Dee Sudick watches as her husband Jim cuts a ribbon on the dressing rooms at the Newhall Family Theatre that were dedicated to him and the late Paco Vela. Councilmember Laurene Weste lends a hand.
You don’t think of a dressing room as anything special unless you realize that people go into them to transform themselves into something or someone they may have only dreamed of being. That’s why Raising the Curtain Foundation, through their Grand Ovation program, honored Jim Sudik and Paco Vela on June 1 by naming the dressing rooms at the Newhall Family Theatre for the Performing Arts after them. The pair were longtime parent volunteers who created programs and spaces for students at the school to perform and learn about the craft of putting on a show – transforming students one script at a time.
Patti Rasmussen, who organized the dressing room fundraiser, said it was important to her that Jim and Paco have the honor of being the first name with a place in the theater, because of their dedication to children’s theater.
Vela passed away in 2013, but Sudik’s memories of working with his fellow actor and stay-at-home-dad are vivid.
“He would teach acting, dancing, tech. He could build any kind of costume from scraps of fabric and cardboard. He was Mr. Backstage, doing all sorts of odds and ends at the school. But we always had fun with the kids. It was playtime,” Sudik said. “I’m a good second banana.”
Vela’s flair wasn’t confined to the stage. He helped out the math teachers by donning a costume and cape and riding to school on his horse to play “Zero the Hero” for the young learners. He also worked as the school’s gardening coordinator, teaching kids how to grow their own healthy vegetables.
“Paco had a charm and a calmness about him. They were both so patient. They showed what everyone could learn from each other. They worked as a team, Jim was serious, gotta get things done; Paco was softer, calmer,” said Kimberle Wooten, one of the founding members of Theater Arts for Children.
Sudik knew he was destined for the stage because he was the kid that his one-room-schoolhouse teacher saw ‘needed a diversion’ (“I thought I was Dick Van Dyke,’ he admits). He started acting, learned puppetry, wrote scripts and songs, and continued this dramatic curve through high school and college, where he met his lifelong co-star, Dee, who joined him on stage and on the road. After stints in community and regional theater in the Midwest and East Coast, the family moved to California, where the movie industry beckoned. Sudik tried his hand at films and TV, but waiting for calls to work challenged the young family and when Dee got her teaching credential, Jim became a stay-at-home dad.
Vela, who hailed from Texas, got his start on stage when his elementary school needed boys for a dance performance, which led to his involvement in theater groups in junior high and high school. After a short stint in the Navy, he did some Equity dinner theater and began honing his technical chops. He played a bad guy in a Clint Eastwood movie and guested on TV shows ‘Hill Street Blues’ and ‘St. Elsewhere.’ Paco was also a stay-at-home dad interested in issues related to his children’s school. The two met when they attended a site council meeting.
One of the issues they addressed immediately was finding performance space and establishing programs that brought more theater to the school, where the once-elegant theater was being used as a warehouse space for the district. With a goal of inspiring creativity in all students and nurturing young performers, they created theater programs at Newhall that gave kids a home away from home and a way to express themselves. They held improvisation workshops and theater activities after school. Kids performed on makeshift stages built in the multipurpose room or out in the community in parks and plazas.
They created NEST (Newhall Elementary Story Theater) and MASK – (Making Art Special for Kids), free programs for any student who was interested to learn. They worked with Newhall Ellipses Theater in concert with the Repertory Theater to offer theater to at-risk kids.
Grant funding provided the debut of their original play, “Viva Chavez-Si Se Puede” at Newhall. And their play “A Christmas Carol Para Todos,” presented simultaneously in English and Spanish by kids in the NEST program, brought cultures together. At that time, more than 80 percent of the students at Newhall Elementary School primarily spoke Spanish. Sudik and Vela broke those barriers by presenting the show in both languages.
“The holidays. What better time to challenge borders, boundaries, fear and ignorance with a classic story of change and some good music? And who better to tell it to us than our future – our hope – our children,” Sudik said. In their programs, drama lessons always included a side of social responsibility.
They entertained the crowd at the dedication of the Jan Heidt Metrolink station and put on a show during the Country Fair – a fundraiser organized by Theater Arts for Children, a group of parents and community leaders, including Sudik and Vela, that were determined to turn the theater at Newhall Elementary back into the Art Deco theater it once was.
Serious efforts to that end began in 1994 by Theater Arts for Children and renewed with a bond measure supported overwhelmingly by the community in 2011 that funded the complete restoration of the performance space.
Vela never saw the completion of the theater. In 2016, there was a groundbreaking for the restoration of the theater, and the newly renovated, state-of-the-art Newhall Family Theatre for the Performing Arts was dedicated to students and the community in 2018.
Sudik remains active in the performing arts community and coaches softball at Hart High School, where his granddaughter plays on the team. Regardless of the field, he is still considered a mentor by many.
“(It’s) the joy of storytelling, of communicating and passing stories on, resolving through drama or rehearsal opinions and attitudes,” he mused. “Teaching kids to be confident in themselves and generous to who you’re on stage with. Discover your talents and enjoy your talents!”
For information on the Grand Ovation Program and naming opportunities at the Newhall Family Theatre for the Performing Arts, visit www.raisingthecurtainfoundation.org.