Full Circle for Orinda Native Marilyn Elsts at the Orinda Theatre

(Jeff Heyman, Photographer)
Marilyn Elsts, a Miramonte High School graduate, class of ’63, was 16 years old when she held her first job at the Orinda Theatre. Now retired, the Orinda widow has circled back to the theater, volunteering her time on the weekends in the box office.

    To many, the idea of volunteering every Saturday and Sunday is hardly something to look forward to. Marilyn Elsts, a 78-year-old Orinda native, said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
    For the past several years, Elsts has volunteered at the Orinda Theatre, primarily in the box office, though she lends a hand with whatever is needed.
    Few have ties as deep as Elsts has to the theater. Her first job, at the age of 16, was working the candy counter alongside other local teens in the early ‘60s.
    Elsts said coming back to work at the theater is “kind of like circling back to home.”
    After graduating from Miramonte in 1963, Elsts bounced around the Bay Area and tried her hand at various jobs in different fields. For a while, she worked for her father in the restaurant business, then switched gears to clinical research for pharmaceutical companies before spending 15 years in animal medicine in El Cerrito. She retired in 2008.
    Elsts lost her husband Dennis over three years ago. Still heartbroken, she discovered a new community who have adopted her as one of their own.
    “After my husband died, I kind of kicked around to get more involved locally and all of a sudden, this group of wonderful people from the Orinda Theatre started including me in their group. I ended up volunteering for whatever I could, just to keep active.”
    Elsts first encountered her new pals while partaking in one of her favorite pastimes, karaoke.
    She, alongside her friends Omar Khan, Wyndon Villafuerte, Christopher Holden, Joseph Cabrera and Derek Zemrak, owner of the Orinda Theatre, bonded while belting out their favorite tunes on summer nights right outside the box office, while patrons passed by, some sitting down to watch.
    “We take karaoke pretty seriously,” she said. “I mean we go to all the karaoke rooms around, not just clubs and we’ll be there for hours just singing.”
    Nowadays, Elsts “guarantees” she and her friends can be found every Wednesday at Club 1220 in Walnut Creek for their karaoke nights, as well as their drag shows on Sunday nights. Her friends hosted a birthday party for her there in May.
    Speaking about her friends, Elsts joyfully noted, “They’re like my family. They don’t judge by your age, but they take care of you like you’re their long-lost grandmother.”
    Recently, Khan expanded their circle a little by gifting Elsts a pet she had longed for, a baby tortoise, which she named, OJ. Given the extensive lifespan of the reptile, Elsts had Khan written into her will to be OJ’s caretaker after she’s gone.
    Elsts’ siblings and other relatives moved away, some to Oregon and others to Chico and Sacramento, so it’s not often she gets to see them.
    But Elsts says she never has to worry, because her new family, her Orinda Theatre family, always has her back.
    “I have never worked in a place or been included in a place like this,” she said. “They are absolutely incredible.”

Natasha Kaye can be reached at natashakaye@berkeley.edu.

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