Thursday, March 7, 2013

Film Stars on Stage - La Jolla Playhouse

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.



Caftan Woman said...

Happy Anniversary!

One of life's great joys is reading an old theatre program and imagining all the work and satisfaction that goes along with a production.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, CW. I love old theatre programs. I have one wall of my office covered with them.

Ryan said...

Happy Aniversary!

I love the fact that they loved their craft so much, that being on stage was such a joy for them.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Ryan. Yes, it was quite a roster of names, too, stars and character actors.

Vienna said...

Thank you for all that fascinating information.
Wow! What a load of stars appeared at La Jolla Playhouse.
To have seen any of them would have been a thrill.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Vienna. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it would have been fun to see those stars on stage. I'd love to hear from someone who actually attended a show.

Yvette said...

Funny you should mention La Jolla, Jacqueline. :)

The Flash Fiction Writing Challenge arranged by Patti features La Jolla as the setting.

A place I know nothing about but thanks to your post maybe I'll use the theater in the story - somehow. Don't have a clue yet. Yikes!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Sounds great. Go to it, Yvette. Get writing!

The Lady Eve said...

Happy Anniversary, Jacqueline!

I grew up in San Diego County but the La Jolla Playhouse was out of commission during my flaming youth. Would have loved to see Hollywood's finest on the stage. I imagine those who really loved acting couldn't resist the chance to perform for a live audience.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Lady Eve. I wish I could have seen them at La Jolla back in the day, too.

Kevin Deany said...

This was great and what a treasure trove of memories that theater must possess.

I currently live near Hinsdale, IL, and there used to be a playhouse theater that catered to an amazing display of talent, both upcoming and more seasoned professionals eager to go on stage.

I know a guy who has lived in the area his entire life and remembers the names who used to appear there. One morning he and his family were having breakfast at a local restaurant and who is at the next table but Charlton Heston, who was appearing in Hinsdale in "Detective Story." He was the only one in his family who knew who he was because he had just seen him in "The Greatest Show on Earth" which had recently opened. He got his autograph and said Mr. Heston was very gracious to him, a little boy at the time.

I wish there more theaters like this today.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by and sharing this story, Kevin. How neat for him to run into Charlton Heston like that and get his autograph.

Here in New England we're fortunate to have several playhouses that have been running for decades, with a long history of movie stars trodding the boards.

Laura said...

It's been a busy month -- wanted to belatedly wish you a very happy bloggiversary! And best wishes for many more.

This was a fascinating post. If only there were a means of time travel, I'd drive down to La Jolla without a second thought to see some of these shows! :)

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Laura. I'm with you on the time travel trip to the Playhouse. Save me seat.

Ed Long said...

I was doing a search on Google looking for Robin Corey whose father was Wendell Corey. She and I were in an acting class in the summer of 1960 at La Jolla Playhouse. At that time, the Playhouse was on Nautilus. Robert Mulligan was the director as I recall. Wendell was appearing in a play that summer at the Playhouse. He was also in the audience when our theatre troupe put on a performance for our friends and family at the end of the summer training.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much for stopping by, Ed, and sharing those memories. I love to hear about the La Jolla Playhouse.

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