A Roaring Move 

The Catalina Players celebrate their new home by producing a play set in the 1920s

The Catalina Players, a community troupe that has long worked out of church basements, has found a new home. Except it is by no means new. And, in a way, it's still in a church.

The company is moving its performances from Trinity Presbyterian Church to the former chapel at what is now Atria Bell Court Gardens Retirement Community. The chapel, now called Academy Hall, adjoins a 25-room, Mediterranean-style mansion built in 1926 by wealthy Easterner Charles Belin. Modestly called "La Casita," the house boasted a living room with 15-foot beamed ceilings and a 7-foot granite fireplace. Its reputed cost was $1.3 million--which would be more than $13 million in today's dollars.

Belin came to Tucson in an attempt to postpone death from tuberculosis. He survived only until 1931, whereupon his widow sold the property to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who turned it into a prep school for girls. The school closed in 1969. In 1978, the Hillhaven Corporation bought it and by 1984 had turned it into a retirement community initially called Villa Campana--"house of the bell," from the bell tower that once called students to Mass.

The property now includes 140 new independent-living apartments and a separate 120-bed health care center; the independent residence component was renamed Atria Bell Court Gardens a few months ago so people wouldn't confuse it with the Atria Villa Campana nursing home. At the center of it all is the old mansion, with its 1937 chapel, which is now home to the Catalina Players.

The Catalina Players' director, Priscilla Marquez, learned last spring that she'd have to vacate the church dining hall she'd been using. One day around that time, she went to Bell Court Gardens to consider it as a residence for her mother. One of the employees found out about her theater group and invited them to put on a show. Almost immediately, Marquez realized that Academy Hall would be a perfect permanent home for her company. (Her mother, on the other hand, hasn't decided to move yet.)

"It's great exposure for our (retirement) community," says Bell Court Gardens executive director Donna Jacobs. "We're kind of hidden back here behind St. Joseph's Hospital. And it's great for our residents--they can come to the dress rehearsals free."

Says Marquez, "We were very fortunate to get in here. We thought we'd have to renovate whatever space we found and put lots of sweat equity into it, but this is all ready to go, and it's handicap-accessible. We have a lot of older people in our audience, so it's a perfect marriage."

The stage is narrow, but deeper than what she'd been working with. Technicians can set up base camp in the former choir loft. The hall seats 80 for dinner shows on Saturday nights, and can accommodate variable numbers for the no-dinner Friday and Sunday performances.

Atria Bell Court Gardens is celebrating its own 20th anniversary Saturday, Oct. 2 with a Roaring '20s party (because the mansion was built in the 1920s) with food, cocktails, live jazz and a '20s costume contest. Proceeds from the $50-per-person affair (call 886-3600 for info) will benefit the Arthritis Foundation.

It seemed logical to Marquez that her first show there, Fridays-Sundays Oct. 1-16, should also have a Roaring '20s theme. Hence, Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend, a sweet and fluffy confection of a musical written in the 1950s but set in the 1920s. It's all about English flappers in love on the French Riviera.

The Catalina Players specialize in gentle shows suitable for all ages, but the group is starting to expand its options this season. "I want to do one ethnic play a year," says Marquez, "so we can get people from all backgrounds and all walks of life into the theater." That means in January, the players will present the comedy Our Lady of the Tortilla by Luis Santeiro.

Marquez is still facing an Oct. 31 deadline to get 21 years of costumes and flats out of Trinity Presbyterian. ("Let me know if you hear of anybody with an empty garage," she says.) But she's relieved to be moving the productions themselves to Academy Hall.

"The Catalina Players are floating on air," she says. "I know some people didn't like to go down into the church basement to see our shows, and some people wouldn't enter the doors of a church at all."

But she's moving into a building that still looks like a little church.

"It's Academy Hall, not a chapel!" she insists. "I hope this will make a difference."

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