May 22, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

Bender arts center looks forward to bright entertainment future

5 min read

After months of being confined to their homes where entertainment options consisted largely of hours of Netflix series and how-to home repair shows, fans of live theater production are once again getting out and enjoying in-person performances at one of the North Houston area’s most vibrant and attractive venues.

The Charles Bender Performing Arts Center in downtown Humble has a full schedule of entertainment options for the fall of 2021, featuring an intimate evening with a beloved author, a showcase of song and dance with a rowdy crowd of young newsboys and a holiday program featuring a well-known contemporary Christian Gospel singer, backed up by a full orchestra.

“We bring in entertainment from all over the country and we have a full season,” said Jennifer Wooden, director of the Bender Theater and the Humble Civic Center. The center’s entertainment offerings include presenting one or two unique shows of its own each month, as well as renting the venue out to other theater companies, which stage their own productions.

Built as a school in 1929 as Humble’s high school, the historic building that now houses the arts center has also served as a middle school and the Humble ISD administration building. In 2011, Humble ISD gave the building to the city of Humble, which restored it and transformed it into its current configuration as a performing arts center with a 350-seat theater. Scott Brady, an Humble ISD graduate, served as the architect on the renovation project.

The modest-sized theater auditorium boasts some of the best acoustics of any entertainment venue in the greater Houston area, Wooden said. “It’s a lovely theater. We’re very proud that the city of Humble chose to gift it as a performing arts hall for our city,” Wooden said.

Pandemic-related shutdown

Like every other entertainment venue across the country, the global COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the Bender center, forcing the theater to close its doors for months, beginning in March 2020. Since then, the theater has gradually staged its reopening to welcome back patrons, while instituting strict health protocols to thwart the spread of the deadly virus, Wooden said.

The spirit that led the performing arts center to reopen despite the continued coronavirus threat is reflected in a sign about the doors, which says, “Impossible is Un-American.”

While the theater did not stage its own shows for about a year, it did begin renting the venue to allow other theater companies to present their own productions to 50 percent capacity crowds in the spring of 2021. Wooden said in order to attract the business, the Bender center offered these groups additional rental time to accommodate for the limited number of audience members per show, and took additional sanitation measures in the theater.

“What would usually be one show, we offered to split into two shows,” Wooden said. “We did additional cleaning; we had housekeeping on staff throughout the event and had it cleaned in between. We also had hand sanitizers installed throughout the building and left all doors propped open to lessen the contact with common surface areas.”

In July the performing arts center presented the first of its own shows in more than a year, still limiting the audience to 50 percent capacity. That show Dueling Pianos featured musicians Brian Holland and Carl Sonny Leyland on piano, and Danny Coots on drums, playing American pop music favorites from the first half of the 20th century. Over the course of the summer, the center opened up its performances, allowing audiences to attend at full capacity.

“Now that many people are vaccinated, a great deal of our audience is vaccinated, we are selling at full house, with masks recommended,” Wooden said.

Yet, despite the theater being opened to full capacity, initial audience attendance for the first several performances was noticeably down from pre-pandemic levels. “The shows still sold 50 percent to 60 percent,” Wooden observed.

She said the attendance figures has steadily increased with each succeeding show, starting with the performance of a Beatles tribute band in August. In early September a tribute to George Strait still “didn’t sell out at 100 percent, but it was a much fuller theater.”

Heading into the fall season, the performing arts center is offering a wide variety of entertainment choices, designed to appeal to a variety of theatergoers’ tastes.

Over two weekends in September, the theater has scheduled a presentation of God’s Megaphone: A Visit with C.S. Lewis, a production of the Texas Repertory Theater. Steven Fenley, actor and the theatre company’s artistic director, will portray Lewis, the Cambridge don and best-selling Christian author of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and other classics of Christian literature. The show will run through September 26.

“It’s a great show,” said Marinell Mendoza, Texas Repertory Theater’s cofounder and director of development. At the end of the show, Fenley invites the audience to take part in a question-and-answer session.

“People who are fans of C.S. Lewis really come out for the show,” Mendoza said. “I’ve even seen where the audience part lasted longer than the production itself.”

Next in its fall lineup of shows, the performing arts center will host author, inspirational speaker and classical pianist Jade Simmons. “We’re excited that the Fort Bend Piano Company is allowing us to bring in the Yamaha grand (piano), which I was notified is generally reserved for John Legend and Alicia Keys,” Wooden said.

Beginning October 29 and running through November 7, the theater will present the rousing musical Newsies, based on the 1992 Disney film. Newsies tells the story of a band of scrappy teenage newspaper hawkers in turn-of-the-century New York, who strike against the unfair labor conditions foisted on them by the greedy corporate bosses.

In mid-November audiences will be treated to Texas Repertory Theater’s production of Driving Miss Daisy, the uplifting story of friendship that develops between an elderly Jewish woman and her chauffer as they together confront the racial and religious prejudices of the Jim Crow South.

On December 11, the arts center will host the City of Humble Holiday Concert, featuring Gospel singer Vicki Yohe, backed by full orchestra and choir.

Neighborhood setting, world-class talent

Wooden said first-time visitors to the performing arts center are amazed by the broad range of the theater’s offerings as well as the level of talent of the performers.

“It’s a reaction I find every time I greet a guest or as I bid farewell as they’re leaving,” she said. “They say, ‘We had no idea that this quality of theater entertainment was right here in Humble.’”

The performing arts center also serves as a magnet, drawing tourists to visit the small city northeast of Houston, the historic home of much of the Texas oil industry.

“We bring in entertainment from all over the country, and we have people from all over who come in for the shows,” Wooden said. She said people traveling into Houston from other parts of the country often re-arrange their arrival dates to be able to take in a show at Bender.

Mendoza said the Texas Repertory Company is looking forward to continuing its collaboration with the Bender theater next year and has already tentatively scheduled a production for next February or March. “It’s such a beautiful facility,” she said.

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