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Bring in 'Da Bucks 

Wednesday, Nov 25 1998
Jonathan Reinis has a dream. It is deeply rooted in the American Dream. He has a dream that one day, on the sweltering plains of Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico, the sons of former field workers and the sons of former field bosses will sit side by side in border-town music halls watching Broadway shows like West Side Story and The Phantom of the Opera being performed in Spanish.

He has a dream that, even in California, where the state's Hispanic majority is all but absent from the dominant mainstream culture, holiday revelers will forego A Christmas Carol and instead take their families to see a production by the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.

He has a dream of making a mint.
"I'm talking Spanish translations of Broadway musicals," says Reinis, finishing breakfast at a Union Square diner where the voice of Jose Feliciano just happens to be wafting from the sound system. "But it has to be done with quality. It has to have all of the marketing elements that would pull it together and be of a certain quality that people don't look down upon -- it's not going to be like second rate -- and then you tour it in America. It's never been done before."

Like each of the dozen or so ideas Reinis juggles at any given time, this dream of getting rich by bringing Spanish-language theater to the masses may never come to fruition. But he has such an astounding record of spinning far-fetched fantasy into gold that only a fool would bet against him.

Owner of the Theater on the Square, Reinis has carved out a living as the city's one truly independent commercial theater producer. He's wedged himself between the West Coast branches of the New York production companies that bring us the Cats and Miss Saigons of the world, and local nonprofits such as the American Conservatory Theater and the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Reinis combines the marketing skills of a sideshow hawker -- he also runs his own public relations company -- with near-perfect pitch for the aesthetic sensibilities of his fellow Northern California theatergoers. He possesses the nerve of a high-stakes gambler attuned to the rhythm of his own instincts, and the caution of a theater veteran who has watched from the inside as shows have bombed.

"That show is going to get bad reviews," Reinis says into the telephone receiver at his theater offices, after listening to a particularly uninteresting pitch. "It doesn't mean everything I do I have to like. If someone wants to rent my theater and do it, that's OK ...."

In 1981, Reinis dreamed of turning an old Union Square Elks Lodge ballroom into a 740-seat commercial theater, now called Theater on the Square. "Once I saw it, I knew it was right," recalls Reinis, with the same matter-of-fact air he uses in describing other long-shot bets he's made good. Since then, he's been on a roll. He's managed to keep the lights on in his theater, while taking productions he's launched in San Francisco and touring them throughout California and the rest of the country. His hallmark: bet on shows that, in their conception, might seem like esoteric long shots -- and in hindsight, look like sure things.

Imagine, for example, bringing to town an Australian cross-dresser whose shtick dates from the 1960s to deliver a 150-minute monologue from the stage. Reinis did, after he read a biography describing Aussie comic Barry Humphries as this century's "greatest clown."

"People said, 'Oh, that's old hat: Who's going to come and see an old drag queen?' " Reinis says. "But I had nothing but optimistic thoughts, and I knew the true artistry that was involved."

Now, unless you've been living under your couch, you've heard of Reinis' current Theater on the Square production -- Dame Edna: The Royal Tour star-ring Australian female impersonator Barry Humphries. It's been held over until January after a successful fall run, and Reinis plans to produce a national tour of Dame Edna this spring. If all goes well, it will play New York by fall as a Jonathan Reinis production.

Grand plans, to be sure. But sitting in balcony seats in Reinis' theater, looking over a crowd of raucously laughing gay couples, obviously entertained middle-aged theater-regulars, and equally engaged hipster twentysomething heterosexual couples, only one word of description comes to mind: Bank. Somehow, Reinis sensed ahead of time that this towering, ostentatious, haughty transvestite would pull in the traditional, theatergoing older demographic and lure a younger, hipper crowd that doesn't frequently attend theater.

"It's very difficult to make a living in the theater," Reinis says. "You're doing things that don't necessarily have a track record, and it's risky. Before I open my shows there will be many naysayers. And then, when it's a hit, they will say, 'Oh, yeah, that was obvious.' "

Humphries lavishes praise on Reinis. Granted, it's praise in keeping with Dame Edna's more-royal-than-thou stage persona.

"I was fortunate that my agent allowed Mr. Reinis to have me appear at his little theater," says Humphries. "He's a delightful little fellow, don't you think? He reminds me of one of those adorable old hippies. Even still, I think he has a slight flair to his trousers, and he's got a little Afro, did you notice? I think he is typical of the acceptable side of San Francisco."

While Dame Edna's remarks about the Afro and the bell-bottoms were tongue-in-cheek, Reinis does sport a certain San Franciscan flair. He has the cultural sensibilities of a beatnik auteur and the scrappiness of an 1849 prospector.

When he started out during the 1970s, Jonathan Reinis fancied himself a socialist, he says. He didn't always aspire to the hustling side of the theater business. Reinis originally planned to become a director, studying directing at Herbert Berghof Studios in New York. In 1974, he made a documentary about the Navajo Indians. After studying nine months at Berghof, Reinis came to the Bay Area to direct at the nonprofit One Act Theater in San Francisco. He quickly saw that the money center was in producing, he says, and moved into the slot of the One Act's executive producer. The business side of theater, he discovered, suited his style.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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