Steven Spielberg’s face has long saturated American pop culture. But now it’s part of a bright red, square-cornered archway for Phoenix Theatre Company, where the nearly 100-year-old arts organization is touting its ties to the famous film director who grew up in Phoenix.
He used to live on 49th Street, just south of Indian School Road, across from the house where my own kids grew up in the early days of video cameras. That's where we briefly met the director, as he piled out of his minivan with family members paying a visit to the people who now own his childhood home.
Plenty of Valley residents have connections to Spielberg, big and small. His first job was working in the props department at Phoenix Theatre Company, where he'd borrow props to make his eight-millimeter films.
According to the theater company, Spielberg also premiered his first feature-length film there in 1964, when he was 17. The film was Firelight, which reportedly inspired Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
"It was Standing Room Only that night, with tickets going for $1. Steven made a total of $501, which covered his expenses of $500 and set him on a long and distinguished career in filmmaking," the company said in a document it wrote to the city.
The company changed its name from Phoenix Theatre in recent months, eager to highlight the fact that it's more than a theater building.
And now it is asking the city to officially name the entryway for its venue at 1825 North Central Avenue the Steven Spielberg Entryway, in recognition of the director’s early ties to the site.
For years, it’s kept a small framed, autographed photograph of Spielberg in its lobby. But now it’s going for a much splashier look, and asking the city to give the thumbs-up. The entryway is currently home to a public art installation comprising a hallway of vertical mirrors, accentuated at night with red and blue lighting.
The city owns the buildings occupied by Phoenix Theatre Company, which are part of a larger, city-owned campus that also includes Phoenix Art Museum. That’s why the company needs city approval, according to Dwight Walth, director of cultural facilities and strategic projects for the city's office of arts and culture.
The city has been helping the company navigate the approval process, according to a city representative. First Phoenix Theatre Company submitted a request to the Heritage Commission, which included background information on Spielberg’s historic ties to the site, as well as a letter of support from Spielberg’s attorney.
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The heritage commission recommended it move forward, and sent the request to a city subcommittee on parks, arts, libraries, and education. They voted on April 24 to recommend that the city council approve the naming. Now, it’s set for a city council vote on May 15.
Turns out, the red entryway is only temporary. Once Phoenix Theatre Company gets approval, it will create a more substantial tribute involving the entryway, as part of a larger renovation project that will also increase the size of its black-box theater, according to Walth.
Maybe one day, a whole new generation of kids raised on Spielberg films will get to see the famed director and his family pile out of a minivan at Phoenix Theatre Company, eager to get a good look at the entryway that bears his name.