I love the names across the top of this typical summer stock playbill. We old movie buffs will recognize the names of Dorothy McGuire, Jane Wyatt, Mel Ferrer, Mildred Natwick—but here we find them in a different setting. Not the end credits of a film, but each of them “above the title,” as it were, on a small-town summer stock program. Appearing not in a film noir or “weeper,” but the English classic, “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde. The play is produced in the town’s high school auditorium, a couple of hours south of Los Angeles. Time: 1949. See here for production photos.
The La Jolla Playhouse was founded by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrer as an outlet to their passion for the stage, and their regret at being so imprisoned by film studio contracts that they were not allowed to perform on Broadway between films.
Starting a theatre company is always chancy, walking a financial tightrope and needing to find community support and audience as much as backers with money. It was not always easy for the La Jolla Playhouse, founded in 1947. The three producers juggled things for some years, aided by Miss McGuire’s husband, John Swope (whose own interest in theatre harkened back to the days of the University Players where he was pals with Henry Fonda and James Stewart—see this previous post on my blog Tragedy and Comedy in New England.)
The group disbanded in 1964, but was revived in 1983, and continues to produce quality theatre, with some famous names appearing at its new playhouse. Have a look here for what’s doing at the La Jolla Playhouse these days.
The lure of the stage is very strong for serious actors who are passionate about the workshop atmosphere, about improving their skills, and the thrill of the flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience that isn’t found in the controlled environment of film. It was for Gregory Peck, who worked on the planning for this theatre company while he was shooting “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (1947).
Author Gary Fishgall in Gregory Peck-A Biography (NY:Scribner, 2002) pp. 125-126, notes that the cast rehearsed a play for a week, it ran for a week opening on Tuesday and closing on Sunday. There were additional matinees on Wednesday and Saturday. Sets were “struck” on Monday and the new set moved into the high school auditorium. On Monday evening, the actors got their first dress rehearsal on stage for the opening the next night. It was that hectic. Since they were only being paid $55 per week plus hotel accommodation and two meals a day, as noted in Gregory Peck-A Charmed Life by Lynn Haney (NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003, p. 157), we can only assume it was a very rewarding experience for these film actors who were normally paid thousands and thousands of dollars per year.
The La Jolla Playhouse put on 10 shows each summer. The first one was “Night Must Fall” with Dame May Whitty, who re-created her film role. (See this previous post on the movie.) She had played the same role on the London stage and on Broadway. Apparently this high school auditorium gig wasn’t too beneath her. That’s an actress.
Others who performed with this fledging group, escaping their film shackles if only for a week, include Eve Arden, Una O’Connor, Robert Walker, Patricia Neal, Vincent Price, Joan Bennett, Charlton Heston, Laraine Day, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones (the group also received considerable financial support from David O. Selznick). Leon Ames trod the boards of La Jolla High School, June Lockhart, Wendell Corey, Craig Stevens, Teresa Wright, Raymond Massey, Mary Wickes, Marsha Hunt, Beulah Bondi, Pat O’Brien, Richard Egan, Fay Wray, Groucho Marx, Allen Jenkins, David Niven, Jan Sterling, Olivia de Havilland, Kent Smith, and of course, the three founders: Mel Ferrer, Gregory Peck, and Dorothy McGuire. There are lots more, and you can read the casts and productions here at the La Jolla Playhouse production history page.
According to the Mel Ferrer website, which also has some interesting facts and photos on the La Jolla Playhouse, co-starring for “The Voice of the Turtle” was a New York stage actress named Vivian Vance. In the audience that evening was lady named Lucille Ball (stars not only appeared on stage at La Jolla, they made a grand audience as well), and she was so impressed with Miss Vance’s work, she invited her to become her sidekick on a new TV show she was about to produce with her husband, Desi Arnaz. The show was “I Love Lucy,” and Ethel Mertz was born.
The neat thing about these old theatre programs is the actor bios. Ellen Corby notes she spent 12 years in Hollywood as a script girl before making her first film. Teresa Wright notes she got her first big break on Broadway as Dorothy McGuire’s understudy in “Our Town.” La Jolla produced the show with Ann Blyth, Millard Mitchell and Beulah Bondi.
The bios frequently discuss the actor’s stage history first; later on at the end of the paragraph they’ll note, ah, yes, they made some films as well. As if the latter was only to pass the time between stage engagements.
Stage work allowed them to stretch different acting muscles. It allowed them to play against type: film heroes got to be stage villains, and minor film character actors got to be stars.
Look on this playbill. Florence Bates, perennial movie busybody, is right up at the top, a star in “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Her cast bio in the program relates her interesting journey as the first female lawyer in the state of Texas, to antique shop owner, to investor in Mexican oil wells, to helping her husband run a bakery. (More on Florence Bates in this previous post.) On a whim once, when she was already well on in life, she auditioned for a part at the famed Pasadena Playhouse (where so many young film stars were discovered), and got the part, though she had no experience. Alfred Hitchcock discovered her shortly thereafter, and by time of this appearance on stage in La Jolla in 1950 she had appeared in some 60 films.
But she wanted to be on stage again. The communal experience shared by actors and technical staff and audience is unique to the theatre because it is live and simultaneous, and in the moment. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, if forever remembered.
Even by someone stumbling across 60-year-old playbills from a small-town summer stock theater—who can only imagine.
As of a couple days ago, Another Old Movie Blog has reached its 6th anniversary. Thank you all for the pleasure of your company.
Coming up: I'll be speaking at the Westfield Athenaeum, Westfield, Massachusetts on Tuesday, March 12th in celebration of Women's History Month. I'll be drawing from essays in my recently published States of Mind: New England. This, and some of my novels, will be available for sale at this event.