Carnett: Costa Mesa became Dogpatch for four nights in '61

Fifty-one years ago, Orange Coast College staged its summer musical production, "Li'l Abner."

The show was performed before packed houses in OCC's 1,200-seat auditorium in August of 1961.

The college's theater department was the only game in town that summer for entertainment and culture. South Coast Repertory and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts were chimeras on a distant horizon.

Cartoonist and humorist Al Capp based the musical on his satirical comic strip, "Li'l Abner." The show spoofs hillbillies, government incompetence and standards of masculinity.

Lyrics were by Johnny Mercer, music by Gene De Paul. The show ran on Broadway from 1956 to 1958, and a motion picture was released in 1959.

At the time of OCC's production I had just finished my junior year at Costa Mesa High School. Shortly before summer break, my drama instructor, Julie Hall Gill, announced in class that OCC would host auditions for its summer musical in late June.

I decided to try out. The experience changed my life.

The show, directed by OCC's superb young theater instructor, John Ford, featured a huge cast of more than a hundred actors, singers and dancers, plus a full orchestra. Cast members ranged in age from 7 to 70.

Vocal director was Walter Gleckler. Paul Cox conducted the orchestra. Both were longtime OCC music instructors.

Auditions took place in the auditorium over four nights — Monday through Thursday — and hundreds took part.

I actually landed a speaking role: Evil Eye Fleagle.

The cast had its initial script read-through Friday in the student center. Ford began blocking the show, or positioning the actors, the next Monday, and the crew commenced construction of the set on the auditorium stage.

Seven weeks later, voila! We opened.

In a nutshell, the musical tells the story of handsome, muscle-bound and muscle-brained hillbilly, Abner Yokum; his girlfriend, Daisy Mae Scragg; his family; and the residents of Dogpatch, USA — the "most useless" town in America.

My character worked for shifty corporate billionaire, Gen. Bullmoose. Evil Eye Fleagle placed debilitating "whammies" on people, including the aforementioned Abner, to further his boss' nefarious intentions.

The talented cast was headed by ruggedly handsome Ray Quigley as Li'l Abner, and the lovely Terry Reich Cole as Daisy Mae. Quigley, a former Marine Corps pilot, went on to become a commercial pilot and serve in Irvine's city government for many years. Terry later became a TV personality and best-selling author (as Terry Cole-Whittaker).

Longtime Orange County musical theater performer Stan Throneberry garnered critical huzzahs for his energetic portrayal of Marryin' Sam. My Costa Mesa High classmate, Chris Salyer, played a dazzling and scene-stealing Mammy Yokum.

One critic wrote: "The entire performance rang with a professional air. When OCC puts on a musical production, don't miss it!"

The show was well worth its $1.50 admission price.

The production ran four nights, and my parents were there every night.

Mercer, who lived in Newport Beach, attended opening night. Just before intermission, the cast invited the lyricist to the stage, and director Ford introduced him to the audience.

The show seemed to get better with each performance and, by Saturday evening, I didn't want it to end. We turned in a rousing closing performance.

At the cast party that night, this 16-year-old said goodbye — forever — to most of his fellow cast members. I thought of them many times in succeeding years, but never had the occasion to see most of them again.

Salyer and I returned to Costa Mesa High, older and wiser, to begin our senior year.

I never again witnessed a performance of "Li'l Abner," until about a year ago. I caught the 1959 film on a movie channel. I was whisked back in time to the summer of '61, and was surprised to discover that I remembered virtually every line and lyric from the show.

The movie was good, but it didn't measure up to the quality of OCC's production.

Ussins from Newport-Mesa breathed life into Dogpatch, USA!

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

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