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October 25, 2014

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Desi Arnaz Jr. and his wife take a swing at building a home for Boulder City arts

Fast facts

What: Boulder City Ballet Co. presents "The Nutcracker."

When: 7 p.m., Dec. 10; 1 and 7 p.m., Dec. 11; 1 p.m., Dec. 12.

Where: Boulder Theatre, 1225 Arizona St., Boulder City.

Tickets: $10.

Information: Call 293-5001.

The Boulder Theatre in Boulder City has sold its last tub of buttered popcorn and its final cup of fizzing soda. In fact, the snack bar is history.

So is the place's sole movie screen.

The historic cinema in the heart of Boulder City's Old Town district is undergoing a massive renovation. Along with the new heating, air conditioning, lighting and sound systems will come a new persona, transforming it from an old-fashioned movie house into a live performing arts theater.

"We'll still be able to show movies, but it's not a movie theater," explains the place's new owner, actor/musician Desi Arnaz Jr., who, with his wife, Amy, purchased the 550-seat theater earlier this year.

When the renovation is completed (in about two years, Arnaz estimates) the theater will be the performance home of the Boulder City Ballet Co., a troupe of young dancers (ages 8-18) who train at Amy Arnaz's Dance Etc. studio around the corner from the theater.

But the couple don't see this as strictly a business venture. "It's about live performing for young people," he says, "and the theater is a platform for young performers."

The dance company previously presented recitals in the Boulder City High School auditorium with little technical support.

"They didn't have a lot of lights or a light person who could cue the lights or big sound systems," Arnaz says, "but what (his wife) had were these incredible ballet dancers and tap dancers ... these great girl ensembles that were unbelievably good.

"So I started thinking, 'Why don't I bring in more lights? Why don't I bring in more sound?' And now ... I brought in the theater."

The renovation process is well underway. The stage has been extended and a long mirror has been hung on the backstage wall (behind where the movie screen once hung) to accommodate the dance classes that are now held there.

The aging floor-to-ceiling gold curtains have been given new life thanks to a good steam cleaning. Same goes for the upholstered theater seats. The now snack bar-less lobby (a sign forbids any food or drink in the theater) boasts new carpet and a smattering of antique Victorian-era furniture. The building's facade has received a fresh coat of pink paint and the neon on its pair of marquees is being repaired.

About the only thing that is still intact is the projection room, which houses a pair of antiquated projectors that have been modified to show modern-day pictures. But plans are to eventually convert the upstairs area into a light and sound room to operate during stage performances.

'Elbow grease'

Much of the renovation work is courtesy of 46-year-old Arnaz's own elbow grease. Once a sitcom co-star (he played opposite his mother, comedy great Lucille Ball, and sister, actress Lucie Arnaz, on CBS' "Here's Lucy" from 1968-71) his days now are spent changing light bulbs, tuning pianos and designating trash cans in the theater as recycling bins.

"We're not buying or tearing out huge things and putting in brand new fixtures. We're trying to fix what's here right now," he says of the work. "Over a two-year period we may be replacing (some items) with the same type of things" but the goal is to keep the theater "old-fashioned looking."

"We're bringing everything up to state-of-the-art technology," he says, although he declines to reveal how much he'll spend in renovation costs.

Meanwhile Amy Arnaz is readying her dance company for its third annual presentation of the holiday classic "The Nutcracker" in the theater Dec. 10-12. For the performances, Desi Arnaz will play (as he has previously) the Nutcracker, as well as serve as the production's light and sound technician.

"I actually do less than I used to because I have really good people who help me now with the lights and the sound," he says. "Now there's like 20 minutes where I have to run from (the back of the theater) to come up (onstage), put on the headdress, do the (scenes), get someone to fill in for me (at the light and sound boards) and go back."

Before purchasing the theater the couple had staged dance recitals there as well as a production of the play "Love Letters" in which Arnaz co-starred opposite his ex-wife, actress Linda Purl. The play, a benefit for the dance company, was directed by actress Stephanie Zimbalist, who starred in the TV series "Remington Steele."

Admittedly, the couple aren't certain that a performing arts theater will be embraced by the community.

"We're still not sure how it's gonna go," he says, "because Boulder City and live theater or a longer run (of), let's say, of a ballet or music, this has not been up here. It's like 'Field of Dreams,' build it and they will come, It's kind of the other way -- if they come, we'll build it."

Music is another artistic field Arnaz knows something about. He was part of the '60s pop trio Dino, Desi and Billy -- with members Dino Martin Jr. and Billy Hinsche -- which had modest hits with "I'm a Fool" and "Not the Lovin' Kind." One of the group's first live performances was at the Hollywood Bowl, opening for the Beach Boys.

The threesome parted ways later that decade. Arnaz continued his acting career; Hinsche joined forces with the Beach Boys; and Martin was killed in a plane crash in 1987.

Arnaz began writing music again in recent years. Currently he and Hinsche, along with Ricci Martin, brother of Dino, are guest-starring in the line up of "Al Jardine of the Beach Boys and Family & Friends" at the MGM Grand through Wednesday.

Aside from Beach Boy member Jardine, The "Family & Friends" include his musical his sons, Matt and Adam; Carnie and Wendy Wilson, daughters of Beach Boy Brian Wilson; and Owen Cass, daughter of the Mamas and Papas songstress Cass Elliot.

Having worked in musical theater throughout his acting career, Arnaz says, "Music was always in my heart. Music is probably the most powerful healing force that I know -- for helping, for uplifting."

The last picture show

That Boulder City is now without a movie theater to call its own is a fact not lost on Arnaz, who has been a resident of the town for 14 years. But he says people had stopped seeing shows at the aging theater because previous owners had let it fall into disrepair.

"They never fixed the air conditioning and the heating. There were so many things that weren't taken care of, weren't maintained. So just the fact that we're redoing the building, if it doesn't fly for us, (the city will) have a whole new place and then they can have a movie theater."

But one thing's for sure: Despite Arnaz's show business background -- his father is Desi Arnaz, Ball's real-life and TV husband on the legendary sitcom "I Love Lucy," he's had roles in a string of movies including "The Mambo Kings," and owns a production company, Desilu Too, with Lucie Arnaz -- he has no interest in running a movie theater.

"I grew up in projection rooms and worked the 35-millimeter projectors that are up there (in the theater's projection room) right now and I know everything about movie theaters," Arnaz says, "and it's a very different ball game" than operating a live theater.

"We're into this ballet company thing. We're not into running movies. Also, we're not into all of the movies that are out" in theaters today.

Although he did approve of "The Mambo Kings" -- particularly of his performance portraying his Cuban-born father in the fictional story.

"I didn't know how to do my dad, I didn't know how to be dad, as an actor. It was probably the most challenging role as an actor," he says.

"Not only that, it was a no-win situation because if I'm good (people would say ), 'Well, of course he was good, he's his son.' If I'm bad, 'What an idiot, he can't even portray his father.' So that's kind of why I did it -- there was nothing in it for my ego. There was really no reward for myself."

The role was, however, "a spiritual challenge" for Arnaz. "It literally turned me around inwardly because it wasn't so much what I felt about my father anymore, it was what my father felt. ... If somebody talks like dis all de time it mus be kinda intrestin' to be like dat all de time."

It is, he says, "very odd for a child to understand that about your parents, and what it did is it completely freed me from my feelings about him. I felt for long periods of time what he must have felt like."

Likewise, in acting opposite his mother, Arnaz "learned a lot" about Ball.

"I went through a lot with my parents ... and they went through a lot, too. They were very hands-on. Both Mom and Dad were actually extraordinarily open with me about their lives and I was open with them about certain things."

Working in the Boulder Theatre reminds Arnaz, the father of two adult daughters, of the years he spent as a child on the backlot of his parents' Desilu Studios in Southern California, where "I Love Lucy" was taped.

"It's very comfortable and, oddly enough, it brings up good memories of growing up at the studio," he says, "(of) behind the scenes, on the catwalks, under the stage as a kid running around. It was a great place to grow up."

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