By Srianthi Perera

In 14 years of operation, Hale Centre Theatre has placed a huge footprint in Gilbert.

The 11,000-square-foot theater with a 3,000-square-foot space where props are built, 2,000-square-foot space where costumes are stored and two warehouses totaling 8,000 square feet where props and sets are stored have grown to be iconic in the Heritage District.

“In my house, I had rooms for props, shelves for costumes, and we rehearsed in the living room,” recalled owner David Dietlein, of his early days.

The gamble that the California transplant took in Gilbert has paid off.

Dietlein thought it to be the most appropriate city in the Valley for his family-style shows with its downtown—albeit needing a little work—as the best possible venue.

Gilbert 14 years ago didn’t have much entertainment to offer visitors, especially after dark, and town officials regarded the theater as a good way to attract crowds, Dietlein recalls. For restaurants, the area had visionary Joe Johnston’s Joe’s Real BBQ and little else.

Dietlein, too, was starting from scratch with a modest budget to augment his family theater background.

Town economic Development Manager Greg Tilque and former Mayor Cynthia Dunham loved the idea of a theater in the Heritage District, and developed creative to help Dietlein secure the land and infrastructure in a cost-effective manner. They also allowed him to use the nearby park ‘n’ ride for patron parking.

“The town had some personality. Even though it was rough around the edges, it just felt that it could be a cool little area if it continues to go someplace,” said Dietlein, who was newly married to his wife, Corrine, at the time.

Now, with the Heritage District a row of gleaming lights and inviting restaurants, one trendier than the other, people driving in from all parts of the Valley and jostling to try them out, the opposite is happening.

The foot traffic is benefiting Hale.

“They walk in front of our theater not knowing that we’re there. And then they come in and they didn’t know we existed. We always like that,” Dietlein said.

And there are those who moved into Gilbert from other cities and didn’t know of Hale’s existence in spite of its prime spot just opposite the iconic Water Tower Plaza.

“We’re finding more and more of that since we’ve gone along,” he said.

Since the initial production of the Jewish drama, “Beau Jest,” which opened to an almost-full house in July 2003, Hale has steadily gained ground as a theater for families looking for wholesome entertainment.

It also provides full- and part-time employment to 25 people.

“The crazy thing is we wish we had more room now because we could have more performances, but we’re totally crammed. Every seat is full, Monday through Saturday,” he said.

Over the years, the owners have had to tinker with the operation model in many ways to arrive at its present one that is right for Arizona.

This means dual programming: a main-stage show for Wednesday through Saturday, and another for Monday and Tuesday; doing away with the unprofitable children’s programming in the summer and instead bringing in Disney or Broadway productions that cater to the whole family, catering to winter visitors, coping with a mass exodus of patrons in the summer, and presenting musicals, lots of them, because Arizona apparently loves them.

“We’ve tried a lot of things over the years, and I think we’re finally figuring it out what makes it consistent year to year,” Deitlein said.