It took joy, creativity and a whole lot of support from family to make Chestnut Fine Arts Center the success it has become over the past 21 years.
The 102-seat performing arts center in the heart of Olathe has presented 20 seasons of musicals, musical reviews and plays to more than 16,000 audience members each season. Founder and director Brad Zimmerman believes the Chestnut’s success is the result of years of hard work and hands-on family commitment.
“After 10 years of teaching music and freelancing as a musical director in Kansas City theaters, I decided to look for a place where I could live and produce theater,” he said. “I found that place where I’ve been doing both for 20 years.”
When Zimmerman purchased the house that is now Chestnut Fine Arts Center, a complete renovation was necessary to create the space he envisioned. During the following 13 months, Zimmerman and his parents, Carol and Marvin, transformed the space into a comfortable home, but also a a performing arts venue.
“My parents weren’t musical, but were so supportive,” Zimmerman said. “From day one, they were there to do anything. My mom painted and my dad built sets. They stripped the floors, and sold tickets and candy. Family has always been our tradition and part of our artistic process.”
Earlier this year, Zimmerman lost his mother to Parkinson’s disease, and the entire theater family has felt the impact.
“My mother was so selfless and just wanted me to be happy,” he said. “She was also very loved at the theater by patrons and performers.”
At 88 years old, Marvin Zimmerman still builds sets for the shows. Brad Zimmerman’s sister, Debra Payne, joined the theater as lead set designer in 2010.
“The Chestnut is a family affair,” said Payne, who taught art for 30 years in the Liberty School District. “My father taught me how to use woodworking tools and showed me how to erect doorways and walls as gateways for performers.
“I’ve been truly blessed to work side-by-side with my family. There’s a union and feeling of accomplishment to share this with them. I cherish working with my brother and wouldn’t give it up for anything.”
Five years ago, the Chestnut family grew by one more. Val Fagan — singer, actress and Kansas City native — returned from New York and a 24-year career on Broadway to join Zimmerman, his parents and sister at the theater.
Though not related by birth, Fagan met Zimmerman when they were 12. The two became close friends and shared a childhood dream of running a theater one day.
“When Brad asked me to come on board, I asked him what I would do,” Fagan recalls. “He said ‘Anything I ask you to.’ Since then, I’ve performed at the Chestnut, run lights, stage managed and sold candy.
“I was losing my spark on Broadway and my passion for my art. I was burned out, but coming back and working at the Chestnut has given me my spark back. Here, you feel like you’re lifting spirits and doing your job. There’s so much love at this theater.”
Zimmerman believes another factor has contributed to the theater’s success.
“I consider myself an artist first, but I’m also a businessman,” he said. “I knew it would be hard to financially support two buildings — one to work in and one to live in. Here, I support one and we run the Chestnut as a business. Though we’re a nonprofit and that’s our tax designation, it’s not our plan of action.”
Zimmerman acknowledges there were certainly lean years when he first opened the theater.
“We’d sit on the porch and pray a car would come by. We considered it a success if there were more people in the audience than on the stage in the early days.”
However, during the past several years, Zimmerman and the Chestnut has experienced tremendous growth.
When it first opened, shows ran for two weeks. During recent seasons, productions run six to seven weeks, with seven performances a week. In addition, the theater offers an extensive holiday caroling program.
The Dickens Carolers, made up of 50 area singers, give 250 performances a season across the metro during the holiday season. Either in quartets or octets, the singers perform at the Chestnut, assisted-living facilities, shopping malls and other venues. The last few years, they have also entertained lines of Black Friday shoppers at Bass Pro Shop, with caroling beginning at 4:30 a.m.
As the theater has grown and evolved, so has its audience.
“We’ve almost exclusively become a theater that serves older patrons, so we now specifically cater to that audience,” Zimmerman said.
“Over the years, our older patrons would tell us they can’t drive downtown or do things they used to. They told us, ‘We’ve given up everything else, but we don’t want to give up the Chestnut,’ so we changed our program to accommodate them.”
For more information, visit Chestnut Fine Arts Center at www.chestnutfinearts.com