The little playhouse with the old-fashioned movie marquee is clearly not the Pantages or the Doolittle, Sierra Madre residents concede. No stars vying for parts in its shows. No opening night glitterati perched on its 121 seats.
But the Sierra Madre Playhouse, which sits in the middle of the city's downtown commercial district like a cupcake in a bread rack, is theirs, residents say. And they're proud of it.
"It generates a great deal of civic pride," stationer Jerry Meyer says.
Charles Andrese and Stan Zalas have been putting on plays there for nine years. They've staged just about everything Neil Simon ever wrote. They've done Agatha Christie mysteries, Stephen Sondheim musicals and a slew of standard community theater fare, like "The Miracle Worker" and "Life With Father."
"We're trying to keep it in the realm of family theater," says founder/producer Andrese, a small, carefully coifed man who also works as a hair stylist. "Not that it's all very light and frothy," insists artistic director Zalas. "But mysteries and comedies seem to be what our audience is mainly interested in."
The theater rarely has to worry about bringing in audiences. With general admission for its middle-of-the-road fare selling for $7, many of the theater's performances are sold out. Audience members come from as far away as Orange County and Los Angeles, the producers say, but most are San Gabriel Valley residents. Some are first-time theatergoers, but many return again and again.
Step into the theater. It's rather plain. "A little down at the heels," one actor describes it diplomatically. A small proscenium stage--with, these days, a set roughly depicting a New England vacation home--extends across the front. Upholstered seats, none farther away from the stage than about 50 feet, fill the floor of the theater. The ceiling is puckered and water stained. Battered paneling is nailed to the walls.
Andrese and Zalas talk wistfully about someday buying a "grand drape" for about $3,000, so that scene changes can be hidden from the audience.
Nevertheless, when the lights go down, the gloom dissipates quickly. In expert hands, the producers say, the stage can quickly turn into a castle, a London slum, the deck of a ship or a villa on the Riviera.
Of course, there's not much money for fancy sets, says Zalas, an English teacher at Arcadia High School. The Sierra Madre Playhouse relies more on acting magic--a little dramatic hocus-pocus along with "the intimacy of the theater"--to conjure up the strange and the exotic, he says.
"On television or the movie screen, the characters are disembodied," Zalas says. "People aren't really there--they're just images. A lot of our patrons say they get much more out of an intimate theater like ours. They get the dialogue. They're much more involved with the characters."
The current offering is "Mr. Hobbs Vacation," an adaptation of Edward Streeter's best seller about a Cleveland businessman's vacation with his family on a New England island. The show opened two weeks ago, before a largely unresponsive audience, which greeted much of the play's bland humor with apparent indifference.
Each cast always has a distinct personality, theater people will tell you. Asked to describe the personality of the "Mr. Hobbs" cast, one actress said: "Worried."
There had been technical difficulties, she said. A couple of cast members had dropped out at the last moment. The backstage crew was still tinkering with props and sound effects on opening night.
"It's scary," another actress said during a dress rehearsal. "Everything's so chaotic."
On opening night, there were awkward stretches when there were no actors on the stage. Scene changes, with crew members moving around the stage in a half-light, changing the drapes or placing fresh flowers in bowls, sometimes faltered. At one point, the shadowy stage stood empty for a few long moments, until the audience began to stir restlessly. Finally, a door opened and a hand reached out and hurriedly placed a coat on a coatrack. The coat, it turned out, was a key prop in the following scene.
But by last Thursday, the production was chugging along. "It's getting better," director Bruce Alan Coen says. "Every night, it's better."
Performing in a community theater like the Sierra Madre Playhouse is clearly an act of love. You rehearse four nights a week for a month, pitch in to build sets, help with tasks such as moving props between scenes, and you get paid next to nothing.
The policy at the playhouse is to divide 5% of the box office receipts among cast and backstage crew. But with 13 actors and six backstage workers, the "Mr. Hobbs" cast doesn't stand to reap much of a financial reward. "They'll be lucky if they get gas money," Coen says.
But nobody is in it for the money. "Once, when I was with a touring dinner theater, the show paid my expenses," says Arvid Holmberg, who plays an obnoxious uninvited guest at the Hobbs family's vacation house. "But theater has never put money in my pocket." Holmberg, who lives in Monrovia, has been acting professionally for six years.
"It's the only profession where people do it for nothing," adds Sandy Hanover, a stage veteran who plays Holmberg's wife.
No Place for Tender Egos
The playhouse is no place for tender egos. The dressing room is a narrow passageway behind the stage, where both men and women squeeze into their costumes and apply their makeup before lighted mirrors. "You're expected to be a team player," says Maurene Drew, who plays Mr. Hobbs' pregnant daughter. "You're not treated like, 'Oh, these are the ahhctors. . . .' "
Drew, who discovered during rehearsal that she really was pregnant, wears a body suit with a cushion sewed into the abdomen. "This experience has really given me an idea about what to expect," she says.
Between scenes, wardrobe directors Shon LeBlanc and K.C. Kelly stand backstage, deftly ripping the clothes off of their subjects and pulling new costumes into place.
"In this play, there are costume changes for the leads in every scene," says LeBlanc, a tall, limber, unflappable young man who has scoured thrift shops and friends' wardrobes for 1960s-style Capri pants and pointed pumps.
Being a wardrobe coordinator involves a multiplicity of skills, says LeBlanc, who put together the "Mr. Hobbs" costumes with a budget of $150. You have to know period styles, develop a network of thrift store contacts and hone your skills at dressing people in cramped spaces.
'A Lot of Experience Here'
But when it comes to costuming people, little things mean a lot, he says. "You have to make sure that everything is zipped and buttoned up before they go out on the stage," he says. "You wouldn't want to be out there with your dress open."
Despite the sometimes low-budget look, most of the actors bridle at the term "community theater."
"It has a connotation to it," says Hanover, who also uses the name Sandi Rose. "Most of us don't think of ourselves as amateurs. If you set down all the professional credits in this cast, you'd find that there's a lot of experience here." Hanover, a blond woman with the sad-eyed look of Penny Marshall, has appeared in the movie "Barfly" and in the play "Bleacher Bums."
Most of the actors are recruited through advertisements in Drama-Logue, a casting publication. Even though the playhouse lost its standing with Actors Equity a few years ago--the theater is too big to qualify as a 99-seat-or-fewer Equity Waiver house--dozens of actors often appear for auditions.
Tom Hanks' Appearance
The playhouse's one celebrity credit so far has been the appearance of Tom Hanks in "Barefoot in the Park" in 1982, long before he became a film star. But many of the actors in playhouse productions have serious ambitions, whether for films or the stage.
"Competition is stiff, just because people want to do something to keep their juices flowing," says Drew, one of more than 100 who auditioned for "Mr. Hobbs."
In this production, however, there are bona fide amateurs. Jimmie Wood, a stage-struck Arcadia housewife, said she had called the theater a week before the opening. "I called about tickets," Wood said. "As an afterthought, I said, 'By the way, do you have open auditions?' " Coen told her that the show was "desperately" in need of an actress to play a tipsy house guest.
Wood not only got the part, but she brought her 24-year-old son, Jeff, along to play the boyfriend of a Hobbs daughter. Her husband, Mark, an Arcadia exterminator, is working as the show's prop master.
"It's like jumping out of an airplane with a parachute," the euphoric Jimmie Wood said, anticipating her triumphant stage debut. (Her brief but expansive portrayal was well received by the audience.)
Stage Rarely Dark
During the theater's year-round season, the stage is rarely dark. As one production winds down, the next is slowly stitched together.
Another evening. The same Cape Cod-like set, but with the furniture pushed against the walls. Three actors are rehearsing for a production of Carson McCullers' "The Member of the Wedding," which opens Nov. 4. Director Chuck Hands is already figuring how he'll cannibalize the "Mr. Hobbs" set to transform it into a frayed-at-the-edges Southern kitchen.
"We won't use that gray door there," says Hands, a salesman at Sears in Pasadena during the day, giving the stage a narrow-eyed appraisal. "Basically, the set stays. But a different color and different furniture will make it look a lot different."
Hands and the actors are blocking the play, figuring out where each character will stand on the stage as each line is delivered. Though it is very early in rehearsals, and the actors, who have not yet memorized their lines, carry scripts in their hands, there are already gripping moments.
Actress Niva Rouschell, playing the family cook in a role made famous by Ethel Waters in the 1953 movie, launches into a moving reminiscence about a dead husband, ending frozen in spot, her eyes wet with tears. Holly Cardone, playing a precocious 12-year-old girl, throws a tantrum, flailing around the stage like a captured bird.
"Things happen every night," Hands says. "Every rehearsal, we've had good moments."
Talk of Selling Out
Andrese and Zalas worry that all of this could come to an end soon. Dale White, the owner of the theater, has talked of selling out. "I guess we'd go somewhere else if that happens," Andrese says uncertainly.
White, a former actor who was a regular on the Jack Benny radio show (he played announcer Don Wilson's son), has been a kind of angel for the playhouse since the group moved to Sierra Madre in 1979. An independent film maker now, Wilson uses side offices in the building to make commercials and industrial films.
"I'm kind of like the Phantom of the Opera, hanging around and complaining when things aren't done right," says White, who usually refers to the theater group as "the kids."
He allows that he's "not real serious" about selling the theater. It's just that he's outgrowing his work space there. "It's not that efficient for its size," White says. "I'd like to build a sound stage in Irwindale. I can make more money in three or four days than all the rent I get from the kids in a year."
Facing the future with uncertainty is not so strange, the producers suggest. There are no certainties in the theater. You hit or you bomb. Zalas shrugs and utters an abiding truth for people who have been consumed with the idea of putting on plays: "We might be able to continue, we might not."