Early this decade, well-known local actor Kevin Heath decided to join the burgeoning Gilroy Arts Alliance on the recommendation of a friend.
The year 2010 was an exciting time for the organization. Gilroy Arts Alliance had just merged with the longtime local arts advocate group Theater Angels Art League, and had entered into an agreement with the city to lease the former Salvation Army building at 7341 Monterey St. and transform it into an interim arts center.
The first order of business was to clean up the dilapidated second-hand retail shop. Heath received his first assignment as an arts alliance board member: Throw an old toilet into a dumpster.
“That was the moment I knew I’m all in for this,” he said.
Nearly 10 years later, the Gilroy Center for the Arts is a cultural hub downtown, with rotating exhibits, an artisan’s corner and a thriving resident theater company, with Heath at the helm as executive director.
But now it’s time to say goodbye.
Heath recently announced that he is retiring from the center on Nov. 27 and closing Limelight Actors Theater, as he and his husband and fellow theater company co-owner Alan Obata are moving from Gilroy to the Sierra Foothills.
“We’ve had some positive turns of events in our families,” he said. “It’s time for us to make our next step.”
“It was a very difficult decision,” Heath added. “It was so soul-wrenching to figure out: ‘Am I really going to do this? Am I going to end what I’ve built?’”
Once he announced his decision, the reaction was overwhelming. Heath said people have shown up to his home “just to hug us,” called him while crying, and invited him to dinner.
“All of that drove home the fact that we really created something special here,” he said. “If people are having that much of a visceral reaction, it meant something to them.”
For now, the arts alliance will not hire a replacement director, Heath said. However, it is in discussions with some parties interested in continuing theater at the center.
“There are some promising leads to keeping theater here,” he said. “That to me is the most important thing. It’s something I built from scratch—it’s my baby—so it’s nice to see others interested in taking it and continuing it.
“The community will be very happy with the next steps of theater in this building.”
Theater comes to downtown
Heath’s first taste of theater came in the first grade, when he performed as the partridge in a pear tree for a Christmas production.
“I got up on stage and said, ‘I love this. This is awesome,’” he recalled.
It was the beginning of a theater career that extended throughout his education and continues today, and along the way he made the transition from actor to director.
A transplant from Connecticut, Heath moved to San Francisco in his mid-30s, and soon after relocated to Gilroy, where he auditioned for the South Valley Civic Theatre. He quickly made friendships in the local theater world.
Once a member of the Gilroy Arts Alliance, Heath and the board began brainstorming ways to attract people to the center. Knowing his expertise in theater, Heath was tasked with bringing plays into the center, and Limelight Actors Theater was born.
“January 21, 2011 was opening night,” he said. “We packed this place. That’s when we realized, this is going to bring people in. Let’s introduce people to the center through theater.”
Limelight Actors Theater has put on 43 shows since. Its final performance, The Hallelujah Girls, runs Nov. 1-Dec. 1.
At the end of the center’s first year, 350 people walked through its doors. In 2018, that number was 6,000.
Permanent center on hold, for now
The word “interim” was used to preface the Gilroy Center for the Arts when it first opened in late 2010. But the word’s usage has become few and far between in recent memory as the organization grapples with minimal financial support and a murky path forward for its permanent, 28,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility planned all those years ago.
The City of Gilroy invested about $4.7 million to purchase the site that is sandwiched between Monterey, Seventh and Eigleberry streets, with the goal of opening an arts center.
City and community leaders held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2007 unveiling a sign marking the future location of the facility. The sign still remains today, albeit faded and starting to become overtaken by the growing landscape.
Back in 2004, the arts center project was estimated at $12.3 million. Funds earmarked for the construction of the center were instead reallocated toward the purchase of Gilroy Gardens in 2008.
As the city began demolishing the buildings on the property, the Theater Angels Art League stepped in and convinced the city to keep the Salvation Army building and let them turn it into an interim center.
“When we got this building, it was a pit,” Heath said, giving credit to volunteers such as Beth Dewey who spent countless hours cleaning the place.
Heath said he has no “ill will” toward the city for helping Gilroy Gardens and putting the arts center on hold.
“From a business perspective, I completely understand why the decision was made,” he said. “The city has a tough job. I don’t always agree with them, but they have more than the arts center to worry about.”
Still, as artists, the alliance’s outside-the-box thinking has turned a less-than-ideal situation into an important part of Gilroy’s cultural identity.
“The future of the center is bright,” Heath said. “They have nowhere to go but up. We have just been going up, and up, and up. There is so much momentum right now. My exit will just be a small blip in a matter of time.
“Fresh blood is sometimes where you need to go. I’m proud of the work I did here. I’m super proud of the theater.”