At 18, she was La Jolla's fairest maiden. Then, she pricked her finger and fell into a slumber that no one could break. Sixteen years passed before a 91-year-old Prince Charming named Mandell Weiss planted a $1.2-million kiss on her fair lips, bringing the La Jolla Playhouse back to life.

That's when the fairy tale began in earnest. Now, just on the threshold of its fifth revitalized season, the La Jolla Playhouse has earned a national reputation for high quality with productions like the Tony-Award-winning "Big River" and "Shout Up a Morning," which played at the Kennedy Center in Washington last year.

No one is happier about the transformation than Weiss, a retired jeweler who, when he made his donation to UCSD, did not even know that the Playhouse existed, much less that it would make the new theater its home.

"I've been lucky all my life," Weiss said. "(But) the ultimate and most important thing that I am proud of is . . . the Playhouse. It has given me an enormous amount of pleasure."

Of course luck, and even money, were not enough to get the Playhouse back on its feet. In October, 1981, one month after he made his gift, Weiss joined the La Jolla Playhouse Board of Trustees. He learned about the history of the Playhouse: how it began in 1947 as a theater company for Hollywood actors to work in between movies, and closed down in 1965 as it began to search for a way to build its own theater house. The money, however, came slowly, and it was not until his gift that the completion of what was then, in his honor, called the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts, was assured.

As a board member, Weiss attended every meeting religiously, helped with fund raising and, in 1982, even had a part in securing the board's choice for artistic director, Des McAnuff.

When McAnuff wavered about the decision, Weiss invited him to his apartment overlooking Balboa Park and told him how he had come to San Diego as a poor man in a city of only 75,000 and was now a wealthy one in a city of more than a million. He told McAnuff that he saw him growing with the city, too. McAnuff took the job.

The next summer, the Playhouse opened its doors with its first show in 19 years. Since that time, the center, which is at UC San Diego, has been used by the La Jolla Playhouse between mid-June and mid-December of each year and by UCSD's graduate theater program the rest of the time.

Weiss still attends every meeting and sees every show, usually twice. He reads all of the reviews, meets the actors and acts as a sounding board for McAnuff, who calls him "a great resource . . . He's very eclectic in his tastes, and that describes me. I don't like a particular genre of theater.

"The Playhouse is a progressive theater and perhaps the Playhouse is progressive because Mandell is progressive."

It's not that Weiss makes any decisions for the Playhouse, McAnuff says. But "I think he's always supportive of work that stretches."

"When I first came to the Playhouse, I mentioned that I wanted to do Shakespeare," McAnuff said. "I remember Mandell being very supportive and standing behind it when other people didn't. I (also) remember that during 'Big River' when we were looking for cuts . . . I talked with Mandell about the first act and he had some good cuts.

"Mandell knows his role in the theater, and he plays it extremely well."

Weiss celebrated his 96th birthday Wednesday on the deck in front of the theater that bears his name. Close to 100 people associated with the UCSD theater program and the Playhouse, including several actors in rehearsal for the season opener, "The Matchmaker," joined him. The Playhouse wanted to thank the man whom McAnuff calls "the father of the rebirth of the organization."

In a way, it has also been the rebirth of Mandell Weiss and of a passion for the theater that had slept in him for more than 60 years.

Born in Romania, Weiss and his family moved to New York's Lower East Side when he was a boy. Soon after, he saw his first play, a Yiddish one starring Jacob Adler. He was, he remembers, "entranced."

Later his family moved to Portland, Ore., where he worked during high school as a theater usher. Determined to do something on stage before he graduated, he got together with five other ushers and organized a minstrel show.

He then decided to become an actor. He toured for two years before enlisting at the start of World War I. When the war ended, he went to college and prepared to earn a living. In the early 1920s, he moved to San Diego with $40 in his pocket.

He worked as a jeweler until 1953, when he lost his lease at 5th Avenue and F Street in downtown San Diego and retired--briefly. The next year, he started FedMart Corp. with his lawyer at the time, Sol Price. The Price Club followed and their fortunes were made.

It was Price who talked him into giving the $1.2 million in Price Club stock.

"You're a rich man now," Weiss says Price told him. "And you always liked theater."

Why did he agree? He shrugs. "I thought I would get some free tickets. But I don't get free tickets."

That, explains Playhouse managing director Alan Levey, is because he insists on paying for them. Weiss is always looking for ways to pour money back into the theater. Last year alone, he and the other members of the board gave the Playhouse more than $300,000.

Perhaps the sweetest present the Playhouse ever gave him was the 1984 hit, "Big River," a musical based on "Huckleberry Finn." He still has photos from that play displayed in his study.

"When I saw 'Big River' for the first time and the play was over, I came out into the lobby, saw Des and put my arm around him and hugged him and kissed him. 'You're terrific,' I told him," Weiss said.

He hastened to add that he didn't like the play just because it was a commercial success. What touched him most was how it brought him back to his past: He had played a part in a college production of "Huckleberry Finn."

Of course, he didn't mind the success, either. When the play went to Broadway, where it won seven Tony Awards, including ones for best musical and best director of a musical, Weiss flew out for the opening. And on his birthday, the other members of the Playhouse who had flown out with him threw him a party at the Plaza Hotel.

"It was strange for me to be honored at the Oak Room of the Plaza in New York . . . where I had grown up as poor kid on the Lower East Side," he said.

McAnuff remembers leaving the party at 2 or 3 a.m. and seeing Weiss still going strong.

Birthday parties for Weiss have become an annual production at the La Jolla Playhouse. This year, a good friend, playwright Oana-Maria Hock, who wrote the compelling "Berlin, Berlin" produced at UCSD this season, wrote him a poem called "Galatz." That's the name of the small town in Romania that they both are from.

Hock says the poem has given her an idea for a full-length play.

"I thought it would be just a poem, but with all the characters I discovered, I think it could be a wonderful piece about a man who leaves Galatz when he is 6 years old and builds a theater," she said.

There is not much doubt that Weiss would not miss that play for anything. Especially not if it plays at the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts.

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