Santa Monica denizen Paul Sand has a special affinity for one of the local attractions — the jolly fun fair situated along the wooden length of Santa Monica Pier. His Mexican father and Russian mother met and fell in love on the 104-year-old landmark, says the quirky actor/director/producer.
Sand took his first wobbly steps as a toddler on its uneven boards, and he even lived above the carousel when he was a teen. Recalls Sand, “After I graduated high school, I lived there with my girl friend, Joan Rose, over the merry-go-round. The rooms were round — it had round bedrooms and a round living room, and you constantly heard calliope music going.” He laughs.
Now Sand is putting on an artistic director’s hat and starting a new theater company, creating a pop-up cabaret venue on that same pier, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Calling it the West End Theatre, he plans to transform an observation deck at the end of the pier into a “mysterious, waterfront cabaret-style performing space.” The stage will be set and struck every night in a narrow, enclosed space upstairs above the Mariasol Restaurant.
The performance space is intimate, with room for 50-60 seats at the most. Sand anticipates that the presentation, entitled Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel, will consist of a 45-minute performance of a collection of the famed German composer’s songs. “With our theatrical lighting and the performers and the ocean outside, I want to make it a hypnotic show,” Sand murmurs. “I want to get the audience under my spell and keep them there.”
An amiable fellow with a note of mischief in his drawn-out vowels, Sand is perhaps best known for his numerous appearances in TV shows since the mid-’50s. He often played a rumpled, sad-sack characters on comedies such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, his own short-lived CBS series Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers, Taxi, The Carol Burnett Show, right through to L.A. Law, The X Files and Curb Your Enthusiasm. At a young age he studied with Marcel Marceau in Paris and performed comedy at Chicago’s Second City.
In 1970 Sand was at the Mark Taper Forum in Paul Sills’ Story Theatre, which won an LADCC production award. A year later, Sand won a Tony Award for best performance by a featured actor in a play and a Drama Desk award for his multi-character roles in the same production’s Broadway run. He also won a second Drama Desk Award for his appearance in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which played on Broadway in repertory with Paul Sills’ Story Theatre. Last year Sand directed David Mamet’s teenaged daughter Clara’s first plays, Paris and The Solvit Kids at Ruskin Group in Santa Monica.
The site for his new theater company certainly holds a special appeal. With its carousel from the 1920s and other rides, an aquarium, numerous novelty shops, local entertainers, a video arcade, a trapeze school, a pub, and restaurants, the Santa Monica Pier is a popular destination for tourists and locals. The far end of the pier is frequented by anglers. Additionally, the bright lights of the solar-powered Ferris wheel and lilting strains of calliope music creates a wild, carnival atmosphere — the perfect location, insists Sand, for a production of Kurt Weill’s edgy songs, “all about revenge, murder and broken hearts.”
Muses Sand, “The pier is so strange and so wonderful and so mysterious. I can see it from where I live right now. I take walks there, and one night I was walking with some friends, and I said, ‘wouldn’t this be a great place to open a little theater'” that would use some of Weill’s “dark and theatrical songs?”
Sand had previously met the deputy director of the pier, Jim Harris, through mutual friends. Recalls Sand, “He’s a wonderful guy. I called him up and told him about my idea. He told me, ‘We’ve been wanting theater on the pier, and we know your work and your history. I happen to have an available space at the far west end. It hangs out over the ocean and it gets pretty wild up there sometimes… Do you want that space?’”
Sand jumped at the chance. He tried crowd-sourcing on Indiegogo but failed to raise the budget for the inaugural show. He eventually gained a small grant from a discreet local foundation. “At the last minute I heard about this foundation, so I called them up and spoke to this nice lady. She told me I’d better get my application in fast because it all will be closing down in two weeks.” Fortunately he made it under the wire. “I improvised a budget and I got the grant. We got enough to put on the show.”
Assembling a cast proved ridiculously easy, as well, with the entire company formed in two weeks. “It all happened so effortlessly. It’s just weird,” he marvels. Sand says he had seen performers over the past few years who had caught his attention. “Not stars or anything, but people who I thought were vivid and exciting personalities. I had made circles around their name in the programs. Then I found them and asked them and they said yes.”
As well as directing, Sand will perform alongside cast members Megan Rippey, Shay Astar and Sol Mason, who plays the narrator and host in this shady waterfront cabaret. Michael Roth, whom Sand calls “insanely perfect,” is the music director. “He’s a specialist in Kurt Weill, luckily enough. He’s so intense, in a great way, and a perfectionist. So this is not just kidding around.” Sand describes himself as “a nice director, I think, but sometimes I lose my temper…”
One of the musicians Sand has enlisted is Tamboura, a “kid from Silver Lake” whom he’d heard busking on the pier. “I’m walking down the pier one afternoon, and I hear this beautiful violin music — this kid is standing there playing perfect violin. I put a few dollars in the hat thing, and then I thought and thought and finally I called James Harris. I asked him, ‘You know how to find these people that are musicians on the Pier, right?’ He did, so I drove to Silver Lake and talked to him. He said, ‘Yes, I love Kurt Weill. Yeah, I’ll do it’.”
Musical accompaniment will include cello and a harmonium. “We rented a piano and it’s just been moved up there,” says Sand. Some of Weill’s best-known songs are on the program: “Mack the Knife,” “Pirate Jenny” and “Barbara Song” from The Threepenny Opera, which Weill penned with Bertolt Brecht; “Surabaya Johnny” from “Happy End;” and “Luck Song,” also known as “The Insufficiency of Human Behavior.” The finale will be “The Alabama Song” from “Mahagonny,” also written with Brecht and performed by the entire company.
“We’re all actor-singers,” says Sand, the excitement building in his voice. “There’s one song I really want to do. It’s the ‘Forgiveness’ song.” Sand is referring to “Call From The Grave/Ballad In Which MacHeath Begs All Men For Forgiveness,” from The Threepenny Opera. “It’s so evil!” he laughs.
To create the right ambience in his new theater, Sand hired surrealist painter Marie Lalanne to design costumes and sets. She has created landscape paintings on large canvas panels that will be hung behind the stage. “It will give it this wonderful carnival atmosphere and we’ll take them down after the second show every night. And then they’ll never know, in the morning, that we were even there,” he adds enigmatically.
If this first show proves a success, Sand anticipates more productions. “I do have my next ideas. I want to stay with the theme of ‘waterfront scary’.”
Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel, West End Theatre, Santa Monica Pier. Opens this Friday, 7:30 pm. No performance Sat Dec. 7. Then Fri-Sat 7:30 and 9 pm Dec. 13, 14, 20 and 21 (with the possibility of an extension) Through Dec. 21. Tickets: $20. www.eventbrite.com/event/8804429285.
**Photos by Jamie Virostko.