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Nevada City man keeps the historic Nevada Theatre humming

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Michael Young

Nevada City Advocate

Tom Taylor remembers back in the 1950s when Nevada City was a sleepy little Gold Rush town and the Nevada Theatre was a movie house called the Cedar Theater that was headed for closure.

“My first movie was ‘Bambi.’ It was 1954. My mother took me. I saw countless cowboy cartoons there,” he says. “ Those are my oblique credentials for the job.”

Ignore the self-deprecating humor. Taylor has collected numerous skills and experiences and even overcame a visual impairment on his journey to becoming the glue that holds the historic 152-year-old gem together.

Taylor’s official title is facilities manager. He does everything from building sets for the various theater groups that rent the stage to being on call to fix problems that crop up at any time, no matter how inconvenient. 

“The alarm on the rollup door to the backstage used go off in the middle of a performance,” he says of the entrance to the new backstage constructed as part of the Bridge Street Project with KVMR community radio.

We are sitting in his cramped theater office behind the balcony and next to the glass booth where engineers control the lighting. A quick-witted man who wears his 70 years well, Taylor was born and raised in Nevada City. His father was a mining engineer, his grandfather owned a mine at Relief Hill east of North Bloomfield.

“Most of my vintage were born in the gold economy (with fathers) either as administrators or engineers. My father ended up building an accounting business after the mines closed,” says Taylor.

“In my childhood, this was a sleepy town. The economy was modest, the bars were filled with miners. I had a paper route (delivering) the Chronicle, the Examiner, the Sacramento Union. My mother was our landing spot in town. She embraced all the friends I had, like Dave Painter (owner of the SPD market).”

In 1966, he headed east to Yale College to study English literature. But he got caught up in the rarified atmosphere. “I was not a serious student. I was meeting interesting people. I was green, unsophisticated.”

He dropped out of Yale to join Vista, at that time a new federal government program aimed at eradicating poverty by having volunteers live and work in hard-pressed communities.

Taylor was assigned to youth in a school in Pittsburgh, at that time roiling in racial tension. The high school population was 1/3 white working class, 1/3 Jewish middle class and 1/3 African American. The Martin Luther King assassination had triggered riots in cities throughout the East.

“I came of age in Pittsburgh. I discovered politics. I was seditious,” he says.

He tried to get the kids to work together. The white students complained that the blacks were getting all the political visibility. He tried to convince them that they were on the same side in dealing with the impacts of racism.

“Vista wanted us to bounce basketballs, keep everything calm to deflect from the race riots. I tried to convince them they were being played by the power structure,” he says. “I was walking into a sampler of a socio-political cross section of America.”

At the end of his year in Vista, he was facing a 1A draft deferment (available for duty), so he applied for conscientious objector status.

“But after all this, I really wanted out. There were five of us, plus a dog. We piled in a van and we headed West.”

Upon arriving back in Nevada City he refused induction and was eventually reclassified 1H, a new classification which he described as “being put in a dormant closet.”

He worked in construction and mining, went East, drove a cab in New York City, a truck in Chicago, and finally returned home for good in 1974.

In 1978, he was beguiled out of the woods to play a rude mechanical in a seminal production of a “Midsummer Nights Dream” at Miners Foundry, which was directed by Diane Fetterly and designed by her husband, Ralph.

“It was a first performance of a number of people who became core members of the Foothill Theater Company: Sandra Rockman, Sharon Wineger, Michael Baranowski.

“It was wonderful talent, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It was so much fun, I thought I was joining the circus. Foothill was doing inspired community theater. The idea of collaborative art, all these people working together, the collective dance of it.”

These were the salad days of the Foothill Theater Company. It was also the creative beginnings for Charles Woods and David Osborn, who created KVMR community radio and nurtured Music in the Mountains.

In addition to Midsummer, Taylor also appeared in “Waiting for Godot.” But he was also moving toward the technical side of theater, to lighting and set design. 

“I was working in the trades, construction, mining, forestry as I was getting more involved in theater. I was going from onstage talent to back stage. I enjoyed it, I was pretty good at it.”

But there was one problem. He is color blind. He is unable to see certain colors.

“If I see a rainbow, I only see blue and yellow. I learned to compensate by memorizing the palate of color filters, to learn how to blend them in complementary warm and cool. 

“Lighting design is a compilation of many things. There are things I can see that others can’t,“ he says.

In 2014, Taylor got the job of Nevada Theatre manager. He followed John McDade, who had been a well-regarded manager for 18 years.

Among other things, Taylor provides production support to tenants.

“Some producers don’t need any help, others need a lot of help. I fill in the gaps where needed,” he said. “For CATS, I’m the technical director and project manager to build the sets. Sierra Stages comes in completely self-contained.”

We talk about measuring success, about the need to leave home to succeed.

“Everyone has to leave home to manifest themselves,” he says. “Had I finished my education it would have been more beneficial to my career. I grew up not knowing how to do anything, no survival skills. More important to me in growing up is self reliance.”

Or maybe it’s just that you’re a man with a very sharp mind who likes to work with your hands.

Taylor laughs and deflects with an old Japanese saying. 

“He has many blades, none of them sharp.”

About the photo: 

Previous page: 

Nevada Theatre manager Tom Taylor on stage at the historic venue.

Photo by Michael Young

This page: 

Tom Taylor performing as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot at the Nevada Theatre in 1985.

Submitted photo