State Theatre Outgoing President Bill Cornelius
By Melissa Mendonca
The State of a Legacy
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photos by Karen Roy Crockett
AS OUTGOING PRESIDENT of the State Theatre for the Arts, Bill Cornelius has shared drinks in the Green Room with the Gatlin Brothers – “I almost needed a ride home after that one,” he says with a laugh – played golf with Buck Brannaman of the documentary “Buck,” and helped actor Tom Hanks orchestrate the funeral of his mother at the Red Bluff venue.
The real reward for his work to restore the old theater with a group of his friends, however, seems to have come last summer, when he watched his granddaughter come alive with the passion of performance during a theater arts camp held at the State. “She’s sold on the arts,” he says, pride tinging his voice. “Without that theater,” he sighs, his voice trailing with the relief that comes after years of hard work doing what many thought was impossible, if not ludicrous, to bring the State back to glorious life. “It could have been a parking lot.”
After work through the Red Bluff Rotary rebuilding the clock tower of downtown, Cornelius, along with Bob Douglas, Marv Locke and Bob Brainard, were asked to spearhead a feasibility committee to determine if the theater could be purchased from the private owners and restored to a usable performance space for the community. “I assumed when we were asked to do that, it would take a month or two to decide it was not feasible,” he says. “We spent an entire year meeting every week. We finally decided there was an opportunity there. What started out as two months turned into 10 years.”
The theater, as of May 2013, is owned outright by the nonprofit State Theatre for the Arts, and has been fully restored to the glory of which many of its greatest champions remember from their childhood.
For Cornelius, the State Theatre of yore was a balm to a hardscrabble youth spent in Red Bluff. “I missed a father,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly motivated.” His mom was a maid at the Tremont Hotel and he says, “We had very little in our household. If I needed a baseball glove, I got a baseball glove and I think she must have gone without to get it for me.”
The grace of coaches and teachers kept the young man in line, and he went on to earn a degree in corrections from Chico State University and returned to Tehama County to start a career in probation. He retired in 1998 as chief, having held the position for almost 20 years. “I was able to relate to probationers pretty well because I could have been one myself when I was a kid,” he says. “I wasn’t perfect but I wasn’t an outlaw.”
Despite 30 years in probation, retirement wasn’t the great joy he expected, however. “Initially I decided, like a lot of people, that it was time to relax and retire and enjoy myself,” he says. “But I looked around and saw things continue to happen that I had previously been a part of. And I felt a sort of loss.”
He stepped up his involvement in Rotary and dove into big projects like the clock tower and beer sales at the Red Bluff Round Up for scholarship funds. That eventually led to the State Theatre, where he’s enjoyed the camaraderie of hundreds of people determined to see it succeed. Three years ago, he stepped into the role of newspaper columnist at the Red Bluff Daily News, writing a weekly piece called William Tells.
While he’s found ways to stay connected to community through service and stave off boredom of retirement, he’s also determined that room needs to be made for fresh voices. “I strongly feel it’s time for younger blood, new ideals,” he says. “I don’t want to lose the contacts, but I do believe it’s time to get the young folks in. I think the future of this community is with the 40-year-olds, not the 75-year-olds. Us old guys are learning so much about social media and marketing and we’re probably teaching them some things. It’s like a family.”
Family is where he plans to put his added time in the future, with wife of 51 years, Billie, and “two achieving children and four overachieving grandchildren.” When he steps out of his Red Bluff home in the evenings he can see the lights of the State Theatre marquee shining from a few miles away. It’s quite the legacy for a life spent in service to community. Lest anyone think he’s leaving for good, though, he’s quick to say, “I’ll always be affiliated with it at some level, even if it means I’m a volunteer bartender.”