by JULIO MARTINEZ
[dropcap]In[/dropcap] 1950, noted stage and screen thesp Charles Laughton was about to go on the road with the four-person play Don Juan in Hell, which he adapted from the third act of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. Despite a successful trial run at downtown LA’s Biltmore Theater, creatively nervous Laughton worried about the show’s viability for a general audience, especially with a schedule that would eventually take the play to Broadway. Finally, cast mate Agnes Moorehead suggested, “Why don’t we run it up to the Lobero for a couple of performances and see how those Santa Barbara snobs take to it.” In a short two-performance run, the Santa Barbara folk liked it just fine and Laughton bellowed, “On to Broadway!”
Located a mere 90 miles north of Hollywood, the Lobero — California’s oldest, continuously operating theater — quite often served as a safe harbor host of “preview performances” for such Tinseltown folk as Lionel Barrymore, Tallulah Bankhead, and Bela Lugosi. This Santa Barbara historic landmark was founded on February 22, 1873, when Italian immigrant Jose “Giuseppe” Lobero opened the only opera house south of San Francisco on the site of an old wooden schoolhouse at Anacapa and Canon Perdido streets. The largest adobe building in California at the time, the Lobero could seat 1,300. Unfortunately, the Santa Barbara townsfolk didn’t support Giuseppe’s artistic vision. Falling into disrepair over the next four decades, the theater was purchased by the Community Arts Association in 1922. After two years of dismantling and reconstruction, today’s Lobero, with seating for 680, made its debut on August 4, 1924, with a gala staging of the George S. Kaufman/Marc Connelly comedy, Beggar on Horseback.
The Lobero continued as a local producer of legit state fare until the mid-1930s. This is when producer Arthur J. Beckhard came on the scene. Born in Manhattan on June 1, 1899, Beckhard, from his early teens, was a dedicated “Broadway Baby,” beginning his career as a concert manager and summer theater entrepreneur during the 1920s. In 1931, he joined forces with a group of eight recent Ivy League College grads who had formed themselves into the University Players. Beckhard talked his way into being their producer. Raising the necessary $5,000 to get to Broadway, Beckhard impressed the young actors, and Broadway pros took notice of Beckhard’s staging of Carrie Nation, resulting in the Broadway debuts of Joshua Logan, James Stewart, Myron McCormick, Mildred Natwick, and Esther Dale (soon to become Mrs. Beckhard).
Considered a Broadway “wunderkind,” Beckhard rushed into staging eight Broadway productions between 1932 and 1935. But Beckhard’s increasing desire to spend more of his time in nightclubs got in the way of actually producing. When none of the plays achieved greatness, Beckhard decided to try screenwriting in Hollywood. Between 1937 and 1940, he sold six screenplays, but only one, Curly Top — a box office hit vehicle for child star Shirley Temple — achieved acclaim. To busy himself between film assignments, Beckhard launched himself into stage play production, establishing a relationship with the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara and the Biltmore Theater in downtown LA. In July 1936, Beckhard produced Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 at the Lobero for three performances and then brought it to the Biltmore for a second weekend of shows. All performances sold out, giving Beckhard the overconfidence to mount three more shows at the Lobero and Biltmore during the month of August: Hollywood Holiday, American Primitive, and The Miles of Heaven. These were not as successful.
In 1937, Beckhard took on option on a new play by actress/writer Elissa Landi, titled Author’s Copy. By the end of that year, the Lobero’s board of directors decided it no longer wanted to have him associated with the theater, based on some suspected improprieties with members of the theater’s staff. By 1940, it was clear that Beckhard’s Hollywood screenwriting career was permanently stalled. Returning to Broadway, he produced Suspect that same year, which was not a success. In 1944, Beckhard associated himself with up-and-coming producer David Merrick, but was soon left behind.
In 1948, Beckhard managed to garner enough financing to produce and direct Harvest of Years by Dewitt Bodeen, starring Phillip Abbott and Esther Dale. It closed after 16 performances. Aside from one more screenplay, sold but not produced, Beckhard’s career was over, although he kept attempting to produce another hit Broadway play right up to the time of his death on April 24, 1961. Today, Arthur J. Beckhard is remembered as being the inspiration for the character of Max Bialystock, the relentlessly unsavory protagonist from Mel Brooks’ 1968 film comedy, The Producers.
The Lobero continued to be an out-of-town-tryout house for many Hollywood stars who wanted to express their legit stage ambitions, including Lynn Redgrave, John Cleese, Jeff, Beau, and Lloyd Bridges; Kathy Bates, John Raitt, James Whitmore, Hal Holbrook, Debbie Reynolds, and Patrick Stewart. Today, it is an active concert/theater venue. Upcoming is Roy Orbison Returns, opening January 20, 2017.