La Mesa theater celebrates a big milestone

By David Dixon

Eight decades is a long time for any theatrical organization, but even after that many years, the Lamplighters Community Theatre continues to be a beloved venue for entertainment in La Mesa.

In June, several festivities are taking place in honor of the longstanding theater company. On June 11, the 80th Anniversary Gala is scheduled to take place at the La Mesa Women’s Club, organized by volunteers Barbara Eisele and Pamela Stompoly-Ericson. Hors d’oeuvres, refreshments and a silent auction will be held.

A photo of the Little Players Theatre from 1939. This group of local thespians was started by Olive Walker and Austin Cordtz and eventually became the Lamplighters Community Theatre. (Courtesy La Mesa Historical Society)

And as a special honor to the Lamplighters Theatre’s late longtime member, theater treasurer, former house manager and producer Judy Hughes, “Judy’s Signature Punch” will be served.

Marketing manager and producer of the current production of “They’re Playing Our Song,” Susan Stratton, gives credit to the house manager, Peggy Graham, for maintaining the same recipe that Hughes used.

“It’s got to be made a certain way,” she said. “Graham is wonderful.”

Lamplighters Theatre marketing manager Susan Stratton (Photos by Adriana Zuniga-Williams)

Stratton mentioned that, while more events are being planned, the main event for the gala is that the theater’s volunteers are going to be honored that night.

In addition to the gala, the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce is hosting an anniversary event on the June 21.

Raffles, food, drinks and an “official” ribbon cutting will all be happening at Lamplighters.

Following the cutting, directors of upcoming stagings plan on appearing at the event before the night is over.

These big events aren’t just paying tribute to the venue, they also serve as reminders to attendees just how much the theater company has had to overcome in the past — including the loss of its longtime venue.

In 2006, Lamplighters temporarily closed after its former home, the Ben Polak Fine Arts Center, was demolished.

Publicity director Rob Conway (Photo
by Adriana Zuniga-Williams)

La Mesa Historical Society president Jim Newland said it was really disappointing that Lamplighters was forced to take an extended break.

“They were one of those longstanding nonprofit institutions that were a fabric in the community for years,” he said. “I know a lot of people were very pleased following the extended hiatus.”

Before officially returning to full production, the theater company staged readings and other small performances at a variety of locations.

Stratton knows how loyal the Lamplighters veterans have been during this dark period.

“They had their eye on the future, which ended up resulting in a new entertainment center,” she said.

The Lamplighters returned in 2013 when it moved into its current theater space at 5915 Severin Drive, and once again attracted a loyal following.

“I’m just happy to see the audiences grow every time we open a show,” said Rob Conway, a man who wears many hats for the theater including publicity director, graphic designer and webmaster.

News about the reopening was what inspired Conway to work at the theater. “I just wanted to help everyone involved get back on their feet,” he said. “I hoped to go above and beyond to get them where they were before the close.”

And the effort has paid off. Factors such as credit card sales, the ability to purchase tickets online and subscription packages are contributing to the significant boost in attendance.

“We are filling a niche in the East County, because a lot of people are happy to have access to live theater with affordable prices,” he said.

Conway can’t wait for opportunities for 2017 and beyond. “I am looking forward to the point where we outgrow our current location,” he said.

Not everything has been easy since 1937, but audience and staff members seem to agree that there are more good days ahead.

—David Dixon is a freelance theater and film writer. Reach him at

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