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Tom Titus: Ringing down the curtain after 55 years

theater curtains
Daily Pilot and TimesOC theater writer Tom Titus is retiring after 55 years of reviewing Orange County theater.
(vitaliy_melnik - stock.adobe.com)

Parting, as Billy Shakespeare once quoth, is such sweet sorrow. And that pretty much sums up my feelings as I contemplate retirement after 55 years of reviewing local theater for the Daily Pilot and TimesOC.

It’s been a terrific ride for this dyed-in-the-wool theater junkie. And that includes 40 years as a participant — acting and directing for local playhouses, highlighted by 31 years as artistic director of the Irvine Community Theater.

Tom Titus stands in the Segerstrom stage at South Coast Repertory
Tom Titus stands in the Segerstrom stage at South Coast Repertory, where he reviewed every single show for the Daily Pilot and TimesOC since the theater opened in 1964.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

I came to this calling as a reformed sports journalist turned theater lover by watching over 100 Broadway and off-Broadway shows on USO comp tickets during my final Army hitch at nearby Fort Monmouth, N.J.

Relocating from Pennsylvania to California in 1963, I landed a city reporter’s job on the Daily Pilot. A little over a year later, I was reviewing my first show, “A Thousand Clowns” at the old Laguna Playhouse directed by Doug Rowe and starring a pre-"M*A*S*H” Mike Farrell, who was a big fish in the community-theater pond at that time.

A few other local reviews followed before a young fellow named David Emmes dropped by the Pilot office for a chat with the theater writer about a new company he and Martin Benson were starting in Newport Beach. He called it South Coast Repertory.

The Laguna Playhouse.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Emmes’ band of talented and energetic recent college grads had leased the Laguna Playhouse for the summer while the company members refurbished an old Balboa marine swap shop that would become the Second Step Theater.

The first step had been performing as a traveling troupe. The third and fourth steps were yet to come — a converted furniture store in downtown Costa Mesa and the present two-theater complex in Costa Mesa’s Town Center district with a Tony award on display in the lobby.

In Laguna, SCR presented an introductory triumvirate consisting of “Tartuffe,” “Waiting for Godot” and “Volpone,” which they reprised when the Second Step opened in March 1965. I reviewed those shows and every play mounted under the SCR banner ever since — with one exception.

That single break in my personal record came in 2006, when I found myself in Hoag Hospital for a two-week bout with pneumonia. My son Tim stepped in to review “The Real Thing,” and I caught a later performance, so yes, I’ve seen ‘em all.

Seeing all those shows in 1965 served to give me the itch to try it myself, and in June of that year I snagged my first part, playing the cemetery lot salesman in “Send Me No Flowers,” the first production of the Costa Mesa Playhouse (then known as the Civic Playhouse). Twenty years later I returned to that theater to take a title role in “Father of the Bride.”

Anthony Carillo and Perry Ojeda in "The Fantasticks."
Anthony Carillo and Perry Ojeda in South Coast Repertory’s 2013 production of “The Fantasticks,” with book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt.
(Henry DiRocco)

I graduated to more significant parts (Pulver in “Mister Roberts,” Paul Verall in “Born Yesterday”) before making my directorial debut with a play I’d written myself, called “Summer Lightning,” in 1968 at the Westminster Community Theater. It was my first and last venture as a playwright, but it launched a lengthy career as a director.

The Irvine Community Theater was born in 1970, and I played the older brother in its maiden voyage, ”Come Blow Your Horn.” Two years later I became ICT’s artistic director after a highly successful production of “You Can’t Take It With You” in which I had to take over the part of Grandpa Vanderhof at the tender age of 34.

Four decades of acting and directing reinforced my adage that doing theater is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. I played many characters but my favorites were Scotty Templeton in “Tribute” with my real son, Tim, playing my son and Herb Tucker in “I Ought to Be in Pictures” when my daughter was played by my real daughter, Mindy.

If I were to pick a favorite directing project it would have to be “That Championship Season,” but close behind would be “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Patterns” and “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.”

I’d played Mitch in “Streetcar” a decade before directing it, and that show changed my life. I wound up rewriting Tennessee Williams and marrying the actress who played Blanche, kicking off a 13-year run with Tim and Mindy the byproducts.

Richard Doyle, Hal Landon Jr. and Kimberly Thomas in "A Christmas Carol."
Richard Doyle, Hal Landon Jr. and Kimberly Thomas in the 2018 production of South Coast Repertory’s “A Christmas Carol.”
(Jordan Kubat)

As a reviewer, as well as a director, I’ve encountered many unforgettable artists, actors and directors whose work was exemplary. Among them, SCR creators Emmes and Benson as well as Kent Johnson, Hal Landon Jr. (SCR’s Scrooge for 40 years), Doug Rowe, Damien Lorton, Kathy Paladino, Mike Brown, Bob Fetes, Renata Florin, LaDonna de Barros, my own ex-wife Beth Titus and the golden-voiced Adriana Sanchez, whose vocal and dramatic skills would be a perfect fit on any Broadway stage.

Now comes the “In Memoriam” segment of this farewell column, paying tribute to theater people with whom I’ve worked who left earth’s stage far too soon. They include Ron and Carol Filian, Chuck and Mary Benton, David and Betsy Paul, Wil Thompson, Tracy Godfrey, Lois Farah, Ben Jutzi, Ron Albertsen, Marty Fuchs, Nick Sigman, Laura Black, Tony Grande, Phil de Barros, Bill Carden, Joanne Wolcott, Marthella Randall and my personal mentor, the lady who ignited the torch of my four decades in theater, Pati Tambellini.

I “retired” from ICT in 2003, primarily to spend more time with my new leading lady, Jurine Landoe — we’ve now been together over 18 years. But in 2007 the Irvine theater pulled me back in to direct “The Diary of Anne Frank,” my official swan song.

All in all, it’s been a full, exciting and thoroughly enjoyable life both as an observer and a participant. I really hate to ring down the curtain but I’ll soon be four score and three, and advancing age carries physical limitations.

Local theater will be back, albeit without me. When it is, I encourage you to go see a show and enjoy live performances in this most pleasurable of all artistic experiences.

Tom Titus has retired from writing theater reviews for the Daily Pilot and TimesOC.

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