ’90s, the Nomad company had disbanded; the stage remained, rented out by anyone who needed the space. And that included Tara, which had found a home down the street from Nomad. Students could walk from the school to the theater for rehearsals and productions.
In 2006, when several developers were bidding to buy the theater and develop the property, John Kelly, a devout supporter of Tara and the father of several students, swooped in and bought the Nomad with his business partners. His intention was to sell it to the school when Tara had the money to buy the building — but after losses in the wake of the 2013 flood, he had to speed up the process. “He gave us a great price, but he gave us a deadline; we have to close escrow by March 31 of this year,” says Barricklow, now a teacher at the school. “We are very close to the financial goal [of being able] to purchase the theater, but we’re trying to raise a larger sum in order to replace the seats, update the air-conditioning, get new curtains and lighting equipment — that kind of thing.”
Barricklow says it’s not just about updating the theater for the sake of the school’s use – it’s about bringing back the glory of the stage. “For the last fifteen or so years, the Nomad has been somewhat of a dive,” she says. “Someone joked that the Nomad is basically 'a half of a tin can on an icy street with scarce parking,’ and that's one of the images we'd like to transform or improve — we want to reintroduce the Nomad as a viable rental venue for professional theater in Boulder and upgrade it for Tara's purposes as well.”
Tara has already secured a $200,000 state historical grant, and now it’s asking the community that gave life to the Nomad more than sixty years ago to step up again. “We want to revive the tradition that the Nomad had starting in 1952; It was really a center of culture in North Boulder before the city had grown out that far into the outskirts,” says Barricklow. “I spoke to one resident of Boulder who has been here since the '40s and they told me, 'if you were living in Boulder and you wanted art, culture or theater, you either went to the CU Drama Department or you went to the Nomad Playhouse. Everyone knew that.'”
This weekend, the Nomad will host the Tara Performing Arts School Gala, a three-day fundraiser that will fill the stage with music, theater, film and dance. Joan van Ark will return to the venue that hosted her first on-stage kiss with a brand-new one-woman show; there will also be a screening of the locally produced documentary Penny and Red: The Life of Secretariat’s Owner and performances by the Schiff Dance Collective Training Company and musical acts Mystery Sonata and Adam Agee and Jon Sousa. Tara students will present their own theatrical performance, Desserts and Dreams, joining in to showcase just what Nomad Playhouse is capable of. “That's the life that we want the Nomad Playhouse to have for the community — we want it to actually have a real pulse in the north Boulder arts scene,” says Barricklow.
The Tara Performing Arts School Gala runs from Friday, March 6 to Sunday, March 8 at Nomad Playhouse, 1410 Quince Avenue in Boulder. Tickets start at $10 and go up to $75 for VIP seating with reserved parking; proceeds will go towards rehabilitating the building. For more information, a complete line-up of performers and more on the school and this historic theater, visit Tara's website.
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