On Theater: After 50 years, the stage still thrills

Daily Pilot theater critic Tom Titus, pictured here during the 1970s, has a long history with the paper. He started as a reporter in 1963 and moved to the copy desk two years later. He remained as a staff member until 1991, and since then has been a freelance writer for the paper covering local theater.
(File Photo, Daily Pilot)

Fifty years is a heck of a long time for any one person to be doing any one thing, regardless of how much he or she may enjoy the activity.

Fifty years ago, as a young reporter with just a little over a year on the staff of the Daily Pilot, I was handed a pair of tickets by a fellow scribe who knew of my interest in live theater and asked if I would care to review a play at the old theater in Laguna Beach.

The show was “A Thousand Clowns,” starring a pre-"M*A*S*H” Mike Farrell, and it ignited what would become a half century and counting as the Pilot’s theater critic. When you enjoy something as much as I appreciate live theater, you tend to stick with it.

The road from there to here is overflowing with memories. That February 1965 marked the introduction of South Coast Repertory to local audiences, and I got in on the ground floor. I’ve now seen every one of SCR’s major productions — and reviewed all but one of them. The lone exception came in 2006 when I was hospitalized and my son, Tim, pinch-hit for me and reviewed “The Real Thing” for the Pilot.

I enjoyed the theater so much that I got into it myself and began acting, and later directing. I learned early on that performing or directing in theater was the most fun you could have with your clothes on. My stage debut came in June 1965 as the cemetery lot salesman in “Send Me No Flowers,” the inaugural production of the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse.

When the Irvine Community Theater was born in 1970, I performed in its first show (“Come Blow Your Horn”) and did another (“Arsenic and Old Lace”) — in roles filled on screen by Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant, respectively — before being asked to guest-direct an ICT production (“You Can’t Take It With You”). Before I knew it, I found myself ensconced as the theater’s artistic director, a pro bono position I filled for 31 years.

I never intentionally set out to become the Vin Scully of local theater critics. In fact, my early years in typewriter-pounding leaned more toward Scully’s line of work. I was sports editor of my hometown newspaper for four years before the Army intervened.

When I graduated from the Army Information School, I was sent to Korea, where I became a staff writer, and eventually managing editor, of the 7th Infantry Division’s weekly newspaper. Then came a return to my roots — 14 months as sports editor of the Monmouth Message, the post newspaper in Fort Monmouth, N.J.

That stint as a Jersey boy triggered my long love of live theater. The Army base was just an hour south of New York City, and I would spend every possible weekend in the Big Apple, picking up comp tickets from the Manhattan USO and catching show after show on and off Broadway, easily well over 100 productions.

In those days (as now), I had two major non-romantic passions — writing and the theater. When I got the chance to merge the two in 1965, I just never let go. And it was only a matter of time before I began acting and directing as well. I even wrote a play (“Summer Lightning”), which launched the directing phase of my community theater career.

I never really kept track of all the reviews I’ve written, but they number in the thousands over a half-century span. Add that to a couple hundred productions as actor or director, and you’ve got a fellow who’s really been up to his ears in live theater.

I left the Pilot’s full-time employment in 1991 but was asked to continue reviewing local theater on a freelance basis, an offer I couldn’t refuse. There certainly is enough local theater activity to inspire a column every week.

Theater figured strongly in my personal life as well. When I played Mitch in the Westminster Community Theater’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1970, I fell in love with the actress playing Blanche. Beth and I were married for 13 years and still remain friends, and the union produced two exceptional children, now exceptional adults.

Son Tim teaches psychology and serves as the journalism adviser at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana, while daughter Mindy, a credit union manager and occasional actress, has produced two beautiful (not that I’m prejudiced) daughters, Riley and Kaylyn, who are getting an early introduction to the theater. Riley, who turns 8 in February, already has been in her school’s show, “The Wiz,” and has a role in the upcoming “Alice in Wonderland.”

Both of my own kids were thoroughly immersed in theater during their youth. Two of my favorite acting roles were those of Scotty Templeton in “Tribute,” with Tim playing my son, and Herb Tucker in “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” when Mindy portrayed my daughter.

When I met my current lady love, Jurine Landoe, a dozen years ago, I hung it up at ICT so I could spend more time with her. I returned to the Irvine theater in 2007 to direct one final play, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a few months after my hospital stint (I’d spent the better part of 2006 battling lymphoma and pneumonia), then happily closed the book on my active participation in theater, my passion finally sated.

I’m still in reasonably good health (despite that scare in ’06) and hope to be around, certainly not another 50 years but quite a few more, to continue a love affair with the stage that began in 1962 when I’d spend my weekends discovering live theater along the Great White Way.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.