The new B Street Theatre and why it’s important for Sacramento

Buck Busfield, Producing Artistic Director of B Street Theatre, ledes a tour of the theater under construction in Sacramento.
Buck Busfield, Producing Artistic Director of B Street Theatre, ledes a tour of the theater under construction in Sacramento.

Poet Carl Sandburg wrote this wonderful line: “Nothing happens, unless first you dream.” In 1998, Buck Busfield, producing artistic director of the B Street Theatre, had a dream, and it was a big one, even for someone as optimistic as Buck.

He eyed land on Capitol Avenue owned by Sutter Medical Center and envisioned a theater. It would bring drama and laughter and all versions of performance arts to all in the Sacramento area who love theater.

And, most of all, it would be a place where thousands of children could come to be entertained and to be taught by the B Street family.

In 1986, actor Timothy Busfield founded the Theater for Children. Then in 1991, Timothy and his brother, Buck, created B Street.

It was a humble beginning, but study a few of the statistics since then: 20 productions a year, 170 staff written premieres, seven American premieres, 20 original plays, 85,000 annual attendance for the main stage shows, 25,000 for the family series, 172,000 students reached, and 400 playwriting submissions from students.

That’s where it is now, but in 1998 Buck was hugging his bigger dream. So he wrote the one person he knew who would not automatically respond to his pitch with laughter, then-Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna Jr., whose son, Phil, is a Sacramento County supervisor.

The mayor listened and, as was his inclination, he acted, setting up a meeting between Buck and some of the Sutter leaders. When it came to projects that Joe believed would aid his city, he always drew ambitious, bold, colorful pictures.

Remember how he worked so hard to bring the Raiders to Sacramento. The only problem in that venture was that Joe and Raiders’ owner Al Davis were using different principled playbooks, just as many others learned too late when dealing with Davis. The Raiders owner used his fling with Sacramento as leverage for another deal, which was his audible all along.

But back to B Street, the mayor and Buck went off to their meeting at Sutter. Buck’s memory of the start of the conversation was Joe telling the top Sutter representatives that he thought it would be a great idea for them to donate the land to B Street, and also toss in an extra million dollars.

That was his personality and his leadership style: start with where you want to be at the end, not where you are at the beginning. But nothing happened for three years, and cancer claimed Joe’s life in the interim.

Flash forward 19 years from that original meeting. The final act is being written, or perhaps we should say is being constructed on that land at 27th and Capitol that Buck eyeballed with envy all those years ago, a $6 million dollar gift from Sutter. It is on schedule to be ready for a grand opening next February.

And on a recent walk through what will be a new jewel for our city, Buck could hardly contain his enthusiasm and elation, or for that matter, catch his breath. I must admit that my own thoughts were focused on where our season ticket seats would be located. Would we have that same sense of intimacy, that same feeling of familiarity and friendship we have shared with the performers whom we have spent many nights with over the past 26 years? The answer: Yes, we will.

The complex will be called The Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts, The Sofia, for short. It is named for Sofia Tsakopoulos, wife of developer Angelo Tsakopoulos, whose family, with the Sutter Health Community Benefit, made a $3 million gift to the building fund.

Two theaters, multiple rehearsal halls, classrooms, a green room, star dressing rooms, a bar, a restaurant, and, oh yes, double digit restrooms. But no train noise during the first act, which some of us might miss. Maybe they can pipe it in on opening night.

And, of course, the shows themselves will be the thing. Both theaters will be in use on the same nights with innovative plays, and entertainers and a variety of acts. Agents are inquiring about possible dates, Buck says.

In addition to the major gifts from Sutter, the Tsakopoulos family and a $3 million forgivable loan from the city of Sacramento, hundreds of B Street regulars and supporters gave small and medium gifts.

“It was simply amazing and so heartening,” Buck said. They’ve raised $18 million and financed $12 million.

As I think about this I am reminded of something the late Bill Glackin, the deeply talented, longtime critic for The Sacramento Bee, wrote about why arts are so important: “There is a life of the spirit in all of us that is as vital to our existence as the hard wearying business of staying fed and alive.

“It has to do with truth and beauty – words hardly to be mentioned these days – and it can be found in the memorable, lasting ways in paintings and plays, dancing and music, museums and books, and, yes, on the fields of sport, in great athletes, as well as great dancers. In the best performers and writers and players, we find this spiritual impulse in a high and precious form.”

Buck had a dream, one that has been shared fervently by a handful of the original B Street members who remain part of the theater’s family. Their faith in the future may have lived in the shadows of doubt from time to time, but it always found its way back into the light of hope. Now, something is happening.

The one sad line in this long-running play is that Joe won’t be here to take a curtain call.

Gregory Favre, the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for The McClatchy Company, can be reached at