There’s something about reaching the century mark that captures our imaginations, excites us, and makes us sit up and take notice. We revere and admire people who live to the age of 100. So, what about entities – companies, nations, organizations?
Hard to imagine people creating a body that’s around for 100 years. Even more so if that body is fueled by something as ephemeral as the arts.
So the fact that Laguna Playhouse was launched in 1920 and is still here, delivering live theater uninterrupted, is something worth noting.
In fact, it’s worth celebrating. If you love the arts, shout this from the rooftops. If you especially love the performing arts, raise the volume. And if theater is your bag, this now-centenarian’s survival should have you ecstatic.
Let’s set aside the fact that the company’s landmark year arrived during a public health crisis not seen since – well, since Laguna Playhouse was born, when the Spanish flu epidemic had already been ravaging the world for two years (and continued for another year after that). Playhouse officials haven’t allowed the pandemic to dampen their enthusiasm, and you can bet they’ll make up for it once the coast has been cleared for live, in-person celebrations.
Ten Decades Worth of Theater – and Counting
Ann E. Wareham was an associate producer at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles for 30 years, coming to Laguna Playhouse in the same capacity in 2010 and a year later, after planning the 2011-2012 season, was made artistic director.
“Any arts institution that can claim 100 years of longevity and service is pretty remarkable,” Wareham said, “but for an American ‘resident’ theater? On the West Coast of America? I mean, we’re not a very old state to begin with in the grand scheme of things. That’s astoundingly special and impressive.”
Wareham marvels at how the company survived the end of World War I, the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II and more. The surrounding community, she said, “saw its value, supported the work and knew it was an important asset for the city and beyond.” The result is an arts organization that has been “a real voice in American resident theater” through a total of nearly 700 productions.
Richard Stein, executive director from 1990 to 2007, echoes Wareham in noting Orange County does not have the longer history of, say, Europe or the East Coast. For a young community, any arts organization surviving for a century is pretty much an anomaly.
“It does reflect the creative spirit of some of the earliest residents of Laguna Beach. Those who discovered it to be a place of great inspiration and beauty went beyond painters to writers and theater artists as well,” Stein said.
As for the title of “oldest continuously operating theater,” that appears to depend upon who you speak with. Stein, for example, states that the Playhouse “is the oldest theater in Orange County and possibly the West Coast, although some (others) have laid claim to that title.”
Andrew Barnicle, the theater’s artistic director from 1991 to 2007, notes that “the oldest continually operating regional Equity theater in the U.S. is the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, founded in 1933. Perhaps not coincidentally the Barter and Laguna are in relatively small towns that are known for their arts scenes.”
Laguna Playhouse’s longevity, he said, “can be attributed to a combination of the plays that were produced from its inception to the atmosphere of Laguna Beach itself, which very much enhances the experience of going to a play.”
More succinctly, he said, it can be directly attributed “to the willingness of the folk involved, including boards, staff and creative talent, to shape-shift according to the times; the tremendous concomitant growth of Orange County; and the allure of Laguna Beach.”
And at any rate, the age alone of the Playhouse qualifies it as among the oldest continuously operating not-for-profit theaters on the west coast.
At Its Heart and Roots, a Community Theater
It might surprise the casual observer that for the bulk of its existence, Laguna Playhouse was a community theater, a fact seemingly belied by its location, trappings and almost overnight transformation into a big-budget resident theater powerhouse whose reputation reaches far beyond Southern California.
The Playhouse was founded in 1920 when a group of local residents, led by Jayne Peake and Isabel Frost, met in a living room and established a nonprofit regional theater aimed at specializing in producing high-quality performances in downtown Laguna Beach. This was two years after the founding of the Laguna Beach Art Association, which became the Laguna Art Museum, and which celebrated its centennial in 2018.
The Playhouse became official with the opening, in 1922, of its first production: “Suppressed Desires,” a one-act comedy by the pioneering feminist writer Susan Glaspell, a journalist, novelist and fiction writer who also acted and wrote plays. That modest inaugural season continued with three additional shows: “Joint Ownership in Spain,” “The Slave with Two Faces” and “An Anonymous Letter.”
For the rest of the 1920s, they fielded now-obscure plays in seasons ranging from three to six productions per year. Throughout the 1930s, the Playhouse began to get its footing, with seasons of seven or more shows becoming more typical. Scanning its offerings, only a few titles are familiar, such as “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Little Women”; “Hay Fever” was so popular it was staged twice.
By all accounts, the early 20th century Laguna Beach residents like Peake and Frost had a fierce, visionary dedication to the arts that brought to local shores a national movement regarding theater, art, poetry, music and architecture. The results here, in the 1920s and ’30s, were the Laguna Playhouse, the Festival of Arts and the Pageant of the Masters.
Barnicle refers to those who ran the company during its first two decades as “enlightened amateurs.” From 1942 to 1945, the Playhouse was used as a USO center. After the war, Barnicle said, the theater’s “earnest” founders continued producing and staging, “with help from Hollywood celebrities using it as a summer stock house.”
Indeed, the Playhouse’s history is dotted with appearances by major stars of stage and screen, a list topped by Bette Davis, Harrison Ford and Mike Farrell and which, in more recent years, has included Melanie Griffith, Julie Harris, Leslie Caron, Charles Durning, Frances Fisher and Hal Linden (see more in the sidebar).
Two people instrumental in keeping Laguna Playhouse running during its formative years were Howard “Hap” Graham and Barbara Berry. Graham was a former Broadway actor who managed the playhouse on and off from the 1950s through the early ’70s. Berry worked backstage and got her sister, Bette Davis, involved.
Davis at first offered moral support and encouragement, then donated funds. Finally, in 1960, she and then-husband Gary Merrill were preparing to take their Hollywood show “The World of Carl Sandburg” to New York. Just before that, Davis signed a contract with the Playhouse agreeing to a one-night benefit performance that brought in some $10,000.
Barnicle said three things happened in the 1960s “that changed the gestalt: the Off-Broadway movement, the explosion of professional theater training centers in universities across the country, and the beginnings of the professional regional theater movement. Collectively, these developments accelerated the demise of many of amateur theater companies, and a lot of them them closed or morphed into professional nonprofit status, as Laguna ultimately did.”
“While the Playhouse was widely known as one of the better and more successful amateur theaters in the country,” Barnicle said, “the vines of professionalism had already been growing. That included more paid full-time staff and production budgets, and increased audience expectations” as well as the raising of funds, primarily by Nellie Gale Moulton, to build a state-of-the-art venue, the 420-seat, Moulton Theatre in 1969. The theater is located on Laguna Canyon Road next to the Pageant of the Masters venue.
Stars who had become household names thanks to their television careers, such as Barbara Eden and Marlo Thomas, were also beginning to discover the enjoyment and benefits of headlining the casts of summer stock productions at Laguna Playhouse.
Barnicle notes that since ticket sales accounted for “an overwhelming percentage of the budgets,” the increased budgets tended to produce “rather conservative” programming. South Coast Rep, he said, “was filling the void for professional nonprofits and cornering much of the fundraising market, but by the 1980s the Playhouse was regularly using Equity Guest Artist contracts and paying professional designers and directors – and drawing ever larger subscription audiences who were paying close to professional dollars for their tickets.”
Barnicle said that by the time he arrived in 1991 and Stein in 1990, “it became clear that there was room for two nonprofit Equity theaters in Orange County and that the community theater model was outmoded. It was getting difficult to get commitments from local amateurs for the expanded production schedules, and more and more actors were coming from Los Angeles.”
The Immeasurable Impact of Douglas Rowe
Stein and Barnicle said their predecessors, including artistic directors Graham and Douglas Rowe, and a staunch board, “had already been working to raise funds to build a second, professional theater, so there was also some consensus to professionalize.”
From the 1960s to the 1990s, Rowe built an impressive career across the triple platforms of stage, television and the movie industry. His indisputable commitment to and passion for live theater, though, can best be seen in his work as the managing director of Laguna Playhouse from 1964 to ’66.
Actor Mike Farrell used his work in Laguna as a springboard to fame, appearing in several productions, starting with “The Happy Time” (1962-’63 season) and including “A Thousand Clowns” and “The Fantasticks.”
Also during the mid-’60s, another, even bigger future star came into the Playhouse’s orbit. While Rowe was casting the 1965 production of “John Brown’s Body,” actor and high school drama teacher friend Bob Wentz said he had a “kid” he wanted to bring to auditions. Rowe recognized his talent and cast him as the Southern Soldier. Talent scouts from Columbia Pictures saw the production and signed him to an annual contract. That actor was the 23-year-old Harry Ford, later known as Harrison Ford. His only show at the Playhouse launched his career.
Rowe said that when he began working at the Playhouse, season subscriptions numbered around 75 to 80; over his first season in charge, that figure exploded to more than 1,000. Eventually, he said, the theater had more than 8,000 subscribers.
“We were running attendances of 103%,” Rowe said. “Every show was standing room only.” Balconies were added after the fact to help accommodate rampant ticket demand.
South Coast Repertory was in its nascent stages, and Rowe notes that the company looked to Laguna as an early model, striking a deal to split the box office in what were SCR’s inaugural three productions.
In 1966, Rowe left the Playhouse, moving to Burbank and sharing a place with Farrell as each pursued his successive career.
When Rowe returned to the Playhouse in 1976, he had even more of an impact on the Playhouse. He pulled triple duty as artistic director, executive director and managing director during a 15-year stint that consolidated the company’s strengths while building upon them and laying the foundation for his successors.
Rowe had envisioned a second stage where less overtly commercial, more experimental works could be given theatrical voice. Despite his considerable efforts, though, he was unable to muster the forces needed.
Nor, much to his regret, was Stein, who during his first few years as executive director came closest to realizing the longtime goal of securing, opening and operating a second stage. A property in downtown Laguna became available that the Playhouse purchased for roughly $5 million. However, repeated efforts to raise funds needed to turn the former phone company building into a second stage fell short and the theater was forced to divest itself of the property.
That was some 25 years ago, and the Playhouse has never come as close to having a second stage. Despite being unable to bring this longtime goal to fruition, throughout the 1990s, the Playhouse was gradually transformed into a fully professional theater company: “We added Equity stage managers, paid travel stipends to non-union actors, and got on a small Letter of Agreement with Equity, which allowed us to develop within our budgets,” Barnicle said.
Singer, songwriter and playwright Mark Turnbull music-directed multiple Playhouse productions from 1984 to 1991, in a close working relationship with Rowe that included two productions of Turnbull’s original musical “Tales of Fanny Keenan, Better Known as Dora Hand.”
Turnbull says the company “was running at 110% when Doug was there” and that “the era was rich with a lot of talent, and everyone wanted to work with him – a fact that he used well.”
Rowe was a guiding force during numerous watersheds – notably, the 1987 production of “Quilters.” He and Turnbull had seen the chamber musical at the Mark Taper Forum and elsewhere. They agreed that it would be a perfect fit with Laguna but was the sort of show that required the presence, and a firm hand at the helm, of someone intimately familiar with the show.
That person was Teri Ralston, who had been in the Taper production’s cast. Rowe pulled her in to direct the show in Laguna. The staging, which exceeded all expectations, went on to compete in and triumph at three major international competitions. From there, it went on to a major worldwide competition in Ireland, where it captured first prize.
“At that point,” Turnbull said, “Laguna Playhouse was the number-one community theater in the U.S.”
Rowe looks back at his time at the Playhouse as “probably the happiest part of my career. It was so special.” An “incredibly diverse population of talented people,” he notes, fueled his love for the community of Laguna Beach in the ’60s and ’70s.
“The sense of community made it an absolutely incredible place to live. So many actors came to Hollywood and couldn’t quite make it work, so they got other jobs. Once we had a community playhouse, I was able to use bartenders, teachers, postmen – all kinds of people who were incredible actors. I couldn’t believe how multi-talented they were. I’d have auditions for several days. More than 100 or more actors would try out each night, with 100 more coming to watch.”
While noting that the roster of those deserving of mention is a lengthy one, he cites, off the top of his head, several individuals: legendary actor and director Marthella Randall, who also served on the board; Connie Morthland, who headed the theater’s omnibus First-Nighter organization; his “second in command,” Harriet Whitmyer; set designer Jim Ryan, who ran the building department and “built every set” from the early 1960s through the ’90s; actor and board member Jackie Moffett; and consecutive managing directors Irma Nofziger (1966-1969), John Ferzacca (1969-1970) and Jack Seymour (1970-1971).
Rowe said his joyful lengthy association with the company was offset by his “saddest” realization – the “complete turning away from any amateur theater” that occurred after he left Laguna Playhouse to concentrate on acting.
Getting the Playhouse to the Next Level
Given all that had been brewing there throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Barnicle says that “the ascension into upper Equity contracts, and eventually LORT (the League of Resident Theaters) status” was therefore “inevitable.”
Programming was still weighted toward satisfying audiences who loved musicals and light comedy, but Barnicle says the Playhouse’s growth brought with it “a somewhat more welcoming audience for progressive work on stage,” meaning more contemporary dramatic plays, many of which were world premieres. Yet “even most of our world premieres were comedies from established playwrights like Bernard Farrell and Richard Dresser,” Barnicle said.
Both men stepped in to direct at the Playhouse in productions that were often West Coast, U.S. and world premieres.
Stein and Barnicle secured numerous accomplishments during this transformative phase. First off, Stein said, the duo “built the board and persuaded patrons in the community to support what we were doing.” Secondly, fundraising increased by a factor of 100, with annual donations exploding from $20,000 in 1990 to $2 million by 2007.
Yet another achievement is the creation and continued development of a Youth Theatre program that has included educational outreach that has brought live theater directly into classrooms through Orange County and has been honored by the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, Arts Orange County and the Orange County Department of Education.
The popularity and huge box office intake from three lighthearted regular-season productions gave Stein and Barnicle another opening to expand the company’s exposure. Laguna Playhouse had long avoided programming anything during the summer, what with the crowds and parking issues surrounding the annual Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters – but they always had an eye on devising a way to tap into the peak crowds that would flood the town each summer.
“Don’t Dress For Dinner,” the final show of the 1996-97 season, was such a hit that it was brought back for a limited run in summer of 1997. The following season, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” enjoyed incredibly robust sales, which Stein and Barnicle capitalized upon by reprising it for the entire summer of 1998. The process was repeated with 1999’s production of “Sylvia,” and the Playhouse has had a full-fledged summer show every year since.
Stein said the financial success of “I Love You” allowed the theater to complete much-needed physical repairs and improvements such as replacing the roof, recarpeting the lobby and giving the HVAC system a major overhaul.
Another first was the production of “Gunmetal Blues” in the 1998-99 season, which led to the Playhouse’s first (and so far only) original cast recording.
A crucial benchmark for any theater, Stein said, is the ability “to attract artists of ever-increasing talent to work with us.” He said that “although we have tremendous talent locally to tap into,” giving celebrities a platform has figured heavily into the mix. “Once we began to get a reputation as a theater of note, we were able to attract (more celebrated) actors, writers and designers,” as well as more income from monetary donations.
A hallmark was the opening production of the 2000 season, a superb production of the acclaimed one-woman show “The Belle of Amherst” starring Julie Harris. After it closed at Laguna Playhouse, the show went on an extended U.S. tour that encompassed 40 cities. Following in its footsteps was the national tour of the 2001-2002 show “Copenhagen.”
All of these factors, Stein notes, contributed to Laguna Playhouse becoming “a world-recognized professional theater.”
Surviving Setbacks: the 2008 Recession and the COVID Pandemic
The recession hit after Stein and Barnicle left, and Stein says “I don’t know if I’d been able to do any better than my successors (Karen Wood and Ellen Richard).” Subsequent regimes tightened the theater’s belt, tapping into the existence of numerous one-person shows. By bringing in existing shows, costs were able to be contained without sacrificing the high quality level of Laguna’s productions.
While the past dozen years have seen shows starring Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Rita Rudner, Loretta Swit, Val Kilmer and others, perhaps no individual has helped keep Laguna afloat more forcefully than Hershey Felder. The classically trained musician and actor has written, produced and starred in a raft of one-man shows while also functioning as producer of other one-person shows like “The Children of Willesden Lane” and “Jack Lemmon Returns” (in which Lemmon’s son Chris portrays his famous dad) that aided Laguna Playhouse’s bottom line.
In the late teens, staff and supporters began preparing for the centennial in the form of planning a major shindig befitting the occasion, including a renovative facelift for the nearly 50-year Moulton Theatre.
The worldwide coronavirus pandemic and eventual shutdown put the brakes on the Playhouse’s centennial season and its preparations for a lavish gala that had been slated for April of this year.
Despite having received considerable aid from the Paycheck Protection Program, whose funds were distributed in the spring, the effects of the pandemic have been devastating to the Playhouse. Richard reports that 27 staffers – more than two-thirds of those employed – had to be let go, leaving all theater operations in the hands of a core group of 12.
As it became apparent that the reopening of theaters was now relegated to some indefinite future time, Laguna went ahead with plans to celebrate its 100th birthday as a “Centennial in Quarantine,” a virtual celebration held in August.
The event included a greeting from executive director Ellen Richard, who thanked subscribers, donors and supporters for championing the Playhouse over the course of its 100-year life, as well as a birthday video montage full of greetings from some of the many noted artists who have graced its stage over the years.
During the summer, that roster of celebs expanded by at least two-dozen through the #theatre5alliance created and launched by actor Dan Lauria, a long-standing supporter of local theater and of the alliance members, as Laguna joined four other theater organizations dedicated to keeping theater alive and thriving during the pandemic.
Actors committed to the project so far include Lauria himself as well as Hal Linden, Wendie Malick, Charles Shaughnessy and Joe Spano, all of whom have trod the boards at the Playhouse, as well as Kim Brockington, Bryan Cranston, Bruce Davison, Andre De Shields, Judd Hirsch, Stacy Keach, John Larroquette, Judith Light, John Lithgow, Jodi Long, Priscilla Lopez, Joe Mantegna, Carolyn McCormick, Patty McCormack, Laurie Metcalf, Alfred Molina, Ed O’Neill, Lou Diamond Phillips, James Pickens Jr, Stephen Root, Tony Shalhoub, Peter Scolari, Chris Sullivan, Reno Wilson, Henry Winkler and Robert Wuhl.
Described by Richard as “beautiful” and “very moving,” the pieces these actors wrote and performed in connection with the gala can be found on Laguna Playhouse’s website.
Of course, when Laguna Playhouse will be able to reopen is anyone’s guess. Richard said she, Wareham and the board are in a holding pattern. Getting back up and running will involve “looking at the current environment, listening to what the world is saying and looking at our resources in terms of what we can afford to produce.”
The centennial season originally included “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” “A Shayna Maidel,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Kim’s Convenience,” Ins Choi’s 2011 play that’s the basis of the popular Netflix series of the same name.
Still closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, patrons can partake of some virtual programming, educational classes and an online auction, all of which are accessible via the lagunaplayhouse.com website.
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected]