Mesa Musings: No business like OCC's show business

On a sweltering East Coast evening last week I took in a community production of Meredith Wilson's classic 1957 Broadway musical, "Music Man."

The performance was a delight, and brought back many wonderful memories.

I first saw the show in the summer of 1963 at Orange Coast College. Directed by John Ford, the production featured Newport Beach's Pete Ostling as Professor Harold Hill. I may be biased, but Pete's performance was every bit as compelling as Robert Preston's Tony Award-winning turn on Broadway.

Pete — later known as Peter Jason — left OCC for New York the following year and went on to enjoy a long career as a versatile stage, television and motion picture character actor. He's still performing.

Pete and I were OCC students together and, in addition to being a wonderful actor, I remember him as an enthusiastic student government leader and cheerleader.

Do you recall OCC's rich main-stage summer musical tradition? That tradition ran uninterrupted for 29 summers, from 1956 through 1984. It was revived briefly in 1993 after the renovation of Robert B. Moore Theatre, and again in 1998 to celebrate the college's 50th anniversary.

Lavish summer shows ran for one or two weekends every August.

Summer productions included "South Pacific" (three times), "Oklahoma," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Man of La Mancha," "Carousel," "Evita" and so many others. Casts were large and enthusiastic, and community support was amazing.

Many accomplished actors — and future stars — took part in OCC's summer shows. The summer following Ostling's 1963 "Music Man" performance Diane Hall — later known to the world as Diane Keaton — starred as Maria in "The Sound of Music."

I was fortunate to land supporting roles in the 1961 production of "Li'l Abner" and the 1993 show, "South Pacific." For me, those were magical summers.

Because of the quality of OCC's summer productions, the 1,200-seat Robert B. Moore Theatre was frequently sold out. In the 1950s and early '60s, OCC enjoyed "Only-Game-in-Town" status. In those days, there was no Segerstrom Center for the Arts, no South Coast Repertory, no Saddleback Civic Light Opera and no Irvine Barclay Theatre.

People flocked to Robert B. Moore Theatre from all over the Southland to attend summer productions.

There was one drawback, however. Until 1993, the venue had no air conditioning.

During the first act of virtually every summer performance, the temperature in the packed house would climb steadily by the minute. Prior to intermission, audience members could be seen fanning their faces with printed programs.

During the second act, the large doors on either side of the stage were opened to let in the evening coastal breeze. The only problem was that people leaving the show early could be heard starting their cars in the parking lot. Sirens emanating from Fairview Road were also a concern.

But rousing chorus numbers like "Shipoopi," "There is Nothing Like a Dame" and "Jubilation T. Cornpone" were enough to drown out competing sounds.

OCC's summer musical tradition was instituted by theater department Chairman Lucian Scott. A former professional actor with extensive credits, Luke ran the department from 1955-69.

He played the title role in the college's 1955 production of "King Lear," and received high praise from critics. Four years later he had the lead in "Macbeth." Scott's student, David Emmes — who went on to co-found the South Coast Repertory Co. — played Macduff in that production.

Following his OCC retirement, Luke moved to New York and played Dr. Rance in the Broadway production "What the Butler Saw," directed by his former student, Joseph Hardy.

During the 1974-75 television season, he appeared in five episodes of the "Bob Newhart Show." Scott was hilarious as Bob's aged, befuddled and bumbling therapy patient, Edgar J. Vickers.

Thanks, Luke Scott, for launching OCC's summer musicals. I wish we could bring 'em back!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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