The origin of Sunset Center, from its beginnings as Sunset School in the 1920s to its current status as a world-class performing arts center, is traced in
The origin of Sunset Center, from its beginnings as Sunset School in the 1920s to its current status as a world-class performing arts center, is traced in these photos from The Monterey County Herald's archive. (Photo courtesy Sunset Center)
SUNSET CENTER'S DRAMATIC 718-seat theater, rising out of Carmel history to become a world-class performing art center, is arguably the cultural hub of the city by the sea.

Its gothic revival architecture presents an ethereal presence in the village, but its annual performance series offers an eclectic mix of world-class artists ranging from comedians to mezzo sopranos.

For instance, the upcoming season will feature artists such as trumpeter Chris Botti, The Temptations, comedian Howie Mandel, The Miles Davis Experience, and mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade.

The center also hosts its Historic Presenting Partners, among them the 75- year-old Carmel Bach Festival, as well as the Monterey Symphony, Carmel Music Society, Chamber Music Monterey Bay, and Sunset Presents, a celebrity series which features a variety of music, dance, theater and spoken word performances throughout the year.

(Herald Archive)

Moreover, the Authors & Ideas Festival will return to Sunset Center this fall, as will the annual Art & Film Festival.

"Sunset Center is an amazing facility in this type of community," said Christine Sandin, who shifted from marketing director to executive director early this year. "To accommodate a state-of-the-art performing art center in a relatively small area, with some 2,500 citizens in town is a testament to the culture of the Peninsula.

"Theaters with 1,200 to 1,500 seats usually have a better ability to command nationally touring artists with good name recognition. But Sunset Center can access this talent because it is uniquely positioned between San Francisco and Los Angeles.


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So even though it is considered a small venue, we can pick up dates with artists whose tour passes by town en route to the city. Besides, performers want to come to Carmel."

Built in the late 1920s, the property actually began as Sunset School, a kindergarten- through-eighth grade facility that educated decades of local children.

In 1931, the campus auditorium was completed with great fanfare and quickly considered the finest assembly hall of any school in the region.

(Photo courtesy Smuin Balllet)
Some 30 years later, in 1963, the City of Carmel purchased the property and renamed it the Sunset Community and Cultural Center.

In the north wing of the facility, whose early classrooms once housed students, the center accommodates tenant organizations; among them the Arts Council for Monterey County, the Center for Photographic Art, the Carmel Bach Festival office, and Dance Kids of Monterey County.

"If you look along the ridgeline above the Center for Photographic Art facing south, you will notice a wrought-iron sign hanging there that says 'ABC,' left over from the school," said Carmel Mayor Sue McCloud, who attended Sunset School. "It makes sense to me that it was forged by blacksmith Francis Whittaker.

The origin of Sunset Center, from its beginnings as Sunset School in the 1920s to its current status as a world-class performing arts center, is traced in
The origin of Sunset Center, from its beginnings as Sunset School in the 1920s to its current status as a world-class performing arts center, is traced in these photos from The Monterey County Herald's archive. (Herald Archive/Vern Fisher)
Trees have grown up around it, but you can see it if you know to look for it."

McCloud has a prophetic photograph taken of her during a school play, in which she played the mayor. She remembers the maypole dance held on the lower playground where the Carmel Bach Festival office resides, the baseball diamond that became the north parking lot, and the space where she played dodge ball, now the parking lot in front of the theater.

In 1983, 20 years after the city purchased the center, Jean White, who had taught at Sunset School during its last two years, established Friends of Sunset Foundation as a way to supplant a meager budget and secure the future of Sunset Center.

As a city council member during the late '80s, her husband, Ken White, made a motion to begin remodeling the center.

Willem Wijnbergen, then executive vice president and managing director of the Carmel Bach Festival, had the privilege of performing the "first
Willem Wijnbergen, then executive vice president and managing director of the Carmel Bach Festival, had the privilege of performing the "first concert" during a media walk-through at the newly renovated Sunset Theater in July 2003. (Herald Archive)
At the time, poor acoustics, limited sight lines, inadequate restrooms and small stage were threatening the future of the facility. In fact, Bruno Weil, then Bach Festival music director, threatened to move the festival if the issues were not resolved.

Ken White served as mayor from 1992 to 2000, during which time a public - private partnership was formed to raise funds to renovate Sunset Center. In September 2001, construction began on a $21.4 million project. The City contributed $9 million, while some 1,200 private citizens, under the direction of Carmel residents Bill and Nancy Doolittle, raised $13 million to see the project to completion.

July 2003, Sunset Center reopened with the Carmel Bach Festival. 

"It's a miracle," Weil said at the time. "The acoustics are unbelievable."