Articles

Vancouver’s enchanted evenings under the stars

The sopranos match notes with barking seals and the cast once applauded the audience for sitting through a downpour. Theatre Under The Stars is the biggest, brightest and often the soggiest straw-hat theatre in the land

Ray Gardner August 3 1957
Articles

Vancouver’s enchanted evenings under the stars

The sopranos match notes with barking seals and the cast once applauded the audience for sitting through a downpour. Theatre Under The Stars is the biggest, brightest and often the soggiest straw-hat theatre in the land

Ray Gardner August 3 1957

Vancouver’s enchanted evenings under the stars

Ray Gardner

In the shaky world of summer theatre, where the tent shows share with the tents a propensity to fold quickly and where outdoor performances are often lucky to draw even mosquitoes, Vancouver’s sprightly Theatre Under the Stars is remarkable, above all, for its durability.

Now presenting its eighteenth straight season of musical comedy beneath the towering cedars — and sometimes the pelting rain — in Stanley Park, TUTS is the oldest, by far, and the foremost of Canada’s straw-hat theatres.

Among show people the non-profit Vancouver Civic Theatre Society’s fresh-air extravaganza is often rated second only to the unchallenged leader in entertainment-in-the-open, St. Louis’ Municipal Opera. TUTS’ own boast is that “the only comparable theatre company in Canada is the Stratford Festival,” though Stratford is more top-hat than straw-hat.

Last summer TUTS’ turnstiles whirled like dervishes as 171,590 customers paid a record $276,996 in two months to see four musicals— Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Merry Widow, Finian’s Rainbow and South Pacific. The admissions added up to twenty-three thousand dollars more than it cost to stage the four musicals, but TUTS doesn’t call this a profit—it’s labeled a surplus and left in the kitty until too many rainy days (it’s happened two summers out of the last five) put the show in the red.

This summer between June 24 and August 24 TUTS will try to stay in the black with two old favorites it has staged before — The Student Prince and Kiss Me, Kate—and two hits from Broadway, Where’s Charley?, a musical version of Charley’s Aunt, and The Pajama Game.

Almost as important to TUTS’ success as the plays and players is the theatre’s setting in Stanley Park, a wooded peninsula that juts from downtown Vancouver into the harbor, ringed by beaches and heavily timbered. To reach the plywood fence that encloses the natural amphitheatre where TUTS plays is an almost-theatrical experience itself. One route skirts Lost Lagoon and twists through thick stands of cedar and

The sopranos match notes with barking seals and the cast once applauded the audience for sitting through a downpour. Theatre Under The Stars is the biggest, brightest and often the soggiest straw-hat theatre in the land

towering Douglas Fir, past rose gardens and through rockeries. A second follows the sea-tront past yacht moorings and fishing-boat wharves before turning into the timber.

The stage was originally a small concert bowl, donated to the city in 1934 by a former mayor, W. H. Malkin, and since twice enlarged for TUTS. The audience sit on deck chairs or benches ($3.30 top) or spread blankets on the grass slope (sixty-five cents). Some of TUTS biggest belly-laughs owe more to the setting than the script—the denizens of the park zoo, a passing freighter in Burrard Inlet, or the famous nineo'clock gun all ad-lib a punch line now and then. The gun is an ancient muzzle-loading cannon which is fired nightly as a time signal.

“Our synchronization is perfect,” remarks director Jimmy Johnston. “Whenever we have a script that calls for the heavy to whip out a gun and bark, 'Stop! or I’ll shoot!' he delivers that line at precisely nine o'clock."

Betty Phillips, a lyric soprano, is understandably more sensitive to the animal noises that may intrude on her act. “Have you ever tried holding a high note,” she asks, “to the accompaniment of a shrieking peacock or a barking seal?’

But the neatest timing ever achieved by an unpaid member of a TUTS cast must be credited to a freighter that sneaked into a performance of The NewMoon. In this musical one of the characters, to escape a nagging wife, feigns his own death by drowning and disappears. Later, when the wife comes into money, he returns in disguise to plant the idea that perhaps her husband is still alive. She insists that her husband is dead. The two were arguing this point w'hen the deep-throated blast of a freighter’s whistle drifted through the trees. Fraser Lister, a quickwitted actor who was playing the husband, at once ad-libbed. “There, he is calling to you now .” It brought the house down.

It’s a tribute to TUTS that Vancouverites have allowed it to invade their favorite park. When, in 1939. a temporary fence was strung around the greensward

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The star system’s out. This week’s lead is next week’s hoofer

facing Malkin Bowl to enclose a onenight concert featuring John Charles Thomas, ten thousand citizens flocked to the park. Among them was an unknown number of save-the-park vigilantes. Armed with shovels and wirecutters, they came to rip the fence down—and did. In the melee, they overpowered ten cops and a small army of commissionaires.

Fortunately for TUTS, its gaiety, color and charm seemed to harmonize with the natural wonders of Stanley Park right from the beginning. Soon even the vigilantes calmed down and Vancouverites came to regard TUTS as belonging in the park, along with the monkey cage, the old men playing checkers, the ducks on Lost Lagoon and the park's mile upon mile of scenic beauty.

Thus the Vancouver Sun was closer to fact than hyperbole when it said of Theatre Under the Stars, “It has become an indispensable feature of Vancouver’s summer life. It is part of Vancouver’s civic personality and part of Vancouver people themselves.”

Not only is TUTS safe from attack by the park patriots, but its fans are often so devoted that even when they lodge a complaint they may temper it with praise. Consider the case of the man who wrote a stern letter demanding a new pair of nylons for his wife, to replace those she had snagged on a TUTS bench. As a postscript, he added, “The performance of Brigadoon was to us an outstanding one and one which we shall long remember.” The management sent him $2.01— to buy his wife a new pair of stockings.

Rodgers and Hammerstein came higher. They pocketed four thousand dollars a week during South Pacific’s three-week stay at Malkin Bowl—the highest royalty yet paid by TUTS for any show.

Bill Buckingham, lawyer, actor and baseball fan, who is producer and general manager, explains his choice of shows partly in the vernacular of his favorite sport. “We try to give the people a change of pace,” he comments. “Something familiar and melodic, like The Merry Widow or The Student Prince, followed by our hard, high one, something right from Broadway, like South Pacific or Pajama Game.”

Buckingham is not above sanitizing even the biggest hit. as he did in a small way with Finian's Rainbow when TUTS played it for a second time last summer. A climactic scene has one of the leading characters unearthing the pot at the end of the rainbow. Naturally, it turns out to be an old-fashioned piece of bedroom furniture. In TUTS’ 1952 version of Finían the pot was there, as large as life. Complaints of vulgarity reached Buckingham by way of the chief of police. When Finian was revived in 1956, the pot was thrown out and the actress merely pretended to find one, after which she remarked, “Oh, it’s turned to dross.”

At first TUTS paid its performers only carfare, but an almost completely local company of professional directors, dancers, actors, singers, costume and scene designers, and stage technicians has been built up over the years. In the chorus pay is at the Equity scale of seventy dollars a week. At the other end of the scale the top fee ever paid a lead actor is said to be a thousand dollars a week.

Of its production staff only the choreographer. Aida Broadbent. is not a Vancouverite. She works out of Los Angeles

and is considered one of the outstanding choreographers in the U. S. Her other assignments include staging Jimmy Durante’s TV and night-club shows; those of the San Francisco and Los Angeles Light Opera Company; and coaching movie stars in dancing. “It’s Aida who gives TUTS shows that final polish,” says Barney Potts, a TUTS comedian of many seasons’ standing.

Once, in 1952, TUTS produced a locally written show about a local industry. This was Timber!!, written by Dolores Claman, David Savage, and Doug Nixon. At the box office Timber!! drew more than fifteen thousand people in four nights. Its authors were paid a thousand dollars.

Featured players from Broadway are usually imported to take the leads in TUTS productions but almost everything else is strictly native. As a rule local talent is cast in the second leads and, at times, is given top billing. This season

two Vancouver singers who hit their first high Cs in the theatre’s chorus are cast in starring roles—Wendy Martin in The Student Prince and Betty Phillips in Kiss Me, Kate.

Producer Bill Buckingham and his two directors, Jimmy Johnston and Dorothy Davies, are all busy radio actors. Thousands of British Columbians hear them every weekday on the CBC’s farm broadcast in a serial entitled The Carson Family, in which all three have roles.

Buckingham, who was born in Boissevain, Manitoba, fifty-one years ago, practiced law and did radio work on the side until 1948. “I liked court work—a ham at heart, I suppose.” he recalls. He still looks and talks like a lawyer.

After acting and producing for TUTS since its early days, Buckingham took charge of production in 1950 and became general manager four years later. Two years ago he was offered the post of business manager of the Stratford Festival but turned it down. “I like living in Vancouver and I like acting,” he explains.

Jimmy Johnston, a forty-year-old veteran of thirteen Theatre Under the Stars seasons, will direct three of the four musicals this summer. The fourth. Kiss Me, Kate, will be directed by Dorothy Davies, an evangelist's daughter whom press agent Hugh Pickett describes as “the most theatrical person in the company—everything she does or says is theatrical." Versatile (she writes, acts and directs) and slightly volatile, Miss Davies won the best-director award of the Dominion Drama Festival in 1955.

Not long before she joined Theatre Under the Stars in 1953 she was the centre of Vancouver’s liveliest freedom-

of-the-theatre controversy. Detectives strode on stage at the Avon Theatre during a performance of Tobacco Road, closed the play and arrested director Davies and seven others. The charge against her—of staging an indecent performance—was never pressed.

Theatre Under the Stars’ sets and most of the costumes are Vancouver-designed and made by TUTS itself. Sets are the work of a department-store display artist, Charles Baker, and technical supervisor Gail McCance, who, though only thirtytwo, has been with the theatre for fourteen seasons. Also TUTS-trained is costume manager Cy Cook, who began under the company’s first wardrobe wizard, Stuart Mackay, now costume $nd decor designer for the outdoor show at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

The do-it-yourself spirit that has been a Theatre Under the Stars hallmark since its amateur days is perhaps best personified by stage manager Tom Lea.

To Lea, whose eight-to-five job is supervisor of frozen-food sales for a large canning company, the stage is a sideline, though a deadly serious one. Since joining TUTS in its fourth season, he has designed much of the theatre’s lighting equipment. He makes it in his basement, an incredibly cluttered labyrinth, and tests the lights in his backyard.

While tinkering for TUTS Lea designed and later patented a theatre spotlight which he now manufactures in his basement and sells to dramatic groups across the country. It’s called the Lealite and he says it embodies several innovations in design and construction.

Another Lea innovation is the mythical Gold Star. This he awards, at the close of each show, to the player who has given most to the company’s performance: “Usually someone in the chorus.”

“We're quite a professional company now,” Lea observes. “But even so, we manage to keep alive that vital amateur enthusiasm that marked our early days. It's that spirit, I think, that gets across to our audiences.”

TUTS has avoided the star system. A girl may sing a featured part in one show and step back into the chorus for the next. The imports are talented troupers, with fine reputations in show business, but they are not big-name stars. George London, the Metropolitan Opera baritone, went on to fame but when the Montreal-born singer appeared with TUTS in 1944 his obscurity could be measured by his salary—seventy-five dollars a week. At the Met he commands a thousand dollars a performance.

This year’s imports include Robert Goulet, Shirley Harmer’s television costar on Showtime, who will play in The Pajama Game. Among the six featured players emigrating from Broadway and other U. S. way-points are Robert Rounseville, of the Met, Tim Herbert, a comedian who has starred in the road company of Where’s Charley?, and Mary La Roche, who has recently completed a film. The Mad Ball.

So well known is TUTS as a trainingground that singers from all over B. C., Washington State, the prairies, and even a few from eastern Canada try each year to get into the act. Some aspirants pay their own plane fare merely to audition. Others mail voice recordings. This year a TUTS group, including choral director

Beverly Syse, listened to—and looked at—three hundred singers before giving the nod to twenty-four of them. All but one of these—Bob McMurry, of Seattle —were British Columbians.

Radio and TV studios, film sets, the legitimate stage, and night-club floors, from Toronto to Las Vegas and New York to London, have seen dancers, singers, and actors—most of them natives of Vancouver—who have graduated from Theatre Under the Stars.

Actor Peter Mannering, a seven-year veteran of TUTS, brought word on his recent return to Vancouver from London, where he himself appeared on radio, television, the stage, and in two films, that at least seven of the theatre's alumni were then gainfully employed in British show business. "In London,” he says, "they prick up their ears at once at the mention of TUTS.”

Of all TUTS' graduates it is the dancers, adept at everything from ballet to buck-and-wing, who have achieved the greatest measure of success beyond the limits of Stanley Park. Foremost among these are Lois Smith and David Adams, her husband. Now with the National Ballet, they are regarded by many as the nation's leading dancers. So great has been TV's demand—especially m Toronto—for TUTS hoofers that choreographer Aida Broadbent has had to start from scratch this year with a chorus of promising beginners.

Navy out, scenes in

When TUTS itself began in 1940 under the sponsorship of the park board it drew' thirteen thousand customers to fifteen performances — two Shakespeare comedies, selections from grand opera, a musical—-but lost nine thousand dollars. For the next ten years, while the present policy of producing Broadway successes was being evolved, the losses continued periodically. In 1950 city council advised the park board to get out of show business. and a non-profit group called Vancouver Civic Theatre Society was formed. TUTS has been operated by the society ever since, but it's still linked, informally, with the city through aldermen and park commissioners who sit on the society's board of directors. It receives no civic grant but it does get a friendly assist from the park board. No rental is charged for Malkin Bowl: instead TUTS pays a maintenance fee of about seven thousand dollars a year. This includes use of a former naval training station as a scenic studio.

In tribute to one of its founders, Theatre Under the Stars has established the E. V. Young Scholarship, a fivehundred-dollar award made annually to further the theatrical career of one of its younger performers. The 1956 winner was nineteen-year-old Marina Katronis, formerly of the Winnipeg Ballet, who last year played in TUTS’ production ol South Pacific. She is with TUTS this year and plans to attend the American Ballet Theatre School in NewYork this fall.

The TU TS story isn't complete without mention of what to Bill Buckingham and his associates is an unmentionable four-

letter word, r-n. In the wonderful summer of 1953 not a single TUTS performance was r-ned out, and an all-time attendance record of 185.307 was set. (The cash take was slightly less than in 1956 as admission prices were lower. But the profit was big enough that, in its nonprofit way, TUTS distributed bonuses to performers and production crews.) The next tw'o years came the deluge — and TUTS nearly drowned. Its cash surplus shrank from $94.800 to $9.000. Since then the theatre has obtained from Lloyd's an insurance policy that will pro-

tect it from disastrous losses on account of r-n.

Once a TUTS performance begins the show goes on. even if it does begin to rain. The only unsheltered member of the company is musical director Harry Pryce. who, in raincoat and hat. continues to conduct the pit orchestra. The first time the players kept singing in the rain it was by audience request. At the end of the show, the cast did a switch and applauded the audience.

When the rains come two large squares of butcher paper are passed out to each

spectator. These are meant to cover the knees and shoulders, but it has become a tradition for the regular patron to fold one piece into a soldier's hat.

The lighthearted defiance of the elements pleases Buckingham but it never stops him from praying for a ten-year drought. For. to him. there's more than a sprinkling of truth in the remark once passed by comedian Barney Potts:

"TUTS has such a beautiful spot to play in. you could go down there and put on Punch and Judy, and pack 'em in —if you have a lovely night." if

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