Transformation of Valhalla’s historic boathouse was ‘labor of love’ |

Transformation of Valhalla’s historic boathouse was ‘labor of love’

Ryan Hoffman
Tahoe Daily Tribune
Loud as Folk performing at the Valhalla Boathouse. (Provided by Tony Contini)

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Few venues rival the ambiance and view offered by the Valhalla Boathouse Theater on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe. With swinging doors that open to Tahoe’s emerald waters behind the stage, the Boathouse is matched only by Trepp Amphitheater at Sand Harbor when it comes to wedding the lake and live entertainment.

It does not pull in the household names who perform at Tahoe’s casinos or other commercial venues — and it never intended to. Rather, the Boathouse Theater provides a stage to musicians and thespians of varying abilities and offers a wonderfully distinct experience to those who occupy its 164 seats.

This summer will mark the 25th year since the Boathouse opened as a theater, but the structure’s story dates back more than 100 years to a time when wealthy tycoons of industry and finance owned sizable swaths of lakefront property.

Its transformation from a boathouse into a theater some 80 years after it was built required a monumental effort by a grassroots group of artists and passionate community members, who succeeded thanks, in part, to the federal government and a famous academic known as Dr. Love.

Luck builds lake’s ‘premier complex’

The Boathouse Theater and Valhalla are part of what is referred to as the Heller Estate — one of three historical properties nestled between the Tahoe Keys and the mouth of Emerald Bay on Tahoe’s South Shore. Today, the estates are a unique representation of history and natural beauty. Roughly 150 years ago though, much of the history presently preserved was just beginning to transpire.

Late in the 19th century, one of the largest landowners in the Tahoe Basin was E.J. Baldwin, though he was better known as “Lucky,” a name he ironically seemed to earn. Baldwin was a millionaire, having made a fortune during the Comstock Lode mining boom of the late 1800s.

At one point Baldwin owned nearly the entire shoreline from the present-day Tahoe Keys to the Taylor Creek marsh, according to a report by the National Park Service. While much of the land was used for harvesting timber, his lakefront property hosted far more lively activities.

“By the turn of the century his Tallac Resort, with two luxurious hotels, a casino and numerous guest cabins and utility buildings, was the premier complex on the lake,” according to the National Park Service document.

Baldwin’s luck waxed and waned and by the end of the 1800s his Tahoe property was beginning to be subdivided and purchased by other wealthy families. The area currently known as the Pope Estate passed from George Tallant to Lloyd Tevis, a millionaire from San Francisco who built most of the structures that still exist on the property. The buildings were “an excellent example of early Lake Tahoe quasi-elegant/rustic vacation architecture,” according to the Park Service report.

As part of the build-out, the Tevis family constructed one of the earliest boathouses at the lake sometime between 1910 and 1913.

The structure was unique. Its trapezoidal shape, according to the Park Service report, provided an oblique angle to the lakeshore, thereby allowing boats to enter and exit through two large swinging doors that faced the lake. The structure’s foundation sloped toward the lake and a winch inside raised and lowered boats along a railroad track that ran from the boathouse to the lake.

Misfortune soon met the Tevis family after 1913 and the property entered receivership for six years before being purchased by George A. Pope, one of California’s most prominent businessmen of the time.

In 1924, Pope sold a portion of the property to Walter Heller, a wealthy financier who served as director of Wells Fargo Bank. According to Valhalla Tahoe, the nonprofit that currently oversees the Heller Estate, the boathouse was not meant to be included in the sale. However, a survey conducted the following summer concluded it was indeed part of the property purchased by Heller.

The Heller family built a large, decadently designed home that they called Valhalla. They also added a loft over the northern portion of the boathouse. It housed a caretaker from the native Washoe Tribe.

After the Hellers, the property passed through different owners before being purchased in 1965 by the Valhalla Corporation, according to the Park Service report. In 1971, Valhalla Corporation transferred ownership of the property to the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

What about a theater?

Carol Spain can’t remember the year, but she remembers the broad details surrounding one of the first times she sought an opinion about converting the old boathouse into a theater. As the founding executive director of the Tahoe Tallac Association, Spain was doing her director duties at an event out at Valhalla in the late ‘80s. They were hosting a group from the University of Oklahoma music and theater programs.

At some point Spain took a few of the members out to the boathouse that she had quizzically stared at for years. She wanted their opinion.

“I said what would you think about this space as a theater?” she recalled asking.

There was little hesitation despite the decrepit state of the boathouse, which had been largely used as storage. They gave the idea a resounding endorsement.

The arts were central to the preservation efforts at the Tallac Historic Site.

The Forest Service had proposed burning some of the structures on the site, with the goal of returning the area to a more natural setting, according to Dennis Crabb, attorney for the City of South Lake Tahoe at the time.

The proposal was a rallying event for many community members.

“A bunch of people got together and said, ‘we can’t let this happen,’” Crabb recalled.

The initial organizing group was known as ARTS, which stood for the Association for the Restoration of the Tallac Site.

“It was arts tied into restoration,” said David Kurtzman, an early board member with the Tahoe Tallac Association. “But it was a bunch of artists that did it.”

ARTS became the Tahoe Tallac Association in 1979. Through an innovative partnership with the Forest Service, the Association operated the Tallac Historic Site and assisted in its restoration. The Association also coordinated events intended to promote the arts and, in some cases, raise money for the ongoing restoration. It was at one of these events where Spain asked the folks from the University of Oklahoma for their thoughts on the boathouse.

The attributes that made the structure a functional boathouse aided the idea of converting it to a theater.

“Once you see the building, you realize that it’s sloped perfectly, it’s acoustically excellent because it’s hard surfaces and it’s got a picture of the lake in the background, so it takes about half a second to say ‘yeah, this is good,’” Kurtzman said.

Dr. Love falls in love with project

Spain and the Tallac board members were not the only ones to see the boathouse’s potential.

Leo Buscaglia, a famous author who preached the importance of love and physical touch, latched onto the idea almost as quickly as Spain could explain it.

Buscaglia’s rise to fame began in the 1960s at the University of Southern California, where he taught a self-actualization course called Love 101. That turned into his famous book titled “Love.” He gained further fame for his public speaking, which he used to help raise money in the ‘80s during fund drives for the Public Broadcasting Service, better known as PBS.

After his speeches, he famously insisted on hugging everyone in attendance who wanted a hug.

Eventually Buscaglia moved to the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. According to Spain, he approached her during the Tahoe Tallac Association’s Starlight Jazz Series to express his appreciation for the work of the Association.

“He said, ‘let me know how I can get involved with what you’re doing.’ And so I invited him out to Valhalla and to the Boathouse Theater (then just a boathouse) and sort of laid out all our dreams to him, and he was swept away by the concept … the total concept of making use of those facilities in such a wonderful way,” Spain said.

Buscaglia brought fundraising might. He proposed and gleefully participated in events billed as “An Evening with Leo Buscaglia and Friends.” The Association charged $100 a plate and Buscaglia brought in top-notch entertainment from southern California.

His passion for the project and involvement made him the unofficial face of it.

“He became a very good spokesperson in a sense and helped with fundraising and so on,” Kurtzman said.

“He certainly added energy to the process and belief that it could be done.”

Feds give big financial boost

Early in the push to convert the boathouse into a community theater, Spain pondered taking a page from the League to Save Lake Tahoe, which at that time had experienced success in lobbying for federal funds. Spain asked a contact at the League if he thought it made sense for the Association to undertake a lobbying effort for the Boathouse project.

“He said ‘yes,’ and he gave me an approach to do it,” she said.

Spain and Kurtzman started making trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of Congress. It was far from glamorous. On one trip, Kurtzman and Spain bunked with her daughter, who was living in D.C. at the time. Kurtzman slept on the floor.

“We were a low-cost operation,” Spain said with a laugh.

They sparked some interest among a few members of Congress, including then-Rep. Barbara Vucanovich from Nevada, but their lobbying efforts failed to result in congressional action. Then in the early ‘90s after multiple fruitless trips to Washington, the boathouse proponents had opportunity come to them.

Kurtzman read in the Tahoe Daily Tribune that then-Sen. Harry Reid would be speaking at a rotary meeting in Stateline. He called Spain.

“I think she said, ‘oh god, not another one of those’ or something to that effect,” Kurtzman said with a chuckle.

Spain, Kurtzman and Crabb scored a few brief minutes alone with Reid and explained the project.

“He said ‘there is no reason why we can’t do this,’” according to Spain.

Working with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Reid earmarked $212,500 for the project in 1994, which effectively pushed the project over the financial hurdle that had prevented it from advancing.

The actual work, like most of the restoration work at the Tallac Historic Site, involved a hodgepodge of different community members and groups. One board member made it his mission to locate used theater seats. A prominent family donated the lighting. A casino donated the sound system. The Nevada National Guard chipped in some manpower. Spain said they even had people volunteer to do work as part of court-ordered community service.

“There were all kinds of obstacles, but there were always volunteers to pull things together,” Spain said.

An accomplishment realized

The Valhalla Boathouse Theater officially opened in 1996. As Crabb recalled, the first performance was a “Leo Buscaglia extravaganza.”

“He brought in opera singers from USC, and celebrities and we all wore tuxes … It was quite the evening,” Crabb said. “And I’ll never forget as it was concluding the back wall opened up and the sounds of this incredible concert went out across the lake and I thought ‘OK this is it, everything we did was absolutely worth it.’”

Said Spain, “Everyone that was there was beaming because it was an accomplishment.”

That accomplishment carried a great deal of symbolism. It represented a commitment to the arts — one with a price tag well north of half a million dollars. It also stood as a tangible manifestation of the power of community.

In the years since its opening, the building has not changed much, aside from the ongoing care and maintenance. Many who fought for years to make the Boathouse Theater a reality have moved on. Spain no longer lives in the Tahoe Basin. Neither does Crabb.

Kurtzman, after stepping away for some years, is back on the board and currently serves as chair of Valhalla Tahoe, which is responsible for managing the Heller Estate.

The Valhalla board is hopeful that there will be a 2021 season at the Boathouse Theater following a year it stayed dark due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 25th anniversary celebration is tentatively planned to align with the final performance on the 2021 schedule — a concert featuring Dirty Cello and friends on Labor Day, Sept. 6, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets went on sale May 1, according to Michelle Morton, Valhalla’s operations and sales manager.

Fundraising efforts are ongoing. Valhalla Tahoe is currently raising money to replace the lighting. The upgrade will improve the safety of the lighting system and enhance the shows, Morton said. Valhalla Tahoe is nearly halfway to its goal of $50,000, which is the expected cost of the new lighting.

In addition to actually hosting shows, Kurtzman hopes to increase awareness of the Boathouse Theater among residents and visitors to ensure that it is here for the next 25 years and beyond.

“So many people have contributed so much to make it work,” he added. “The whole site is really a labor of love.”

Loud as Folk performing at the Valhalla Boathouse. (Provided by Tony Contini)

Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2021 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.

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