by JULIO MARTINEZ
Actor/director Richard Erdman (born June 1, 1925) made his film debut in Mrs. Skeffington (1944), starring Bette Davis. His seven-decade career encompasses 160 film and TV projects, including his role as Leonard in Community (53 episodes and counting). Along the way, Erdman helped to found Stage Society of Los Angeles, a non-profit community theatre in Hollywood that produced more than 30 plays between 1950 and 1965. According to Erdman, Stage Society was conceived in a loft on El Centro Avenue by such notables as Arthur Kennedy, Akim Tamiroff, N. Richard Nash, John Ireland, and Anthony Quinn “as a refuge from the frustrations of their careers” and for “surcease from the encroaching limitations of political hysteria and the acidity of ‘commercial’ theater, films and TV.”
Friends and aspirants joined the group and Stage Society became a dues-paying theatrical adventure that soon outgrew the loft, moving to a small, converted church in the 1700 block of New Hampshire Avenue, called the New Hampshire Playhouse. The landlord: James Timony, the former manager of Mae West. The space was a dump, but it possessed a stage, theater seats, and a green room. Actor John Abbott suggested Stage Society as the group’s name. The membership list quickly grew to nearly 100 and included Millard Mitchell, Gary Cooper, Janice Rule, Harvey Lembeck, Patricia Neal, Nelville Brand, James Arness, Michael Chekhov, and Jeff Corey. Each member paid $10 a month to rehearse, lecture and improvise.
“We also did a lot of Christopher Fry,” said Erdman. “And Brecht. And Shaw. Heady stuff for some of us. A ‘stretch,’ with varying results.”
Erdman recalled Neville Brand, a rough-spoken, decorated war hero, struggling with Fry’s Thor, With Angels. It was his first encounter with verse, which he claimed was “more terrifying than any battle he experienced.” Erdman also remembered, “The closest we ever came to evolving an acting style or approach was in a class conducted by Richard Nash, an intensely neo-Stansislavskian who elicited deeply personal and violent reactions from his students. The most powerful work that resulted from that class was a lengthy section of Noël Coward’s The Vortex, performed by Nash’s wife, Helena, and then-unknown Strother Martin.”
During that same year, Michael Chekhov delivered a series of lectures under the title, “The Ideal Actor.” He was sponsored by Akim Tamiroff, who imposed a condition that Chekhov could not be questioned following his lectures, due to his age and poor health. The Nash class and Chekhov lectures further enhanced the reputation of Stage Society, leading to an increased enrollment of star power students. Erdman remembered an evening of improvisation where he found himself on stage with Tamiroff, Patricia Neal, Janice Rule, Anthony Quinn, and Gary Cooper. He recalled, “I believe it was Coop’s first effort on stage. He told me he was terrified. Perhaps, but he was so unassuming, so sensitive to the moment-to-moment of it all, that he was riveting.”
In 1951, Stage Society was nearly decimated. Richard Nash went to Broadway for his play, See the Jaguar. He promised to return, but stayed in New York, writing The Rainmaker. Quinn went overseas for a film. Kennedy returned to New York. Tamiroff became ill, and upon recovery, went to Europe. Then Jeff Corey took over the class and his energy filled the void until he was cut down by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). There were also the efforts of columnists Hedda Hopper and Mike Connelly, who claimed that Stage Society was infiltrated by lefties and Reds. There were emergency meetings and a new board of directors was elected.
“Then I was elected president,” said Erdman. “Arthur Kennedy visited us a final time, handed me the books and the bank balance. Kennedy said to the others, ‘Erdman’s a good choice. He makes the best coffee.’”
Stage Society stayed on at New Hampshire for another year. Erdman claimed it was not a political theater, but by the time the HUAC left LA, three members had resigned “for the good of the company.” One was Jeff Corey, who was unemployed for years and supported himself by teaching. Erdman suggested suing the gossip-mongers but there was no money to sue. By this time, the company membership had pared itself down to around 50. Erdman decided to change the focus. He was going to produce plays. “I got a release from Equity until we broke even on something,” said Erdman. “We didn’t pay anything. Nobody knew about it.”
The greatest problem that Edrman faced was the limited range of skills possessed by the company. He decided to instigate a series of seminars that would cover every aspect of theater, including acting and directing. Whenever possible, guest lecturers were invited. The group responded enthusiastically. Ninety-eight seminars were absorbed in two years. Classes continued, under the direction of Jack Kosslyn.
In 1953, member Jill Richards spotted an empty union hall at 9014 Melrose Ave., owned by the Beverly Carpenters Association. There were no seats but it did have a stage, office space, and a basement for rehearsals. This area was so dark and gloomy, it was dubbed the Dank Room (later converted — illegally — into a bar and social area). The rent for the entire space was $350 a month. Stage Society took out a two-year lease.
Stage Society’s first production was financed by a cocktail party, a chits-and-chomp paid affair, featuring singer/pianist Bobby Short and folksingers Josh White and Odetta. The theater acquired 220 seats by raiding churches and ancient movie houses. It was a double bill featuring George Bernard Shaw’s A Village Wooing and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. The party netted more than the production did.
The group’s production policy proved to be one that precluded any kind of ongoing financial success. Erdman admitted that was mostly his doing. “We produced new plays and neglected classics, which endeared us to ourselves and to most of the press, attracting such patrons as Aldous Huxley, Igor Stravinsky, and a large segment of the ‘European colony.’ There was never more than $3,000 in our treasury, yet we produced 31 plays.” Stage Society’s hard-working unpaid staff included Walter Brough, who became a successful screenwriter; Bernie Balmuth, later a successful film editor; John Harding and his wife, Isobel Lennart; Stephen Brown and Jacqueline Donnet, who was Erdman’s assistant; and Patrick O’Neil, later a successful actor.
Successes included Part of the Blues, adapted from Langston Hughes’s poetry, conceived and directed by Brough, produced in July 1957, which featured a cast of 20 and a jazz quartet; and The Plough and the Stars by Seán O’Casey (1963), produced by Brown, which despite being written by a “notorious Irish Communist” turned into Stage Society’s most successful play. “We moved it to the Ivar Theatre,” Erdman recalled.
Actor/director/critic Sylvie Drake, then a student at Pasadena Playhouse, recalled seeing a production of Misalliance at Stage Society in 1954 and was so impressed that she and her then-husband, actor Ken Drake, both auditioned for the company in 1955. “I did some things with them, but I became pregnant after a year, and had to take a leave of absence. I couldn’t afford a babysitter. Then I went back to the Playhouse to get my Masters, while my husband and I continued to be members of Stage Society. I hoped that would help me get a job as a teacher because I needed a job.” Instead, through a series of fortuitous circumstances, Drake found herself stringing at the LA Times in 1968. She made staff there in 1972 and served as theater critic and writer until 1993.
Until its closing in 1965, Stage Society continued to attract future stars of Hollywood into its ranks while the company barely managed to stay solvent. Among these were Cloris Leachman and Jack Albertson (appearing in Design for Living), Gene Reynolds (Chee-Chee), and Dyan Cannon, in her stage debut with Ross Martin in Firebrand. Others included Wayne Heffley, Margaret Muse, Marvin Kaplan, William Windom, William Schallert, Robert Vaughn, Dennis Weaver, and Anne Bancroft. (“Cloris was a devil,” said Erdman. “I was in a play and had this one scene where I had a long, complicated monologue. Well, Cloris had a dressing room next to the stage right exit. Right in the middle of my scene, she came out of her dressing room, stark naked, and started to dance.”)
Looking back on the financial collapse of Stage Society, Erdman lamented the lack of grants. “I also wished we had been around for Equity-Waiver, and were able to take advantage of the things that make small theater financially workable.” Stage Society lay dormant for a couple of years. In 1972, Judith Thomas Stark created the Judith S. Thomas Foundation with her profits from the sale of the James B. Lansing Sound Company, maker of JBL speakers. She and her husband, Milton R. Stark, bought the Stage Society Theatre. Supported by her foundation, the venue was renovated and reopened in February 1973 as the nonprofit Theatre Vanguard. But that is another chapter for Inside LA STAGE History. As for Richard Erdman, at age 91, he begins shooting the next season of Community later this month.