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A centennial celebration revived: The Laguna Playhouse stages 10 readings to honor 10 decades of live theater in town

By MARRIE STONE

Like many of Laguna’s beloved institutions, its beginnings were humble. On October 22, 1920, at the suggestion of Annie Gayne Peake and Isabel Frost, 17 local thespians gathered in a living room, hatching an idea that would endure for over a century (and counting). Their goal was simple, though hardly easy to achieve: Create a nonprofit community theater dedicated to producing high-quality performances downtown.

In those days, Laguna’s population numbered only around 300. In a village that size, this level of theatrical interest was significant. With the country still roiling from its own devastating pandemic – not to mention a world war – folks were primed for some light-hearted fun. Laguna proved the perfect place. Its artist community was already burgeoning with the founding of the Laguna Beach Art Association two years before, and an influential group of plein air artists working in the area. Community theater was a natural addition.

The strength of live theater is its ability to reflect culture, people and the times. Both the country and our town have come a long way in those intervening 101 years. Many plays have definitively not stood the test of time. And yet, in some surprising ways, other themes continue to resonate. 

A centennial milestone gives our community much to reflect upon and celebrate, particularly when the Playhouse was born alongside the town (although founded in 1887, Laguna Beach wasn’t officially incorporated until 1927). Since its inception in 1920, the theater has staged nearly 700 productions. It’s one of the oldest continuously operating, nonprofit playhouses on the West Coast.

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

The volunteer organization known as “The Label Ladies” gather to send out the Playhouse’s monthly newsletter 

To honor its longstanding roots, Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham and Executive Director Ellen Richard plan to present 10 readings over roughly the next year to honor each of the Playhouse’s 10 decades. The series – which began on Zoom this past June – will continue live and in-person on Monday, Nov. 8, with the 1950 Broadway play Bell, Book and Candle by John Van Druten. 

While we watch the decades unfold, we look back at this longstanding organization, and the unique influences that have allowed it to survive and thrive for more than a century. 

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Laguna Playhouse has always loved its furry artists. Paws up for Champion Blackwillow, the principal in 1984’s “On Borrowed Time,” seen with Yolanda Molnar and Peter Kreder

In the beginning…

Originally known as the Laguna Beach Community Dramatic Club, the organization staged their first play in someone’s home. Appropriately, they chose George Kelly’s The Torchbearers, a comedic satire about the pretensions of the Little Theater Movement which began proliferating around the United States in 1912 (when the new medium of cinema threatened to usurp the stage). Reflective of the times, when women rarely held jobs outside the home, a housewife becomes an actress while her husband travels on business. 

It wasn’t until 1922 when the Playhouse could claim its first official production, this time performed in a tire shop on Ocean Avenue. Suppressed Desires, a one-act comedy by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Susan Glaspell and her husband, George Cram Cook, explores what happens when a happy marriage collides with some introspective psychoanalysis. Freud had only been on the scene for 30 years in those days, and the 19th Amendment (codifying women’s right to vote) had been ratified by Congress only two years before. Glaspell’s feminist sensibilities spoke to the era. And Laguna Beach, with its progressive artistic vibe, became the right town to appreciate the message. 

Wareham and Richard selected Suppressed Desires to kick off the Centennial Celebration last June on Zoom. It was a natural past-meets-present choice. The virtual reading provided an appropriate homage to the Playhouse’s beginnings during its own pandemic, this time with a modern-day technological assist. “It took a bit to put Suppressed Desires together,” said Wareham. “We were planning to do a live performance, but COVID protocols didn’t permit it. We missed our opportunity to do it live and chose to go online. But it worked well. It just took some creative thinking on the part of the director, Andrew Barnicle, to make it pop off the screen.”

The production also afforded the opportunity to welcome some favored actors back to the stage. “It starred French Stewart, Vanessa Stewart and Jennifer Shelton,” said Richard. “French is well-known to television audiences [for his role as Harry Solomon on NBC’s Third Rock from the Sun] and well-known to our Playhouse audiences for his performance of Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey.

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Charles Nelson Reilly directed Charles Durning (left) and Dick Van Patten in the 2003 production of Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Harvey,” about a man and his invisible rabbit friend

Finding its way

For the first few decades, before the Playhouse found its permanent home, it was run by a group of dedicated but unprofessional volunteers. Longtime Artistic Director Barnicle affectionately referred to them as “enlightened amateurs.” These forward-looking thespians reflected the vibrant arts colony, putting on shows not only for their entertainment value, but to explore some meaningful themes. 

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Julie Harris stars in the “Belle of Amherst,” her one-woman show about poet Emily Dickenson. Laguna Playhouse produced the national tour of this play in 2000, which visited more than 40 cities.

Of course, not everything about the early 20th century was enlightened. Asked for an example of a play they wouldn’t produce today Richard said, “Well, in the very early days of the Playhouse, they did minstrel shows. That’s not something we’re proud of, but it’s hard to change what happened 90 years ago. It’s certainly nothing we would recreate today.” 

Still, Richard said, other work continues to have resonance. “There’s one play in particular that comes to mind,” she said. “Henrik Ipsen’s An Enemy of the People [an 1882 script staged at the Playhouse in 1991] is about clean water. What could be more relevant today, given the oil spill that just happened? That’s a big subject of discussion in today’s society.”

Before another war broke out, the Playhouse was staging roughly a dozen plays each year. In the early 1930s, they’d secured a property on Ocean Avenue and produced such classics as The Importance of Being Earnest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Candida, along with a slew of lesser-known comedies, dramas and musicals. From 1942 through 1945, with the Festival of Arts shuttered and the Pageant of the Masters gone dark during the war, the Playhouse used its Ocean Avenue facility as a USO center for military personnel. 

Fast-forward to the 1950 and ‘60s

By the 1950s, with the war behind them and a prosperous future ahead, the Playhouse entered a kind of renaissance. To honor this era, Wareham and Richard chose Bell, Book and Candle (originally staged at the Playhouse in 1954) for the Monday, Nov. 8 reading. “We tried to pick a broad swath and capture a little bit of everything from the history of the Playhouse,” said Wareham. “Between the two of us, we came up with a list of 10 shows that we felt really reflected our own sensibility for the theater, and the theater’s 100 years.”

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

“Elementary, my dear Watson.” 1983’s Sherlock Holmes starred Playhouse regular George Woods.

Hollywood stars began to dot the Playhouse stage around this time. Los Angeles wasn’t such a distant drive and Laguna became a holiday playground. Celebrities like Bette Davis, Harrison Ford, Dick Van Patten, Julie Harris and Hal Linden (to name just a few) have graced Laguna’s playbills. More recently Melanie Griffith, Rita Rudner, Cloris Leachman, Bryan Cranston and Val Kilmer have also appeared.

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Nellie Gail Moulton and William L. Pereira break ground in 1964. Nellie Gail Moulton’s gift helped fund the building of the current Laguna Playhouse Moulton Theatre on Laguna Canyon Road.

A celebration worth the wait

While plans for the Playhouse’s centennial celebration had to be put on hold, it gave Wareham and Richard additional time to consider the plays they wanted to read. 

“I suppose like anybody who gets older, we should just start lying about her age and call it 100,” said Richard. “But we felt one of the nicest ways to celebrate our history was to highlight a play from every decade and give our audience the chance to experience the art that’s happened over the last century.” 

Richard says audiences will see how the work has changed – whether it’s held up over time, or whether there have been enough societal shifts that the work feels dated and staid. “Even though there are things the Playhouse did long ago that we wouldn’t do today, celebrating this period of time, the work and the history of the Playhouse is important.”

Wareham agreed. “Some plays just don’t stand the test of time with societal changes and shifting norms. I read many of the scripts we’ve done over the last 100 years and some just didn’t hold up. They needed to be put to bed,” she laughed. Instead, Wareham promises that fans can look forward to some old favorites, some of Wareham’s personal favorites, as well as a good balance between genres. 

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

America’s favorite courtroom drama, Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men,” was a bona fide hit when it played in 2017. The cast featured Seamus Dever, Richard Burgi, John Massey and Andrew Barnicle, and the set was designed by Stephen Gifford.

Perhaps more impressive is how these readings are done. “It’s literally a one-day process,” said Wareham. “We get together late in the morning (which we will do on Monday, Nov. 8). We’ll read the play together, talk about character choices and movement. It’s a six-hour process to get the play on its feet. You can’t overthink it. You’ve just got to deliver the story.” 

The readings won’t be presented chronologically. It may even take more than a year to stage them all, given that they’re being inserted between other shows on a very booked stage. Still, Richard said, “Showcasing our work over the last 100 years seemed like something our audience and owners would really appreciate.” 

While Wareham works to secure all the necessary rights, the slate of shows hasn’t yet been announced. But a few hints may have dropped during our conversation. Watch for A Man for All Seasons (originally staged in 1966) and Same Time Next Year (staged in 1981). 

For more information on the Laguna Playhouse and its history, visit its website at www.lagunaplayhouse.com

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Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Bette Davis was a frequent Laguna Playhouse supporter. In 1950, she hosted the cast party of “One Foot in Heaven.” Davis is second from the left with, from left, her husband Gary Merrill, Bobby Berry (Davis’ sister) and Laguna Playhouse Managing Director Hap Graham at the Hawaiian Broiler Restaurant.

 

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