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Wednesday, March 6,2013

New in town

Lansing's Fire House No. 8

by Allan I. Ross
One of two things lay ahead for Jeff Brenner, who purchased Lansing’s iconic Fire Station No. 8 in January: Either make it the new headquarters for his company, Brenner Heating and Cooling, or transform the 9,000-square-foot building into a theater and launch a performing arts school inside. 

“My wife and I had been saving money with the idea of opening a theater in Lansing,” Brenner said. “It worked out perfectly — I had no idea the building was for sale until a friend told me about it last October. This place has so much theater history, and I intend to be a good steward.” 

Since 1977, the firehouse, 2300 E. Michigan Ave., has been home to Lansing Civic Players, an 85-year-old theater company that’s suffered a variety of setbacks in recent years. Diminishing members and audiences reduced the once-thriving company to a “skeleton board” of three, said President Joe Dickson. 

“My main focus is keeping the organization solvent,” Dickson said. “There’s not much left to the organization now except for the costumes.” 

The LCP Costume Shop lives in a 2,300-square-foot space on the firehouse’s second floor. Until last year, it was staffed several days a week so other theater companies and the public could rent the props, wigs and dresses for Halloween or theatrical production use. When Brenner takes ownership of the space on May 1, those costumes will need to find a new home. 

 “I have three basic goals for the collection,” Dickson said. “Keep it available, keep it together and keep it local. It’s an incredibly valuable community resource.”

Lansing-based Christman Co. built the firehouse in 1931, where it served as both a home for the firefighters and as community meeting place. In 1977, the city sold the building to LCP, which renovated the structure in time for its 49th season. Although that was the company’s headquarters, LCP never used it for performances, instead leasing other spaces. 

However, Brenner, 45, thinks he can make the firehouse into a one-stop-shop for theater rehearsal, performance and education, including building a 150-seat black box stage on the main floor. He said his plan would be to have classes that will be taught by local theater specialists and master level instructors who will be paid based on the type of class and number of students per 10-week semester. 

Brenner has an illustrious theater history.  He started working full time in theater when he was just 13 with a Detroit-area theater company. He started college at Michigan State University, where he received a talent scholarship. After his freshman year, he accepted an offer to study at Roehampton University in London with an apprenticeship at the National Theatre. Upon returning from London, he was offered another scholarship to attend New York University´s Tisch School for the Arts, but returned to Michigan to finish his bachelor´s degree at MSU.  

“And then I was part of the team that opened Riverwalk Theatre in 1989,” he said. “At the same time, I was hired to build and design shows for the Lansing Civic Players, and over the next decade I directed, acted, built and designed about 80 shows. Theater is a very important to me.”

But family was apparently more important, as Brenner stepped out of the spotlight 13 years ago to spend more time with his family and start his own business. Running his own theater academy, he said, is a long-held dream he looks forward to realizing. 

“There’s no model that I know of, but I won’t get started for a couple years at least,” he said. “I’ve waited over 10 years for this. It’s pretty exciting to see it finally start coming together.”

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