Birthdays and anniversaries are significant transition points always worth celebrating, but something more than cake and candles is called for at the 100-year mark.
This is particularly true when the celebrant in question is a local institution. The Pasadena Playhouse, which arose from the Community Playhouse Association of Pasadena established by Gilmor Brown in 1917, is celebrating its centennial season with a daylong block party Saturday, June 9.
Presented in partnership with the Playhouse District Association, the free event will feature performances and contributions from local museums and other prominent arts, dance, music and theatrical groups and organizations, including Armory Center for the Arts, Ballet Folklorico Quetzal, Bob Baker Marionette Theatre, Culture Clash, Pasadena Civic Ballet, Pasadena Dance Theatre, Pasadena Symphony and POPS, PCC Jazz Combo, PCC Opera and PCC Theatre.
There will be plenty of lively music in the evening from Boogaloo Assassins, California Feetwarmers, Caught a Ghost, the Pasadena Conservatory of Music, the Los Angeles College of Music, and School of Rock Pasadena. Children’s and youth choirs will perform during the day.
Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek will deliver remarks, as will Playhouse Artistic Director Danny Feldman.
According to Feldman, who came onboard as Sheldon Epps retired in 2016 and party concepts were being debated, they wanted a party with a sense of occasion, but one that was not exclusionary. Feldman says the theme of community kept recurring as he and co-planners studied the Playhouse’s “historical context” and considered ways to chart its path forward.
“This was a theater that was founded and built and paid for and supported by a community, going all the way back to 1917,” he explains. “This is a theater that had community members involved in productions. They went around door to door to raise money for the building. The community was built into the DNA of the building.”
Feldman references the “beautiful courtyard,” then shares an anecdote about a center aisle that used to travel under the still-existing orchestra pit: “You could connect to the dressing rooms so that after the show artists and the audience would mingle together.”
He quotes a 1927 Playhouse mission statement, “The Playhouse is a living force in the community.” And he reads from a program stuffer distributed on the current building’s opening night in 1925: “’Your beautiful, long dreamed-of community playhouse is open at last. It represents not only the faith of the community and its citizens, but the belief of the community in doing as perfectly as possible whatever it undertakes.’
“It was astounding to me to really trace that line all the way through ’til today,” Feldman adds. “I mean, even in times of strife here at the Playhouse — of the doors being chained and bankruptcy —the community rallied to bring it back. So it was obvious and clear to me not only where we were going in the future, about really reconnecting with our community at deeper levels, and looking at the whole institution through a lens of community, but also how we should be commemorating this milestone.”
To be specific, the Playhouse is celebrating more than its centennial season. Saturday’s party is also intended to honor its 80th anniversary as the official state theateeof California, and the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the Playhouse College of Dramatic Arts, which between 1927 and 1969 schooled future stars such as Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Mature, Robert Preston and Sally Struthers in their craft.
You might say the Playhouse is also celebrating survival. After founding director Brown’s 1960 death it hit hard times and went dark for 16 years, until dedicated Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse volunteers persuaded powers-that-be to grant the historic structure California State Landmark status. It eventually reopened in 1986 as a not-for-profit theater; by the 1990s, it had redeveloped its subscriber base and become the respected anchor of the Playhouse District. Feldman is fond of comparing it to “any great dramatic story — we’ve had our ups and downs.”
Feldman, who promises his photogenic beagle Hunter will make an appearance Saturday, is an enthusiastic and savvy promoter for the Playhouse. More than once the West Hills native makes the point that the Playhouse is “on the road to very solid financial footing.” He also has discerning taste. Last year he selected Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 classic “Our Town” as his first play as artistic director (in co-production with Deaf West Theatre) in part because it is a play about community that “is deeply tied to our history; the Playhouse was one of the first places to do ‘Our Town’ after its New York premiere. That play was radical back then, and Pasadena audiences saw it before almost anyone else in the country outside of New York Broadway audience.”
Since reopening the Playhouse has retained its institutional status in a city that distinguishes itself from the rest of LA as a place that values culture and community — and history. Recent Playhouse productions such as “King Charles” and “Hold These Truths,” as well as Culture Clash’s current show “Bordertown Now,” have grounded timely political and social themes in history, and forthcoming productions of Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens” and the musical “Ragtime” promise to do the same.
“We want a broad canvas,” Feldman says. “We’re not on a path to become the social justice theater of America. But I will say that we are responsive to our city, and we’re seeing that the community [wants that]. Even going back to the beginning of the Playhouse’s history, the Playhouse has always done work responsive to its community. And when it’s been at its best, it’s been doing that. I give Sheldon Epps a whole lot of credit and he inspires me in the great work he did while he was here, in really looking at who are we serving and what stories are we telling on our stage that connect to the community.”
He describes the block party as “a thank you party.”
“It isn’t just about theater … [It’s] all about getting different cultural organizations that make our city and our region so unique and rich and creating a platform for them to come together and celebrate with us and say: Thank you.”
The Playhouse Block Party runs from 12 noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, June 9, at the corner of El Molino Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena; free admission. For a full list of participants and other party details, visit playhouseblockparty.com.