The La Jolla Playhouse
They were a trio of Hollywood actors at the height of their film careers -- for the most part under contract to David Selznick. But they longed for the legitimate stage and found it strangely absent in Los Angeles. So Gregory Peck, Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire dreamed of opening a playhouse.

At first the three tried for a site in Los Angeles, at the corner of Wilshire and Doheny. But that plan fell through. Santa Barbara, maybe? Then Peck thought of his hometown, La Jolla.

By 1945, Peck was hard at work on two films -- The MACOMBER AFFAIR and GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT -- when nostalgia struck. He remembered the La Jolla High School auditorium with it's arched proscenium featuring a dramatic mural of Katharine Cornell and Brian Ahern in ROMEO AND JULIET. The auditorium might be available, he was told, if old friend Frank Harmon -- who ran the Buick agency on Herschel and was president of the Kiwanis Club -- would pressure the school board. The floor was flat; risers would have to be built so people in the back could see. And the seats were hard -- just folding chairs, really. But here was a charming beach community not far from L.A. that might -- just might -- be ready for legitimate theater.

What would bring San Diegans to a high school theater to see plays? Stars, the trio decided. Stars like Vincent Price, Lee Marvin, Eartha Kitt, Richard Basehart, Louis Jourdan, Ginger Rogers, Dennis Hopper, David Niven, Jose Ferrer (no relation to Mel), Olivia de Havilland, Eve Arden, Groucho Marx, Jane Cowl, Tallulah Bankhead, Joseph Cotton, Miriam Hopkins... all of whom, and many more, appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse during the next 18 years.

"We felt the people in La Jolla and San Diego would be intrigued to see these famous actors on the stage," explains Peck. "We always started with who'd play the leads. And once you got Richard Basehart or Jose Ferrer, it was easy to cast the supporting roles. We were reading plays endlessly, all three of us, Mel and Dorothy and I, because we wanted a well-balanced season."

Playhouse.jpg (41120 bytes)Meanwhile, David Selznick had loaned them $15,000 "to see what the kids could do," said Peck. They were joined by Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones and in the beginning called themselves The Actors Company.

"Greg was the deus ex machina," says Mel Ferrer. "The La Jolla Playhouse never would have existed without Greg. He was a tremendous success at the time." Ferrer remembers Peck's pitch to the La Jolla Women's Committee, who were entrusted with ticket sales plus acquiring props and costumes. "Greg made the most remarkable speech. 'We have no idea what plays we'll present or who's going to be in them,' he said, 'but we guarantee you 10 plays a year and our word that they will be good.' And he sat down. Within the next few weeks, the women had sold 60 percent of the subscriptions tickets, without our announcing a single play."

They selected a star of international repute for opening night: Dame May Whitty, that elegant, British lady noted for her London-then-Hollywood triumph in NIGHT MUST FALL. "We wanted the theater to open with a good play that would get us off to a fine start," says Peck.

NIGHT MUST FALL was a great success. "After that opening," says Peck, "all doubts -- if there were any -- were assuaged. We got started right away with quality, thanks to that great old lady."

Peck acted in three plays during the next three years, Ferrer three and McGuire six -- plus Ferrer did a great deal of directing. McGuire chose her plays well, among them Tennessee Williams' SUMMER AND SMOKE, Noel Coward's TONIGHT AT 8:30, I AM A CAMERA, and THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (in which she and Jane Wyatt played two young women being courted by Mel Ferrer and Hurd Hatfield).

"It was a lot of fun -- and a lot of work," says Peck. "We had only one week to rehearse, so we had to schedule every hour into 20-minute scenes, 40-minute scenes. It was like a railroad schedule. We demanded -- no , we couldn't really demand, because they were working for practically nothing -- but we fervently requested that everybody learn their lines before they got there. We didn't have time for people to walk around with a book in their hand."

The actors were paid $55 plus hotel accommodations and three meals a day. The tone changed somewhat when Jennifer Jones, a recent Oscar winner for SONG OF BERNADETTE and engaged at that time to Selznick, came to do SERENA BLANDISH. She arrived with luxury trailer and butler, chauffeur and maid, plus a wardrobe designer and an acting coach -- the famous Constance Collier, who also played a major role.

One of Ferrer's fondest memories is of Groucho Marx, whom they had lured with the promise of a play he hoped to develop. "We knew Norman Krasna had written a play with the Groucho in mind," said Ferrer. "We said, if we do the play, and Norm does a rewrite with you, will you come down?"

"'Oh, I don't know, that's a very strait-laced community down there,' said Groucho." But he acquiesced, and TIME FOR ELIZABETH was the third play of the 1952 season. At first Ferrer made lunch reservations each day for himself and Marx at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. By the end of Marx's two-week stay, there would be 20 to 30 people at lunch with them listening to Groucho's stories.

"It became the thing to do," remembers Peck, "to come to the opening and mix in the patio between acts on a beautiful summer's evening. After each opening night we'd have a blast at the Whaling Bar. Sometimes I -- and I suspect at times Mel and Dorothy -- would have to drive back at 1 in the morning and be on a film set at 6. But we were young, and we were resilient. We were busy young people, and we were having the time of our lives."

It was in a 1951 production of THE VOICES OF THE TURTLE that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz first saw Vivian Vance -- and decided they'd found the ideal Ethel for TV's I LOVE LUCY. The same year saw Joan Bennett in SUSAN AND GOD and Charlton Heston in THE PETRIFIED FOREST. David Niven led off the 1952 season with THE MOON IS BLUE.

Peck led the group as artistic director for the first critical years, then in 1950 went to London to do CAPTAIN HORATIO HORNBLOWER, and in 1952 to Europe to do MOBY DICK in Ireland and ROMAN HOLIDAY in Rome. At that time he became less active in the Playhouse. "Mel and Dorothy continued it," he says, and Dorothy's husband, John Swope, took over management.

In 1953 Mel married Audrey Hepburn and for the next few years lived in Europe, so that was the end of his direct association with the summer theater.

In 1954 the Kiwanis Club withdrew its support, and Swope cut the schedule from 10 plays with one-week runs to five with two-week runs. But the Playhouse remained hale and healthy until the late '50s, even attempting a musical in 1956, PAL JOEY. One of the chorus for that rollicking extravaganza was La Jollan Raquel Tejada, later Raquel Welch.

Then began a down-hill slide. Roberta Ridgely, in her comprehensive study of the La Jolla Playhouse for a 1987 issue of San Diego Magazine, suggests that "television was breaking up major film studios, causing a decline in the number of contract players. Eventually, few could afford to play gratis Hollywood hooky at La Jolla."

Reviews were frequently critical -- "Ginger Rogers was in better shape than the script" -- and the final blow came with a 1964 performance by Zsa Zsa Gabor in which an observer commented that she "sometimes forgot where to stand or when to begin talking."

Perhaps economics had caught up with the Playhouse. It closed after Gabor's last performance in BLITHE SPIRIT and would not open again for 19 years.

Anticipation was heavy in the air. It was June 24, 1983. A bejeweled and black-tied opening-night audience settled into the seats of the months-old Mandell Weiss Theater. All were considerably curious about this premiere, one of Bertolt Brecht's more obscure works, THE VISIONS OF SIMONE MACHARD.

Soon it became clear this was not the old La Jolla Playhouse -- comfortable summer productions of familiar plays, generally used as star vehicles. The cast here, largely unknown, performed in an overtly theatrical manner favored by Brecht, and the engrossing production bristled with innovative, stimulating effects. A back wall opened, making visible the huge prop area behind; bright lights blazed into the audience faces; jarring noises punctuated the sound design; and the World War II play featured eclectic sets and costumes. Then, part way through the second act, noises came from above, and the audience looked up, suddenly realizing the actors were scampering around on the wire mesh grid, playing a scene overhead.

The Des McAnuff era had begun.

It was during this era that James appeared in the play DOWN THE ROAD in 1989.

Des McAnuff left in 1995 to direct films but remains spiritually bonded to the Playhouse. "It may well be the achievement of my lifetime," he says. He carries the title of director-in-residence and says he plans more projects at the Playhouse. "I'm glad to pass the command to the younger generation," he says. McAnuff passed the torch to Michael Greif, his former student and assistant.

Barely a teenager in years, the "New" La Jolla Playhouse is a hardy veteran when it comes to regional theater. It operates in an arena where only the strong survive. Having survived, and even flourished, into its 15th year, the born-again La Jolla Playhouse is a successful aberration. And its success comes from a combination of old-fashioned theatrical savvy and new energy.

On May 17, 1997, the La Jolla Playhouse celebrated it's 50th anniversary. Gregory Peck and Mel Ferrer where in the anniversary audience. Synopsis from an interview by Virginia Butterfield for San Diego Magazine.
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