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PLAYHOUSE TO POORHOUSE TO . . . CURTAIN GOING UP AGAIN

Our task today is neither to revive yesterday’s glory nor to imitate yesterday’s fancy. We begin, just as Gilmor began, just as so many others began, with an idea of a theater, a passionate energy and a glorious empty space.

--Address by Jessica Myerson, artistic director, Pasadena Playhouse, Feb. 20.

It’s been 20 years since a theatrical season was performed on its main stage, 17 years since it went bust, 16 years since its contents were sold at auction, 11 years since the city rescued it and seven years since developer David Houk began negotiations to purchase and restore it.

Yet when the Pasadena Playhouse opens its doors again Saturday with “Arms and the Man,” a new era will begin in the 69-year-old institution’s roller-coaster saga of success, sorrow, sadness and survival.

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Starring in the Shaw play will be Lisa Eichhorn, John Rubinstein, Richard Thomas and Carole Shelley. It will be staged by Nikos Psacharapoulos, artistic director of the Williamstown Playhouse, and is the first of three productions slated for this inaugural season.

The others are “Look Homeward Angel” by Ketti Frings (based on the novel by Thomas Wolfe), opening June 7, and Stewart Parker’s “Spokesong” starting July 12. And it’s all happening 20 years after the Internal Revenue Service shut the playhouse down.

This reopening of a theater that was not just locally prominent, but had achieved national (and international) stature, has been a long time coming. Recently appointed playhouse artistic director, Jessica Myerson (a former co-producer of San Francisco’s the Committee) has been cautious about predictions but quite clear about intentions.

She has announced her determination not to mimic the past, but to honor its spirit--by attempting to create a workplace that will foster the creative vigor that characterized the old, while keeping its sights focused on present and future. Can it be done? And what can one learn from history?

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When actor-manager Gilmor Brown found himself in Pasadena in 1916--some say stranded by the financial failure of his touring Savoy Stock Company, some say by choice--he looked around, liked what he saw and decided to interest the well-heeled, elegant residential town in fostering its very own community theater.

The community responded well to the idea and, above all, to this agreeably handsome well-spoken, energetic young man. A year later, he and his actors moved into an old burlesque house on North Fair Oaks Avenue, launching one of the most intriguing stories in American 20th-Century theater.

The Community Players (as they became known) flourished on North Fair Oaks until the building, with its leaky roof and rattling folding chairs, was condemned in 1922.

By then the local citizenry was solidly behind the group. Funds were raised, some of them door-to-door, to build a beautiful, brand-new, sophisticated theatrical plant at a cost (over budget) of almost $400,000. The new location was 39 S. El Molino Ave., just below Colorado Boulevard.

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There it opened in May, 1925, with a forgettable comedy called “The Amethyst.” And there the Pasadena Community Playhouse, as it was renamed, thrived (even if it did not always prosper) for the next 40 years, falling on hard times only after the death of founder and guiding genius Brown in 1960.

Brown had groomed no successors and the omission, which began to be felt in his declining years, proved very costly after he was gone. Attempts in the ‘60s to revive the faltering playhouse and restructure its operations all ended in deepening financial distress. By 1966, the Internal Revenue Service padlocked the theater for failure to deliver $31,000 in employee withholdings. But it was just the tip of the iceberg.

By then the playhouse had accumulated a debt of almost $500,000. A few well-meaning benefits provided a reprieve, but by 1969 the Pasadena Playhouse was irretrievably bankrupt--artistically and financially. Bank of America, its largest creditor, took it into receivership for $285,000--or $315,000 less than its appraised value in 1936. And on a dreary day in August, 1970, with rain dripping through the main stage roof, its contents were sold at auction.

For the next five years, offers to purchase the playhouse and schemes to resuscitate it fell through almost as fast as they surfaced.

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The City of Pasadena came to the rescue in 1975, purchasing the by-then badly dilapidated building for $325,000. Proposals for saving the playhouse continued to come in, until, in 1979, the city’s board of directors entered into exclusive negotiations with developer David Houk, awarding him a complex purchase agreement that allowed renovation of the theater (with the aid of a $1.3-million grant from the Economic Development Agency) to begin almost at once.

“At once,” it turned out, meant another seven years, another $3 million and a seemingly endless series of renegotiations. But when the new Playhouse opens Saturday, Houk will have kept his promise.

Would anyone have thought that it could take that long? Or come to pass at all?

There is a modern tendency to think of the playhouse strictly in terms of increments of time and of the celebrities, major and minor, that it has produced. In fact, the most interesting aspects of its uncommon rise and fall and resurrection lie in the flamboyant contrasts that have characterized it in good times and bad--a curious mix of pluck, perseverance, chance, great enterprise and plain good fortune.

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It was one of the most innovative theaters of its day--a “day” that spanned 40 years on South El Molino Avenue and another eight at its “moth-eaten temple of drama” on North Fair Oaks--and yet it frequently suffered from an almost callous sense of commerce.

The playhouse approach to theater was capable of being at once serious and trivial, daring and pedestrian. This may have stemmed from Gilmor Brown’s singular conviction that there is no bad theater--only the unwillingness to gain something from it. This was not a popular or particularly logical notion, but it may have accounted for the haphazard way in which positives and negatives collided at this institution.

The playhouse, which formalized its famous college of theater arts in 1936 (though some sort of schooling had been going on since the late ‘20s), dismissed, or turned off, as many good students as it graduated. Among the more famous ones who rejected it or were rejected by it, are playwright Joanna Glass, actors Dustin Hoffman, Laird Cregar, Leonard Nimoy, Gene Hackman. A random sampling of its better-known graduates includes Robert Young, Robert Preston, Carolyn Jones, Bob Cummings, JoAnne Worley, Buddy Ebsen, Harry Dean Stanton, Charles Bronson and Barbara Rush.

Because of its purely accidental proximity to Hollywood, it created more movie stars than stage luminaries, while producing--often quite brilliantly--a vast number of world and American premieres, interspersing them with such potboilers as “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.” The playhouse even did its own “Nicholas Nickleby,” long before England’s Royal Shakespeare Company ever dreamed of it and, by 1936, it had mounted the entire Shakespeare canon, though, typically, more by accident than design.

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From 1917 to 1942, when the community playhouse became a union house, it produced 500 new plays and yet never really fostered its own playwright. Of the 500, 23 were American premieres and a whopping 477 were brand new--never performed anywhere (and many never performed since, of course). Significantly, the young Tennessee Williams was produced there (in pre-"Glass Menagerie” days), as were Gertrude Stein, John Masefield, August Strinberg, William Saroyan and Eugene O’Neill. Stein, Masefield and Thornton Wilder also spoke there.

Above all, the playhouse was this ebullient place of energy and exhilaration that traveled from the sublime to the ridiculous without discernable injury. It built a phenomenal reputation largely on the genius of founder Brown, described as a “benign opportunist” (by G.L. Shoup, author of a livelydissertation on the Playhouse) who had a great sense of timing and knew how to sense a trend and seize a moment.

The playhouse was an outpost of theatrical activity--the first to foster the idea of central and flexible staging (at Brown’s privately owned and funded theater, the Playbox); one of the first to become a true regional theater (though the term had not yet been invented) and to attach to itself a conservatory-style school. It achieved these bench-marks early, with an enviable pioneering spirit--not overly intellectual, perhaps, but playful, unshackled and prophetic.

While attending Westmount College in Santa Barbara where he became a record-setting track star, David Houk dreamed of becoming an Olympic gold medalist.

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A back injury changed all that. Being at once pragmatic and visionary, this son of a Presbyterian minister and a teacher simply changed his dream. He turned to real estate.

Houk’s interest in theater started in 1977 when he bought the Auditorium building, which was attached to the Philharmonic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles: “I felt that if I could get 2,300 people a night into the Philharmonic I could outnumber the derelicts in Pershing Square and change the character of the place.”

At one point Houk invited the Shuberts to take an interest in the Philharmonic but, he said: “They concluded it could only be operated at a loss. I thanked them and told them I didn’t need help to run it at a loss. I could do that myself.

“I believe theaters are good urban planning tools. They are one of the few uses of real estate where location is not material. With the right programming on stage, you can draw people to urban areas, change traffic patterns and improve cities by creating mixed-use developments around them.”

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Houk had envisioned restoring the Philharmonic and diversifying the adjacent building, but other directives from the city resulted in demolition of both structures. Houk now projects two towers on the site.

About the inner workings of theater itself Houk, 40, admits he knew little when, in 1979, he inquired into something called the Pasadena Playhouse that the City of Pasadena was unloading.

“They were considering tearing it down,” Houk said. “I offered to buy it with no strings attached for $1.1 million, but the city didn’t want that because they already had the EDA (Economic Development Agency) grant. So I had to come up with a deal structured to satisfy the city and the EDA.”

The transaction, which has undergone several metamorphoses, essentially gave Houk’s Historical Restoration Associates (HRA) ownership of the Playhouse for $1 and transferred the $1.3 million EDA grant to the associates (who agreed to provide the 40% portion of the matching 60/40 grant). It also hinged on HRA taking responsibility for restoration and operation of the theater.

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The incentives for HRA lie in the mixed-use development of the rest of the block. They also own an option on an adjacent parking lot which they may exercise after completion of the initial three-play season.

“Our obligation with the city is to guarantee the season,” Houk explained. “Three plays the first year; four to six plays, or a minimum of 18 weeks, from the second through the sixth year. HRA guarantees it, the individual partners back it up.”

The associates in turn have leased the theater to the city which leases it to the nonprofit Pasadena Playhouse State Theater of California Inc. (“in perpetuity, for nothing”). They have donated the facade of the playhouse to Pasadena Heritage, a historical preservation group (ensuring the building’s survival), and they’ve sold a 50% interest in the real estate to raise operating funds.

At a February press conference announcing the reopening, Houk presented a check for $1 million to Margaret Sedenquist, chairwoman of the Pasadena Playhouse State Theatre of California, with which to launch the inaugural season and initiate fund-raising. It’s to be spent over the next five years.

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Jessica Myerson’s office, in the room that once held the playhouse’s extensive theater library, looks as if a tornado hit it. This bothers the artistic director not a whit. Her mood, as she sat down to talk before the start of rehearsals for “Arms and the Man,” was unequivocally exuberant.

Director Psacharapoulos was expected in town the next day and the place was jumping. Phone lines were being installed, people dropped in with questions or requests. Casting photos sat around in stacks. Myerson thrived on the benign confusion.

This native of Stanwood, Mo. (population 89 at the time), remembers getting an honorable mention in a Photoplay contest whose first prize was a scholarship to the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts.

She was 17, and while she didn’t get in, the incident had aroused her taste for acting. So after majoring in English at Bryn Mawr and Bennington, Myerson set up housekeeping in Greenwich Village like any other self-respecting young theater aspirant. But a Second City interview transplanted her to Chicago where she married director Alan Myerson. A year later, the two left the Chicago improv company and set off for San Francisco where, in an indoor bocce ball court, they successfully co-created another memorable improv group, The Committee.

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“It lasted for about 12 years,” Myerson said, “ending when the marriage ended.” Alone and with the responsibility of a young son, Myerson turned to television acting, which included getting a recurring role on a sitcom called “Thicker Than Water.”

“It was awful,” she recalled. “The first thing you discover about theater is its ability to enlighten, to provide new insights. In television, I was playing stereotypes.”

In an effort to break away, Myerson fled to Indonesia for eight years and a post teaching English at Djakarta’s International School. Before long she was asked to initiate a theater program with the students.

“Here I’d traveled all that distance to get away from theater and it had followed me,” she said. “It was time to go back home.”

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On her return, Myerson tried putting together another company. She held a backers’ audition at the Pasadena Ice House. In the audience was David Houk. He invited Myerson to take a look at the Playhouse, then offered her the job of artistic director. She did not hesitate long.

Considering the vicissitudes of any life in the theater, and the checkered history of the playhouse in particular, Myerson has approached the new task cautiously.

The budget for this year is $1.3 million and advance sales have been healthy. “We’re on our way to 6,000 subscriptions,” Myerson said, “out of a possible 15,000.”

Asked to define goals, she hesitated.

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“I’d like this theater to be known as a center of creativity,” she replied. “I’d like it to be the sort of place where creative people come to do what they do, where Peter Brook might like to come. But a theater has to develop its own organism. It’s like a rehearsal. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

As wisely guarded as she is about pronouncements, Myerson wants to bring in a variety of artists. She’d love to do an “Oedipus” with a gamelan orchestra. Director Andrei Serban has indicated an interest in doing his production of “The White Stag” in Pasadena at Christmas time. She’d also like to develop a vigorous program for young audiences in the 99-seat theater.

“It’s important to mix it up,” Myerson said. “I have big dreams, but I also have a healthy regard for just getting to tomorrow. If you try to accomplish your dreams you may find they’re too small.”


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