PICTURED: Leslie and John Nichols. Photo submitted

by Emily Dodi

Leslie and John Nichols have been fixtures in Santa Paula since 1974 when they bought their historic home, famously dubbed the “Fairy House” because of its quintessential French Tudor style.  The house has a storied quality to it, and over the years its occupants have become something of local legends themselves. Looking back, coming to Santa Paula was the start of something beautiful.  

“I think John will agree with me that it was the best move of our lives,” Leslie says.  

“It was a lucky decision,” John adds. “Beyond lucky.”

“Santa Paula allows you to be anyone you want to be and there’s so much going on,” Leslie says. “Both of us had a well-defined interest in the arts and at that time [when we moved here] we were both schoolteachers and so art was our side interest.” 

When they retired, John and Leslie put their love of the arts and culture center stage. Santa Paula and Ventura County have been all the richer ever since.

For Leslie, it’s always been about the theater.  Soon after she and John moved to town, Leslie began taking acting workshops at the Santa Paula Theater Center. SPTC’s founders, Bill Lucking and Dana Elcar, became mentors and Leslie acted in dozens of productions over the course of 25 years. During that time, she tried her hand at producing and soon found that she had a knack for it. 

“I went from being a fan of the theater to acting to the art of producing,” she says, adding that being a teacher was great training to be a producer. “It’s the same skill set.” 

Today, she is the primary producer at SPTC as well as an active member of its board. Her devotion to the theater extends beyond Santa Paula, too, with her involvement with the Four Star Theater Alliance, an organization that supports Ventura County community theater. 

When the pandemic forced the temporary closing of SPTC and other venues, Leslie and some devoted volunteers used the time to get some behind-the-scenes sorting and organizing done. There’s also Gaston, the theater’s beloved cat, who needs love and attention every day. Now, Leslie is thrilled to report that she is producing Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo, which will take the stage when SPTC reopens in August.

The shutdown didn’t slow John Nichols down either. Author, curator, gallerist, art dealer and historian, John is passionate about local arts and culture. His eponymous gallery, located above the Santa Paula Art Museum, specializes in fine art, vintage and vernacular photography, and is “open by appointment or by chance.”

“I let chance guide my life,” he says. “Being aware that chance occurs can lead us to the next step in life. If we open our eyes to reality, we’d see synchronicity.”

Nichols’ books include St. Francis Dam Disaster, (2002, Arcadia Publishing) which details the devastation wrought on Santa Paula and nearby towns when the dam broke in 1928. Essay Man (2015, John Nichols) is a collection of newspaper and magazine pieces, as well as some stories Nichols wrote for SPTC’s annual Ghost Walk. His latest book is The Vernacular Bestiary: Anonymous Snapshots of Animals, A to Z (2020, John Nichols). Opening people’s eyes is at the heart of everything John does, whether it’s doing exhaustive research for a book, promoting local artists, curating museum exhibits or advising the creation of civic artworks.

One of his most well-known exhibits is the annual Art About Agriculture at the Santa Paula Art Museum, which Nichols founded and co-curates with artist Gail Pidduck. As stated on the museum’s website: “The purpose of the exhibit is to promote awareness of agriculture by exploring its many facets — from workers to water, from machinery to fields, to the food that goes on our plates.” The Santa Paula Chamber of Commerce once stated that “one of the points of [the exhibit is] to have people’s consciousness raised about the nature of agriculture and become better citizens protecting ag.” Nichols notes that Art About Agriculture is an instrument for social change and adds that, “I’m not marching with a banner. I’m showing art.”  

In 2011, Leslie and John Nichols were recognized by the Santa Paula Chamber of Commerce “for their outstanding cultural contributions to the community” and “their tireless devotion to and promotion of the arts.” In the Santa Paula Times, Peggy Kelly wrote that Leslie and John Nichols were being honored as “cultural icons” who promote “the finer things in life.”  

If luck really does figure into anything, when it comes to everything Leslie and John Nichols do to make the world a better place — we are the lucky ones.  

Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula, 805-525-4645, www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.