We had the good fortune of connecting with James Brendlinger and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi James, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
After teaching high school theater classes for 24 years, I owned thousands of costumes and thought I would go into business for myself renting costumes and teaching acting classes. When I shopped around for a location to open a shop large enough for both activities, I found I was priced out of stand-alone retail buildings in my area, and the warehouses spaces I could afford did not include enough parking or street appeal for parents dropping off children for evening arts classes. My former administrator from the high school asked me if I had looked at retail space in our local mall. To be honest, I hadn’t visited the mall in years–it was a beautiful place in the nineties, but like most suburban shopping malls, it was struggling to survive. Two of the anchor stores had closed, and there were many empty storefronts. I met with the mall manager who was very excited about the of having a performing arts school and costume shop in the mall. I signed a lease on a 2800-square-foot former pet store, and soon annexed the space next door and renovated it into a blackbox theater. During the first month of my lease, my family and I arrived early each morning to clean and paint. That’s when I found out about “mall walkers,” the large group of (mostly) senior citizens who use the mall for exercise each morning for a few hours before it opens. My aunt pointed out that I should offer something specifically for that group, and so my friend Debbie Lannen established the “Still Got It Players,” an acting troupe for the 50+ crowd. I started offering acting classes for teens and adults, but there was a lot of demand for similar programs for younger students, so I hired someone to teach them two nights a week. As months went by, we added classes in comic book drawing, screenwriting, creative writing, stagecraft, musical theater, sketch comedy, improv, and film production. We also started a community orchestra, a youth choir, and a chess club. Parents especially like the mal setting because it gives them a wide variety of things to do while their kids are in class–shopping, the food court, the gym, and so on. I’m pleased with the unlimited parking, access to the food court, and the security and maintenance staff. I would have been on my own for that stuff in a stand-alone building. As adjacent space became available, I expanded the costume rental shop, and began having additional arts groups work under my umbrella. A friend had been doing professional theater shows in a variety of local theaters, but found a year-round home in my space at the mall. Another friend moved her new dance company into the former cell phone repair store next door to me, and a group of college students started their own amateur group which found a home in the former GAP store across from my original shop. Then there was a pandemic. Using my unwanted downtime, I reorganized the costume collection and turned our lobby into an art gallery to feature local artists. In recent months, two other production companies moved into the mall, taking advantage of the low rents and large beautiful retail spaces. I was given an unfinished 16,000 square foot space for storing props, sets, and additional costumes. I’m hopeful that in the post-Covid recovery, the mall will continue to reinvent itself as a mixed-use space. There are plans to replace an anchor store with two housing towers, and a hotel is planned for the far side of the parking lot. I’m hopeful for the future.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I think that my best quality as a business owner has been finding people who are passionate about something–teaching dance, staging a play, organizing an art show–and providing a place for them to comfortably do their work. I’ve also had a lucky streak since I was a small child in being in the right place at the right time to receive all kinds of donations. Technically it’s hoarding, but I’m a very organized hoarder. The first time it happened, I got to keep all of the leftover flea market items from our family reunion, which I resold at a farmers market near our house. My college closed its theater department, and I rescued 20,000 costumes from going to the dump. A cosmetology school in Orlando moved to a new home and left behind a pallet of makeup kits. As I get older, managing and distributing donations has become less about luck and more about being johnny-on-the-spot with a pickup truck or Uhaul. This has been invaluable to me in producing shows. You’d be surprised what people will give you for free if you’re willing to “come now and take it all.”
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
This is where I’m wondering if you know I live in Orlando and not Southern California. In Orlando, I’d take them to Canaveral National Seashore, a giant sandbar with very few improvements or signs of human life. Absolutely spectacular beach, and if there is a rocket launch you’ll have a front row seat. We would stop at Rock and Roll Heaven, the best record store in town. Afterward the Enzian Theater for delicious food and a foreign film or cult classic. In San Diego, I’d take them to Balboa Park for the busking, Black’s Beach for a healthy hike down to a beautiful beach, Folk Arts Rare Records in Normal Heights where you’ll pretty much always want to buy whatever record they have playing when you walk in, and dinner at Fattoush, my favorite middle eastern diner in La Mesa.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I went to college with plans to become a Hollywood publicist, but when I took Dr. Gary Balfantz’s oral interpretation course at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, he woke me up to the world of the performing arts, and specifically to the job of creating opportunities for others to shine. If it wasn’t for his guidance, I wouldn’t have become a theater teacher, nor would I have produced plays.
Photos by Kristen Wheeler