Inside LA Stage History: Los Angeles Theater and the LADCC

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Written by Julio Martinez

During the years 1848 to 1870, the City of Los Angeles made a slow, often turbulent transition from its previous Spanish/Mexican colonial rule to the often brutal rule-of-law imposed by the new Anglo-based California government. Due to ongoing racial tensions and violence, LA was described as “undoubtedly the toughest town of the entire nation.” The homicide rate during these years averaged 158 per 100,000 (13 murders per year), which was greater than the murder rate for New York City during the same period. But by 1870, there was enough of a civilized citizenry to actually consider establishing some kind of culture base in the town. William Abbot, the son of Swiss immigrants who settled in Los Angeles in 1854, decided to build a theater named for his wife, Maria Merced Garcia.

The Merced Theater (built 1870)

Theater Merced, located at 418 N. Main, the first official stage venue in LA, was designed by Ezra F. Kysor (the architect of the adjoining hotel, Pico House), with seating for 400, and opened January 30, 1871 with the melodrama Fanchon, The Little Cricket. Merced was the center of LA theatrical activity from 1871 until 1876, with efforts to produce Shakespeare and restoration comedy. But the tastes of the average Angeleno, were more receptive to minstrel shows and melodrama, including such standards as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ten Nights in a Bar Room. Theater Merced went bankrupt in 1878 and closed. Unlike many L.A. historical architectural landmarks, the building is still standing today.

One of the local newspapers of the day was the Harrison Gray Otis’s L.A. Times. The Times promoted local activities, but aside from few amateur community theater productions, there was not much live stage work in the City of the Angels.

That was until 1884, when the 1200 seat Grand Opera House, located at 110 S. Main Street was built, attracting national and international theatrical touring troupes, led by Katie Putnam (1885), Lily Langtry (1887), Edwin Booth (1888) and Sarah Bernhardt, (who performed the West Coast premiere of La Tosca in 1891). The Grand reached its zenith when it served as the Southern California stop for the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit (1894-1903). Ironically, the Grand was the first LA theater to exhibit Thomas Edison’s new motion picture technology in 1894.

The popularity of touring companies led to the building of more large theater spaces, such as The Los Angeles (1888), the Morosco, (1885), the Burbank (1893), the Mason (1903) and the Orpheum (1926). As a result of L.A.’s rapidly growing population, it became the main go-to city for touring Broadway shows and repertory companies. What Los Angeles lacked was any definitive identity as a theater town on its own merits.

However, that began to change when the Little Theatre Movement swept through the country in the early 20th century, which was dedicated to providing experimental centers for the dramatic arts. The town of Sierra Madre had an active amateur stage company, founded by the Sierra Madre Women’s Club. When silent film director D.W. Griffth came to town in 1910 to shoot The Twisted Trail, starring Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett, the Women’s Club kept the filmmaker supplied with a steady stream of willing local thesps turned extras.

The progress of LA.’s early theater scene was chronicled nationally when Burns Mantle began publishing The Best Plays, a year book for drama in the U.S. Local Drama Editors such as Monroe Lathrop of the L.A. Express and Edward Schallert of the Los Angeles Times contributed commentary and began lauding the success of local stages, particularly the Pasadena Community Playhouse, which quickly burst through the limitations of the Little Theatre Movement, building the Pasadena Playhouse in 1925, the largest stage complex west of Chicago. Its reputation reverberated all the way to New York and Europe when in 1928 it provided the world premiere of Eugene O’Neil’s theo-philosohical epic, Lazarus Laughed, which starred Victor Jory as Caligula, and included a cast of 250.

By the 1930s, Hollywood’s burgeoning film industry led to the creation of The Hollywood Reporter (1930) and Daily Variety (1933), which spotlighted the growing film industry. They also took note of the stage productions that were flourishing at such venues as The Biltmore in downtown L.A, the Music Box and Las Palmas in Hollywood, and the Wilshire Ebell.

In 1938, Los Angeles began to more formally ally itself with New York theater when Edwin Lester created the L.A. Civic Light Opera at Philharmonic Hall, dedicated to bringing the best of each year’s Broadway shows to L.A. during the summer season, as well as producing local shows. Such original LA-produced fare as Kismet and Peter Pan, starring Broadway stars Alfred Drake and Mary Martin, respectively, premiered in Los Angles and became big hits on Broadway in New York.

After World War 11, Los Angles saw enormous growth in its population and the small theater scene began to grow as well.  It was fostered by two accredited acting schools at Pasadena Playhouse and L.A. City College, as well as active theater departments at USC and UCLA These attracted hundreds of former servicemen and women who wanted to study acting, funded by the G.I. Bill. Interestingly enough, Pasadena Playhouse and L.A City College also provided nurturing for future L.A. drama critics, Sylvie Drake (L.A. Times) and Polly Warfield (Drama Logue), respectively.

Charlie Chaplin holding forth with The Circle Players (including William Schallert, June Havoc, Kathleen Freeman, Marvin Kaplan) (1947)

By 1947, students from UCLA— Jerry Epstein, Dan Matthews, Kathleen Freeman, William Schallert, John Crawford and the Tinseltown offspring contingent of Sydney Chaplin, Charles Chaplin Jr., Edward G. Robinson Jr., George Burns Jr.— set up shop as the Circle Players, on El Centro Avenue in Hollywood, assisted by the Chaplin brother’s dad, Charlie. The work of the company was lauded by LA theater critic Patterson Greene, who wrote in Theatre Arts Magazine, “The entire theater movement in Los Angeles started in a Hollywood living-room. Before that, there were only talent showcases and tired road shows. But it was the Circle [Players] Theater that marked the beginning of making Los Angeles a theater town.”

By the end of 1949, a trio of Circle Players Company members, (Freeman, Crawford and Larry Salters) ventured off to form The Players Ring a new space on Santa Monica Blvd. The small theatre scene continued to grow through the 50s and 60s, adding the Melrose Theatre, Stage Society, Company of Angels, Theatre West, the Horseshoe Theatre, the Chamber Theatre, Theatre 40, the Company Theatre and more. They all competed for the attention of the press, which included five local daily newspapers, three trade publications and a slew of weeklies. But each of these publications covered live theater as if it were the solitary beacon of theater criticism. This all changed when a disparate group of L.A. theater critics began informal meetings in an attempt to formalize a relationship among this group of creatively judgmental entertainment journalists.

In 1955, Variety reported that Los Angeles Civic Light Opera director Edwin Lester had proposed the establishment of an LA critics’ circle to some of the local theatre press at a dinner he hosted at Perino’s restaurant. His desire was to have a group of critics judge and award local legit on an annual basis. L.A. Times critic Edwin Schallert became the unofficial chairman of the effort but retired in 1958. Aside from a few favorable nods from the attending press, nothing concrete developed for a couple of years.  But after nearly a decade of informal gatherings, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle was formally established in 1969.

Its first president was James Powers, drama critic and editor of the Hollywood Reporter. Dale Olson (Los Angeles Editor of Best Plays) was Secretary-Treasurer. Its other founding members were Richard Hale (Santa Monica Outlook), Margaret Harford & Dan Sullivan (The L.A Times), John Mahoney (Hollywood Reporter), William Murray (Los Angeles Magazine), Harvey Perr (L.A. Free Press), Dorothy Rochmis (California Jewish Voice), Tony Scott & Bill Edwards (Variety), Bridget Byrne and Winfred Blevins (Herald Examiner), Charles Faber Hollywood Citizen News, and Gregg Hunter (Glendale News Press). Cecil Smith, one of the group, until he moved from the drama to the television department of the Times, was voted a member emeritus.

The first LADCC Awards were presented in March 1970 at a luncheon held in the LA. Press Club. The first production to garner the LADCC Production Award was Arturo Ui, Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum.  The only other organization to garner a production award was The Company Theatre, honored for “consistent high quality during its season.”

L..A. Theatre Works’ 99-seat staging of “Greek” garnered four LADCC Awards (1982)

During the ensuing decades, LADCC has dealt with the constant evolution of live theatre in Los Angeles. In 1972, the Equity Waiver plan was initiated, only to be modified in 1986 and rescinded in 2016.  The Shubert Theater arrived in Century City in 1972 as the go-to theater for Broadway hits, captivating the LADCC with its initial production of Follies.  Dramatically vibrant small independent companies such as Frank Levy’s Catalina Productions, which moved its staging of The Hasty Heart from the 99-seat CAST Theatre to the Mark Taper Forum, garnering five LADCC awards in the process, Susan Dietz’s L.A. Stage Company, the Back Alley in Van Nuys, Padua Hills Playwrights, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and L.A. Theatre Works, instilled a new energy into the theater scene. In 1975, the federally-funded Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), provided funding and gave rise to dozens of small theaters in L.A, many of whom went to war against The 1984 Olympic Fine Arts Festival for excluding their efforts.

Over the years, the makeup of the Circle has evolved, including the arrival of Bill Bordy’s theater-centric Drama Logue Magazine (1968), (which eventually had up to seven of its members in the Circle), and the L.A. edition of Back Stage(1975).  The LADCC Awards Ceremony has been held at such quaint locales as the Fog Cutter Hollywood, the Embassy Room of the Ambassador Hotel, General Lee’s in Chinatown, Pike’s Verdugo Oaks, the Variety Arts Center, and USC’s Town and Gown. Critic David Galligan hosted a star-studded awards ceremony at the 1800-seat Variety Arts Theatre in 1982, with Julie Andrews headlining. Then the awards moved on to The Sportsman’s Lodge, El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, the Colony Theatre in Burbank, the San Gabriel Playhouse and the Pasadena Playhouse.

The LADCC also began honoring L.A. theatres in 1973 with awards that paid tribute to its members, beginning with Margaret Harford (for sustained excellence in theater), followed by Polly Warfield (for an excellent season in a small-to mid-size theatre,1999), T.H. McCulloh (for achievement in a revival production, 2005) and Joel Hirschhorn Award (for achievement in musical theater, 2005).

The venues for theater criticism have altered dramatically. There are fewer daily newspapers. The trades—Daily Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Drama Logue and Back Stage—are long gone, as are the significant weeklies. But we still have a vibrant and dedicated Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Print has significantly decreased but cogent online critical observations remain. Most significantly, the Los Angeles theater scene is as vibrant, relevant and persistent as ever.  The 50th Anniversary Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards will be held April 8 at the Pasadena Playhouse, which will include its inaugural Theater Angel Award.

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.