Michael Angel Maynez was sitting one day in the courtyard of the San Buenaventura Mission. He was reflecting and praying, as he does daily, when an elderly lady recognized Ventura’s most enduring--if enigmatic--local theater personality.
“Aren’t you Michael Maynez?” asked the woman, gathering an offended air. “The director who does all those vulgar plays?”
“I said, ‘Yes, I am,’ ” said Maynez, the founder and driving force behind Ventura’s Plaza Players.
“Well, don’t you think it’s audacious to go every day for novena when you do those plays like that?”
At 65, with his pointed white beard and shaved head, his round torso and penchant for colorful scarfs, Maynez recounts the tale with delight. Audacious? Maybe. But vulgar? Well, that’s not quite the right word.
He pushed his glasses to the top of his smooth head, and his gray-green eyes narrowed into a teasing smile.
“I do wicked theater,” Maynez said.
Maynez can afford to smile and tease these days. He and the Plaza Players are part of arts history in the making in Ventura. Last July, they received the largest subsidy ever granted by the city to a single arts program.
The $200,000-plus grant is helping the troupe move from a tiny converted church on Santa Clara Street into the old Livery building on Palm Street, where a crew is racing to finish the theater for a New Year’s Eve champagne opening.
This Sunday afternoon, Maynez plans a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate. His printed invitations welcome guests to the “wickedly wonderful world of Plaza Players, where you can be intimately involved or slightly detached, but never indifferent.”
The line describes the director as well as his productions.
Maynez is a man who can be gentle and genteel, even courtly. Yet those whom Maynez has directed say he can also be playfully crude and even brutal, preying on actors’ vulnerabilities to draw out the best performance.
Actress Terry Lynne, who starred in the Players’ production of “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” sees Maynez as a wonderful friend and director, but said he can be rough on an unstudied actor.
“He has been known to throw his shoe at people,” she said. “He’s brilliant. You have to say he’s brilliant.” He also enjoys the sexuality in a play, she said. “He likes vulgarity. But he doesn’t like it showy. He doesn’t think that is sexual.”
Actress and sometime director Sherry Resac called Maynez the most interesting person she would ever meet. “He is funny. He is aggravating. He is extremely intelligent. He is a very open person, but he’s someone you never know completely.”
She claims the vulgarity tag is a bad rap.
“It’s a reputation he doesn’t deserve,” she said. “He doesn’t do ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘South Pacific’; he does very exciting and innovative theater.” Resac, who has known Maynez for 27 years, thinks of him as a father.
Miriam Mack, the city’s redevelopment administrator who arranged for the grant to move Maynez into his new theater, calls him a shrewd businessman--who also brings her flowers. She, and the Redevelopment Agency board that approved the deal, believe that Maynez’s long standing in Ventura entitled him to the unprecedented gift.
“First of all, they were in the redevelopment area,” Mack said. “They have been in the community for 40 years. And we want to make sure that the arts stay downtown.”
That sits just fine with Maynez.
“Art without subsidy--whether the symphony or anything else--is not going to work,” he said.
He talks of the world’s hypocrisy one minute, extols Freud for his correct assessment of the power of sex the next, then clowns for a news photographer. “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” he bellowed one day during a photo shoot, hanging off a ladder set atop the new wooden stage. “Please take off your togas!”
It’s been a long road that has led this local boy, a son of Mexican immigrant parents, to his own new theater, a house that will sport charcoal gray walls and “brilliant London-red seats.”
Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1924, he spoke Spanish at home and English at school. At age 12, Maynez, with mother, father, two brothers and a sister, moved to Pasadena, where he was exposed to the arts in school.
“I fell in love with school,” Maynez said. On one field trip, the class saw “Madame Butterfly.” On another, they visited backstage at a radio theater.
“The biggest shock and disappointment of my life was when I saw that horses’ hoofs were coconut halves going ‘clop, clop, clop,’ ” Maynez said. That’s the moment his interest in theater was solidified, he said.
Three years later, the family moved again, this time to Oxnard, where his parents set up a little Mexican restaurant that is now The Missile, a bar near the Navy base at Point Mugu.
“Talk about cultural shock!” Maynez said. No more field trips to the theater; no more jaunts to the symphony. But one good teacher at Oxnard High School helped him reduce his then-strong Spanish accent by teaching him to read poetry.
At high school graduation in 1942, Maynez joined the service and went to war in the hills of Austria with the 10th Mountain Division.
“Don’t look at this body now,” Maynez said, pointing to his rotund abdomen. “But I was a ski trooper during the war.” He suffered a head wound that nearly cost him his life. He still keeps the helmet he wore, pierced by two bullet holes.
At his return, he attended three years of acting school in Los Angeles, and moved back to Oxnard in 1948. He took night classes in drama at the high school. But when the administration told the class teacher that state law wouldn’t allow the class to do any real productions, most of the class lost interest.
“We started meeting at my house,” Maynez said. “And that’s how Plaza Players got started.”
The Players put on light opera and family theater at various locations in Oxnard and Ventura.
Meanwhile, Maynez worked for the Navy at Port Hueneme, as a clerk who “shipped nuts and bolts” around the country. But, after 10 years, he decided he could either toil for the Navy or do theater, but not both. He quit the Navy in 1961.
In 1979, the company moved into the Olivet Church on Santa Clara Street. That fortuitous move landed the Players in what became the city’s planned Redevelopment Block No. F--an area the city ultimately would have to pay Maynez to vacate.
The city relocated the operation for $10,000 and paid Maynez an additional $20,000 for improvements he’d made to the rented former church. Redevelopment then added a special no-strings gift of $110,000. In addition, the Players will receive a $1,000 monthly rent subsidy for the next four years, and possibly the next 10, if they need it.
“Never in my wildest dreams was I expecting this,” Maynez said.
Maynez has put on hundreds of productions that, in his earlier days, included old chestnuts such as “Kiss Me Kate” and “Mame!” But his repertoire over the years has expanded, with occasional forays into darkly comic pieces such as “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and “Women Behind Bars,” a sex-spoof about prison life that prompted complaints from some theatergoers.
“That’s just an outrageous B-movie lampoon,” Maynez said. “If people can’t laugh at that, they have big problems. Some people were very offended by “Inherit the Wind,” so I never know what’s going to offend a person.”
His 40 years in the theater have consumed his life, Maynez said.
“I have turned all personal relationships aside,” Maynez said of any romantic interests he may have had. He never married. But one afternoon, in his downtown apartment that is a study in antiques and art, with a view of the sun setting into the ocean from his living room window, Maynez talked of Victoria, the pianist he met in Italy while on leave. She was hired by a luxury hotel to entertain the troops, and that she did, Maynez said.
“She was beautiful,” he said. “Of course everyone there was trying to make her and I felt, ‘What chance have I got?’ I was an ugly young man.”
But the two met and talked, and eventually became lovers. Together they had Mirko, now a handsome man in his 40s who works as an engineer in Italy. Victoria would not marry, Maynez said. He sees his unmarried son on occasional trips when they meet in London.
“I feel he uses women,” Maynez said. “I may have set a bad example for him.”
But in Ventura, Maynez’s friends and acquaintances admire the man and the example he sets for young actors and directors.
“He is exhilarating,” said Pamela Pilkenton, who danced in the Players’ most recent production, “Dark of the Moon.”
“Everyone around him has such awe and admiration for him that they push themselves to do well,” said Christopher Blackwell, the sculptor and builder in charge of constructing the new theater.
Maynez has started training young directors, so that, should his insulin-dependent diabetes worsen, Plaza Players will continue.
“It’s not a question of my theater,” he said. “It’s a question of continuance. If I live to be 70 and haven’t trained any new directors, it will be too bad, and too late.”
John Michael Duggan, a man who came to him auditioning for an acting role seven years ago, will direct the New Year’s Eve show, “Les Liaisons Dangereuse.”
With the new theater, Michael Maynez has arrived. “I’m home,” he said. “I’m not moving again.”