In 1984, American Legion Post 43's Liberty Theatre company was thriving at its facility on Highland Avenue in Hollywood. Then came "Tamara."
When the producers of that show needed a home for their production, they cast their eye on the Hollywood post. Built in 1929 by architect Eugene Weston Jr., it would be ideal as the poet Gabrielle d'Annunzio's opulent palace--the setting of "Tamara." The building's 2 1/2 stories, complete with monumental foyer, second-floor gallery, 14 rooms, crystal chandeliers and marble floors, give visitors an immediate sense of splendor.
And so, a lease was signed, and the Liberty Theatre found itself homeless.
For three years, Liberty members waited, secretly hoping "Tamara's" popularity would subside. When it didn't, they finally opted for a temporary home away from home--the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks--and opened Saturday with their production of Jason Miller's "That Championship Season," directed by Allan Hunt.
Since its inception, the Liberty Theatre had enjoyed a modicum of success. The group's first production in 1981, "The Caine Mutiny" directed by Hunt, won three Drama-Logue theater awards including best production, best director and best actor. Over the next three years a dozen plays were produced by the group, which won about as many awards, and the theater's membership grew to 125. Many were military veterans.
When "Tamara" nudged the company out of its home, the momentum Liberty was enjoying came to a halt.
"It was a struggle and a big decision for members of the post," said Burbank resident Joseph Sordetto, producer of Liberty's "That Championship Season." " 'Tamara' would be pushing us out. The building was falling apart. It was a question of whether we make money that could be used to repair the building or keep the Liberty Theatre."
The Liberty Theatre was in rehearsal with Preston Jones' "Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia," but when the producers of "Tamara" decided they wanted to open their show earlier than expected, Liberty's show was put on hold.
"At the time, none of us thought it would be three years," said Hunt, a Studio City resident. "We thought it would be three months. But 'Tamara' stayed and extended their run--and extended it again. We told ourselves, 'We'll try next year.' "
Time passed. Then more time. Running out of patience, some Liberty members joined other theater groups. Then last year, when Sordetto was elected chairman of the Liberty Theatre, he realized something had to be done to band together the few members who remained.
A Marine veteran of the Korean War, Sordetto became disabled while in the service. For 19 years he was a substitute teacher and also worked as a real estate investor. In 1984 he joined the Hollywood post. "We're the only American Legion post that I know of that has a theater company," he said. "One reason I joined the legion was because of the theater, and I didn't want to see it end."
Air Force veteran Sherrie McKenzie shared those sentiments. Eager to revive the theater group, Sordetto asked her if she'd be interested in staging radio shows. When she said yes, he planned a meeting and invited former Liberty Theatre members. Army veteran Willie Rosner and Navy veterans Malitza Milo and Joe Nesnow heeded Sordetto's call. Together, the group put together a radio show production, "Suspense Theater," which was followed by "The Whistler."
Much like actors in the early days of radio broadcasting, Sordetto explained, his group performed the shows in costume and with scripts in hand, although sound effects were prerecorded on audiocassettes.
The radio shows were performed at veterans hospitals and the Motion Picture Retirement Home in Woodland Hills. A recent fund-raiser for crippled children was sponsored by the Burbank American Legion post. Besides providing entertainment, the shows provided the theater group an incentive to continue their creative endeavors. What was lacking, however, for putting on a full-fledged production, was money.
After Sordetto and McKenzie approached the
executive board of the Hollywood post, that problem was solved. The post was enjoying substantial profits from the rental of its quarters to the producers of "Tamara," and it was from this source that the Liberty Theatre was granted enough money to realize a production of its own.
Hunt said the group chose Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play because it had a relatively small cast, required a simple set and was a play with both comedic and dramatic elements. When casting began, more than 240 people went to the open audition, he said. "We found a great deal of people who came to audition knew of our group and wondered what had happened to us," Hunt said. "The Liberty had built up quite a nice reputation."
Auditions and rehearsals were held in the Cabaret Room of the Hollywood post--the only room not being used by the "Tamara" production.
Sordetto is confident that this show will put the Liberty Theatre back on the map, even though for now the group must rent its performance space. "We're like a man without a country, looking for a home," Hunt said.
The group is already making plans for its next production, a comedy by Les Roberts called "Those Little White Lies." Sordetto also hopes to start an acting workshop for veterans soon.
To raise funds for their projects, the Liberty Theatre will sponsor a dinner dance Feb. 29 at the American Legion post.
With scant funds, the producer and director helped build the set for the show. "It's a labor of love," said Hunt, a former Marine who served in the Vietnam War. "We're certainly not doing it for the money--no one's getting paid."
"That Championship Season" runs Thursday s -Sunday s , through Feb. 28. The Whitefire Theatre is at 13500 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks. For ticket information and reservations call (213) 851-3338.