Saturday, July 20, 2024

Paulette Arnold: A Founder of Ukiah’s SPACE Theater, an Original Back to the Lander, and Her Life in the Performing Arts


A half-century ago Duke University graduate Paulette Arnold arrived in Ukiah, one of the ‘back to landers’ who would transform the cultural landscape of Mendocino County.

For the newcomers, the 1970s were liberating: a time of creativity, ‘hippie shacks’, and personal freedom. Changes rippled through the county: liberal politics, communal living, mom-and-pop dope growing operations, the Mendocino Grapevine, Real Goods, and skinny dipping in the swimming holes along the Russian and Eel rivers. 

Alternative lifestyles flourished in the hills and valleys but there were tensions, as longtime county residents viewed the newcomers with suspicion and raised eyebrows. Political battles raged over elections to the county Board of Supervisors, land use and planning issues, and the rise of environmental challenges to longtime logging operations.

Everyone has grown older, most people have learned to live together, and generally, there is an appreciation for the changes that have withstood the test of time.

There is little doubt it is in creative arts where newcomers like Arnold made significant and lasting contributions. 

The Ukiah Players and Kate Magruder became a major artistic tour de force. The work of artists such as Wayne Knight and R. Crumb is widely recognized. Even Red Tail Ale made then at the Hopland Brewery was part of the creative ferment and helped propel a national movement toward craft beers. The Hopland Brewery, where Wayne Knight’s portraits hung on the walls, became the first brewpub in California since Prohibition.

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Arnold made her mark in the changing community in dance, and as a co-founder with Laurel Near of SPACE, the acclaimed School of Performing Arts & Cultural Education based in Ukiah.

Before arriving on the North Coast in 1974 Arnold traveled to Europe, explored New England, and took in the Pacific Northwest before making her way down to Mendocino County. At last, she had found the place that offered her hopes of a creative lifestyle. “The county just seemed right,” recalled Arnold.

The Mendocino vibrancy of the time was intoxicating, even if the economic opportunities were slim for a university graduate with a degree in history. No matter said Arnold. “I was determined, and I made it.” 

Now, after nearly five decades of calling Ukiah home, Arnold said, “I am so grateful for what this community has given to me, and for the hundreds of kids who have danced and acted their way into full and rich lives.”

 It was not an easy road, especially for a young woman who grew up in the South’s tobacco growing country, where her family roots are deep and community ties strong. Arnold’s mother directed church pageants. “I was incredibly involved. I loved the singing, and the dancing,” said Arnold.

As she grew older, however, Arnold began to understand that racial inequality was a fact of life in her community. “Even as a little girl, I knew I did not want to live in a place where racism, bigotry, and hypocrisy thrived,” said Arnold.

Arnold’s family is deeply rooted in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Her hometown of Creedmore at the time was a rural hamlet with less than 2,000 population. Arnold’s grandparents were tobacco farmers. Arnold recalled that she, her older sister, and their mother worked with other family members every summer ‘putting in’ the tobacco crop. Her father was a World War II veteran, and a machinist in a local hosiery mill. Arnold was a high school cheerleader.

Still, Arnold felt a gnawing unease as she grew. “How things were done locally just didn’t feel right,” said Arnold. 

In 1968 Arnold began a summer of personal transformation.

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Arnold was accepted into the Governor’s School, an innovative residential summer program for high school seniors in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

 “Our course was a survey of dramatic literature, eight plays beginning with Oedipus Rex, including The Hairy Ape, and ending with Waiting for Godot,” Arnold recalled. But she learned and experienced much more.

 Arnold attended her first classical music concert while at the Governor’s School, and she saw the Martha Graham and Erick Hawkins dance troupes perform. Arnold relished making new friends among aspiring young actors and artists.

“I experienced a sharply different social environment that summer from the one I had known growing up,” recalled Arnold. She graduated from high school and was admitted to Duke University.

 After graduating from Duke with a degree in history, Arnold immediately began to look for a place where she could lead a lifestyle that satisfied her inner yearnings.

“I knew I had to go elsewhere to find that,” said Arnold.

For the family, the notion of Arnold eventually moving West and embracing a California lifestyle attracting national notoriety was unsettling. Arnold’s mother affectionately considered her daughter’s choice to forsake the bucolic Piedmont region of North Carolina “the beginning of the end.”

Arnold learned on her personal journey that change does not come without difficulties. And a fine university education does not guarantee a good-paying job in a rural area. In that regard, she found local opportunities in Mendocino County were thin. 

Arnold found work as a staffer for a fledgling legal aid office in Ukiah, where she met attorney Mary Ann Villwock, a newcomer from Indiana’s farm country. The two have been friends since, and Villwock remains a steadfast supporter of Arnold’s creative arts endeavors. Villwock since 2003 has been president of the SPACE board of directors.

It is Villwock, a founding board member of SPACE, who is orchestrating efforts to honor Arnold on September 30 for being a driving force in the Ukiah Valley’s performing arts scene. The event will also highlight the final touches in transforming the historic St. Mary’s Catholic Church into SPACE’s performing arts theater and education complex. 

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SPACE is the culmination of the talents of Arnold and Near, and a cadre of dedicated community supporters led by Villwock who have supported their endeavor. The pair’s shared dreams have provided creative outlets for thousands of kids over the past 27 years. 

“Paulette is so deserving because of her long years of teaching and leadership, and the immeasurable impact of her work on the lives of our students,” said Villwock. A new education wing at the SPACE complex is named in honor of Villwock’s late parents, Lucille, and Paul Villwock, who were major donors.

Laurel Near said it was Arnold who put shape to their shared dreams of a performing arts program for kids.

“She has an eye for detail, a keen business sense, and an appreciation for how performing arts can expand the lives of children,” said Near.

It turned out Arnold also had a flair for staging children’s productions, set design, and costumes.

Superior Court Judge Jeanine Nadel, another founding SPACE board member, recalled the time Arnold used an aged VW bug as a stage prop for a student play. “We wondered how she could even get it up on the stage, but she did, and it worked. The kids entered and exited the stage through it.”

Nadel said Arnold’s vision in her stage productions was always ‘playful, colorful, and active.” Her talent one-on-one with performers was giving “very specific stage directions which embody her sense of humor and drama.”

Arnold, Near, Nadel and the other driving forces behind SPACE were determined to set high training and production standards even though the actors and performers were young. 

“We believe that children’s theater should be like theater for adults, only better. To do that, we collaborated with professional musicians, choreographers, and set, lighting, costume, and sound designers,” said Arnold.

The results are striking. “Once the children see that we are serious about providing them with a professional setting and equipment, their effort and attention as magnified to a higher level,” said Arnold.

There also is a twist to casting decisions. “Roles are given based on what individual students need at that moment in their personal development more than who auditions the most strongly,” said Arnold.

Beginning in April 2010 all SPACE productions moved to the new theater complex. The SPACE program essentially revolves around two-hour rehearsals twice weekly from September through December. In early January, rehearsals begin on the theater stage. Eight school matinees are scheduled on Thursday and Friday mornings and are attended by elementary school children on field trips. Two performances are held each successive Sunday for the public.

Arnold is credited with developing other SPACE initiatives. 

A creative arts summer camp inspired by Jim Beatty’s ‘Ha Ha This A-way’ program in Berkeley targets children entering kindergarten through second grade. It is in collaboration with First 5 Mendocino, a non-profit dedicated to providing services to children up to 5 years of age.

“Viva La Cultura!’ is a Latino program that Arnold developed with SPACE directors Anibal Fragoso and Ignacio Ayala and local artists Carlos Jacinto and Olivia Zamora to produce productions by Latino artists in Spanish. They include Mexican Independence Day celebrations, and ‘Teatro en Llantas,’ scenes and songs created by community members and performed on flatbed trucks at various locations across town.

In 2014, Arnold assisted in the local staging of ‘The Laramie Project,” an international play in support of youth questioning their gender identity.

Arnold worked with Near, Villwock, Nadel and other board members to oversee the St. Mary’s renovation and raise more than $7 million to turn the performing arts complex into a reality. Sometimes they met several times a week with project manager John Moon to guide the project to completion. 

Finally, before retiring from active engagement in SPACE productions last year, Arnold created the organization’s Business Manual and oversaw the creation of a facility operations manual.

Arnold’s exhaustive list of accomplishments reflects a life of dedication to creative arts for children.

“I had a childhood to cherish. I was a happy kid,” said Arnold. 

For Arnold, being engaged in performing arts and working with children became her path.

Villwock remembered meeting Arnold and seeing that she was “an individual of great skill, knowledge, and drive.” 

 “I thought she should go to law school until I realized her passion was in performing arts,” said Villwock.

Arnold’s friend Jim Beatty was another ‘back to the lander’ who arrived in Mendocino County in 1977 and settled on Greenfield Ranch west of Redwood Valley.

Beatty recalls that his first years here were “consumed with putting down roots, learning how to build with the help of many friends on the ranch my ‘hippie’ house.”

In the fall of 1979, Beatty said he attended his first modern dance performance presented by Mendocino College’s Mary Knight. “I approached Mary after the show and told her how much I had enjoyed the performance and that I was interested in joining her group. She suggested I consider taking her Modern Dance Class, and I registered for the class that fall.”

Arnold was among his classmates. Along with Carolyn Crane, the three new friends discovered dance was the ‘perfect vehicle to express creative energy in a new way.”

In 1980, Arnold, Beatty and Crane formed ‘ABC Dance Theater.’ 

“Over the next five years, our performances included a wide variety of dramatic and humorous works featuring our individual and group choreography and creative expressions. During this period, the experience spoke to my dream of teaching and working with young children,” said Beatty.

Arnold in the meantime had taken intensive training in dance and theater programs across the U.S., including a six-week fulltime summer program at her alma mater Duke. 

Arnold eventually invited Beatty to join her in developing local creative movement classes for preschool-aged children.

 “What a gift. Paulette became my mentor. We shared a belief that children are beautiful, creative individuals deserving of opportunities to express themselves and their creativity in a safe, supportive, and non-competitive environment.”

Beatty said becoming involved with Arnold was a ‘life-changing experience for me. I had found my calling as it were.”

Eventually, Beatty moved onto the Bay Area where he developed an acclaimed children’s theater arts program called “Ha Ha This A-Way.” Beatty and Arnold’s ties remain strong, and he eventually became the lead teacher of SPACE’s young child program. 

“This grew to include dance, yoga, clowning, and circus arts. It is a position I joyfully filled for over 20 years all the while relying on Paulette as my mentor, friend, and supporter,” said Beatty.

Beatty said in short, he is blessed, and so is the community SPACE serves because of Arnold’s work.

“Thank you, Paulette Arnold.” 


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  1. Oh how I wish I could be there for Paulette’s celebration on the 30th! Besides being the first ever reunion of the RLA 4
    and the fabulous Red Mustangs (Paulette, Mary Ann, Janis Appier, and moi), it would be so good to honor the considerable talents and contributions of my dear friend. And engage in a little reminiscing!

  2. A life well lived. It’s not my bio but we sure share a lot of experiences over the years in Mendoland. Bottom line: Paulette has contributed enormously to our culture and life. Great work, Paulette, keep it up!
    Kathy Brigham

  3. This paragraph…. I somehow always knew that you were doing this. BRAVO!
    “There also is a twist to casting decisions. Roles are given based on what individual students need at that moment in their personal development more than who auditions the most strongly,” said Arnold.”

  4. Thank you so much for covering this, Matt; and way, major thank you’s to Paulette, Laurel, Jeanine – and so many others that celebrate, elevate and support us through the arts and many other acts of generosity, kindness and service…

    • This is a classic Mike Geniella human interest piece. MendoFever is extremely lucky to work with him. His breadth of relationships and experience in Mendocino County brings a legacy periodical’s knowledge to a hyper-local news start-up like ours. We did pay him for it. If you like these sorts of stories, please consider donating so we can support our freelancers.


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