By Bridgette M. Redman
Partners in life and business: David Fink and Kim Clark, owners of The Acorn Theater in Three Oaks. Photo: Courtesy of David Fink
“The world has changed a lot. Internet and television has had a lot to do with it. Gay people are not really as big a deal to the general public as it once was. So we just kind of live our lives and everything is OK.”
– David Fink
How do you get accepted in a small town pocketed in West Michigan if you’re a gay couple? Simply have something they want and be willing to provide it.
That’s the formula that Kim Clark and David Fink came to Three Oaks in Berrien County with, and they found themselves welcomed with great warmth and acceptance.
“They accepted us so immediately and warmly,” Clark said. “They wanted what we had more than they wanted who we were. They became very close, warm friends almost immediately.”
What they were offering was the renovation of a historic building in town that became The Acorn Theater, a place where professional acts come in every weekend offering high quality entertainment and a center for arts in Three Oaks.
In 2001, Clark and Fink began the process of renovating the 101-year-old corset factory building, eventually pouring $300,000 into its refurbishing.
“We had a bed and breakfast at the time,” Fink said. “We decided to do a variety show because there wasn’t a lot to do in the area that didn’t involve drinking. We produced a variety show that was cutting edge creative, and we sold out a bunch of shows.”
That became the impetus for providing more entertainment in Three Oaks. Clark also said he was with Second City in Chicago at the time and wanted a place to rehearse.
“It was way less expensive to rehearse in Michigan than in Chicago,” Clark said.
While renovating, they started out doing free theater in a park, involving a theater from Chicago. The shows targeted local high school students. All they had to do was pick up a ticket in a local restaurant or business and bring it to the park.
“They would have performers going behind trees and changing costumes,” said Clark. “They were spectacular, and the kids laughed themselves silly. It was worth all the work we had to do. We still do free theater performances on Saturday afternoons in case people don’t have money.”
The couple, who have been together for more than 20 years, still split their time between Chicago and Three Oaks, which are approximately 70 miles apart. They also still have guestrooms as part of The Acorn Theater, where artists stay to work on artistic projects such as writing songs, novels or scripts. Clark and Fink share an apartment that is also in the former factory building.
The theater has 300 seats and brings in about 50 shows per year, along with regular weekly featured events. Along with the theater, there is a full Barton theater organ, a wine shop, bar and the guest rooms.
Clark said that novels have been started there, along with several albums, songs and two movies.
“It’s just one of those places where you almost can’t believe it in action; it seems so normal, you take it for granted,” Clark said. “If you are a performer or artist, there is no cost to any of this. You come and the only obligation is that you participate in life. You must not spectate in life. That’s the only rule.”
The Acorn also serves as a place for students from the local high school to meet and have gay-lesbian alliance meetings, with chaperones coming in from Benton Harbor and providing them with topics.
For the most part, no one mentions to them that their being a gay couple makes them stand out in any way. Fink says if people have a problem with them being a gay couple, they simply stay away, and he and Clark never hear about it. Even when Clark ran for Congress in southwestern Michigan, the issue of his being gay was never raised.
“The world has changed a lot,” said Fink. “Internet and television has had a lot to do with it. Gay people are not really as big a deal to the general public as it once was. So we just kind of live our lives and everything is OK.”
They’ve also learned that a way to smooth things over with many performers is through their stomach.
“Performers are poor – they are really poor,” Clark said. “If they have $20 for dinner, that’s huge. We now write it into the contract that they get a dinner. If they have any problems before about us being gay, they don’t after. If you feed people, they are the most accepting people. Give them chicken and you have a friend forever. It’s amazing.”
The town has continued to grow into a downtown district that is warm and friendly to the arts, helping to transform this small farming community.
“We’re helping audience members grow and discover new things and different things,” Fink said. “They’re learning about the world through entertainment. It’s bringing a big world to a small town and taking away the fear of people who are a little different through exposure.”