Our Laguna: Playhouse gives former director accolades

Doug Rowe pronounces his name to rhyme with "wow," and for years that's what he did on the Laguna Playhouse stage and in the wings.

He acted and directed plays for 27 years when the playhouse was not yet a "professional" theater, meaning the actors and stage crew didn't get paid.

The playhouse is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year by honoring some of the supporters and volunteers who made major contributions in time, talent and/or money in previous decades.

None could be more deserving than Rowe. He was honored Saturday at the opening of "Private Lives" as the Heart and Soul of the Playhouse — to say nothing of his skills as a director or ability to woo locals to perform.

"Doug led the playhouse through many a windstorm as both artistic and managing director," "Private Lives" Director Andrew Barnicle wrote in the program.

"I've heard more than a few non-theater civilians tell me how they would try to shrink when they saw Doug approaching on the street for fear they would end up in a play," he wrote. "Then they'd follow up with a dozen stories of the wonderful time they had and how it not only changed their perspective of themselves and their personal capacities, but how it brought them into a fold of friends that has lasted for life.

"That was Doug's way: People who never knew they had it in them blossomed around him. His patience, skills, grace and humor guided them through innumerable joyous experiences, not to mention some terrific work on the playhouse stage."

Rowe served as artistic and managing director from 1964 to 1991, the year after Rick Stein was hired.

In 1996, Rowe moved with his family to Oregon, where he was to star as Willy Loman in the acclaimed Ashland Shakespeare Festival's production of "Death of a Salesman."

Last December, Rowe was named artistic director of the Ashland New Plays Festival.

Rowe was welcomed home at a pre-show reception attended by many of the folks who had worked with him, on and off stage, including Jim and Karen McBride, who starred in the award-winning "Quilters," among other notable productions; Cherry and Vern Spitaleri, who helped raise funds for construction of the theater and productions; Anne Wood, all around volunteer; Jim and Arts Commissioner Pat Kollenda, a former board member; and Susan Jahraus, also a former board member;

John Ferzacca recalled directing musicals at the playhouse.

"Doug didn't want to do them, so I did," Ferzacca said.

He said that Rowe had come to Los Angeles to pursue a career in theater rather than head east because of New York musicals.

Actually, Rowe came west because his beloved Dodgers had left Brooklyn.

The word "fanatic" may have been coined for him. He said that he once accosted Bobby Thompson for hitting the home run that defeated the Dodgers in the pennant race when both teams were still in New York.

Folks who know Rowe might be surprised to hear that one of his most cherished memories is of when his son Billy quit playing professional baseball after a year in the minors.

"He said, 'I want to have children, and I want to spend as much time with my children as you did with me,'" Rowe said.

What finer accolade could a parent want?

But it was his work at the playhouse that got the plaudits Saturday.

Playhouse Managing Director Karen Wood introduced Rowe to a sold-out audience that needed no introduction.

"I spent a lot of evenings on this stage, and I talked to a lot of audiences on opening nights right here in front of the stage," Rowe said. "I cannot begin to tell you how much this community and this organization meant to me.

"I met the most important people in my life here, not the least of whom is my wife, Catherine, when she played in 'Play It Again Sam,'" Rowe said. "She is still the most important person in my life.

"We had two sons and they played on this stage and in the offices."

It must have rubbed off on Billy and his older brother, Jackson, who are both in show business.

Rowe has appeared in 23 films, more than 50 television shows and on stages around the country.

But nowhere else that he performed or directed did actors and the audience have the same relationship as they did at the playhouse when it was a community theater, Rowe said.

Laguna owes a lot, Rowe said, to the folks who made the theater possible: Nellie Moulton, for whom the theater was named, the city of Laguna Beach and the playhouse boards of directors.

"The board did a pretty damn good job over the years — the theater is 90 years old," Rowe said. "The staff worked for peanuts with tremendous passion, great directors also worked for peanuts. Volunteers worked backstage and as ushers. I can't begin to tell you how much we owe them.

"Most important were the amateur actors; they worked at their jobs during the day and here at night: the doctors, the dentists, the teachers, the students, the artists —

"And the housewives," Pat Kollenda interjected from the audience.

Moving right along, Rowe concluded with a heartfelt thanks to all the people who made the theater "the heart and soul" of the community. He was given a standing ovation.

"It's an honor to honor him," said Barnicle, who retired as artistic director last year.

"It was like graduating from college," he said. "I had a lovely time here, but I was ready for something new."

That doesn't mean he won't be around. When the new season is announced, he might be among the directors. It was Barnicle who chose "Private Lives," for the final production of the 90th season, for which he was applauded.

Barnicle joined the cast of five for a toast at the post-play champagne reception. Joseph Fuqua, one of the male leads, appeared not to have injured himself in an inadvertent fall he took in a scene where he was berated for overly imbibing. He had covered the mishap without missing a beat, saying he'd only had one drink. The quick-witted adlib earned him appreciative applause from the audience.

"Loved it," said school board member Betsy Jenkins, who attended the opening with husband, Dr. Gary Jenkins.

The audience included Mayor Toni Iseman, Michelle and Councilman Kelly Boyd, Councilwoman Verna Rollinger, Festival of Arts Special Events Director Susan Davis, Kathy Conway and Ellen Harris.

When the Rowes moved to Oregon, Harris had inherited Catherine Rowe's campaign to rid the El Morro Elementary School campus of the cell tower that had been approved by the Laguna Beach Board of Education, and eventually won the day.

Also there were Michael and former Mayor Cheryl Kinsman and their 17-year-old son, Nicholas, recently appointed to the Recreation Committee, Lori and photographer Don Romero, Visitors Bureau Executive Director Judy Bijlani, Debussy Guild member Gloria Manders, Barbara Metzger, "Woofstock" promoter Nadine Ashby, Tight Assets owner Heidi Miller and Friends of the Library President Martha Lydick, three members of the playhouse 90th Anniversary Committee and Committee Chairwoman Karyn Phillipsen.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; call (949) 380-4321 or e-mail coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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