The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Spring 1985, Volume 31, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

The Old Globe Theatre

Highlights From Fifty Years

by Beth Mohr
First Prize, Cabrillo Award
San Diego History Center 1985 Institute of History

Images from this article ~ Toast to the Memories

 

THE GREETER

Hark ye Gentles, hark ye all,
Time has come for curtain call.
Masks encountered in the wing,
Actors wait, the play's the thing.
Storied deeds in noble measure,
Bring we now for your good pleasure.
Welcome to the Old Globe ...

"Everything is cyclical," Jack O'Brien said.

Artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, O'Brien might have looked at the Globe's recent achievements and projected a bolder view of the future of the tri-theater complex in Balboa Park.

The Globe's brilliant rise to prominence among the nation's regional theaters has been highlighted by a Special Tony Award, selection of "Skin of Our Teeth" as the first PBS satellite telecast of a live stage production, a visit from Queen Elizabeth II, and a record-setting subscription ticket sale of over $1 million for last season.

O'Brien's cautious outlook as been fostered by a professional theater career spanning more than twenty years and including directional posts in regional theaters, on Broadway and with a number of opera companies. He has been associated with the changing fortunes of the Globe since arriving for the first time in 1969 to direct "A Comedy of Errors" on its main stage.

Whatever its fortunes, grand or grave, the Globe has always come through as a strong survivor, loved and nurtured by the community in which it was founded fifty years ago. Unequivocal in pinpointing the mainspring of the theater's strength, O'Brien said: "What I think is unique about the Globe and its history, the potential that has been implicit all these years, is the impact of the personality of Craig....He has always been the most loyal, the most indigenously San Diego-oriented arts person I have ever known." "Craig" is of course Craig Noel, the Globe's executive producer, whose interest in the theater began with its inception as an attraction of the California Pacific International Exposition.

The Old Globe opened on May 29, 1935, less than a year after Noel graduated from San Diego High School, his sights clearly focused on a theatrical career. His earliest professional jobs were as an actor, first in a 1934 play at the old Savoy Theater and then as one of a troupe of players organized by Tyrone Power's mother, Patia, to present cut or "Cameo" versions of Shakespearean plays. "Our intention was to take the plays on the road and into universities and high schools," Noel said.

Midway in the decade of the great depression, the plight of theater throughout the country was desperate. Stock and repertory companies were folding. Survival rested almost entirely in Federal Theater companies supported by the government through the WPA. A federal grant awarded the Power's group was soon withdrawn and the company closed after its first booking at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood.

Noel came home to a more promising theater prospect. San Diego, getting ready to open its exposition, had taken a few cues from the Chicago World's Fair. "Two of the most successful attractions at the Chicago fair were Sally Rand and her famous fan dance and The Old Globe Production Company, a group of eager attractive, talented, young performers doing 'streamlined' versions of Shakespeare's plays," Noel said. "So, San Diego brought Sally and her fans and the Globe players to the exposition."

The replica of Shakespeare's original Old Globe built for the exposition copied the circular Elizabethan design and went a step further to achieve a greater feeling of authenticity. "Because of San Diego's wonderful climate, exposition officials decided they could follow the original Old Globe plan of an open-air building with no roof," Noel said. "They actually had a copy of the 'Wooden O' that Shakespeare talked about. Unfortunately, the stage had been placed so that the late afternoon sun shone right in the eyes of the audiences."

The solution was to put up an awning-type roof to be pulled across as the sun moved. Thus accommodated, audiences began to build. With shows running only about fifty minutes, they even remained undeterred by "rough hewn" benches.

Exposition visitors also were attracted by the Elizabethan ambience of the theater's adjacent buildings, Falstaff Tavern, an English-style restaurant where the Carter Centre Stage now stands, and Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, a gift shop now replaced by the box office and refreshment stand.

"The Old Globe Theatre turned out to be the most popular attraction at the exposition," Noel said. "San Diegans, many of whom had never seen Shakespeare before, became very keen about the plays."

One of the very keen fans introduced to Shakespeare at the exposition was Katherine Drummond Garretson. She lived near the park, and, with her mother and sister, walked across Cabrillo Bridge to the Globe almost every day. "True, they Were cut versions, but the essence of each play was there," Mrs. Garretson said. "That was when I learned to understand and to love Shakespeare. We saw the plays again and again. I discovered something new each time."

Some of the actors became Mrs. Garretson's friends, occasionally dining with her family for scholarly discussions of the plays. Noel, soon another fan, became acquainted with the actors at some of their other mealtimes. One of several part time jobs he took to work his way through San Diego State was behind the lunch counter at Bakker's Drug Store, then at Fifth and Laurel.

"Although the Globe was an Equity company, the actors were paid a pittance," Noel said. "As I remember, dinners at Falstaff Tavern went as high as eighty-five cents, an exorbitant price at the time -- certainly for the actors. Bakker's blue plate specials were more in keeping with what they could afford."

Noel's meeting with Thomas Wood Stevens, the company's director, was exciting though not one of his great successes. "I remember very clearly auditioning for Mr. Stevens," he said. "But, nothing ever came of the audition."

Most of the actors in the company brought from Chicago were recent graduates of Carnegie Institute of Technology (Carnegie Mellon University) where Stevens had been head of the drama department. It was he and B. Iden Payne, noted Shakespearean director and specialist in Elizabethan staging, who cut the nineteen plays presented at the exposition.

Daily programs opened at 1:00 p.m. and included seven or eight plays with ten minute intermissions between. Each actor played as many as six different roles a day. One of them was Irene Tedrow who has since followed a distinguished career on stage and in motion pictures and television. "We didn't always play leading roles," she said. "If we played a big part in one play, we played a small one in the next. It was a hectic schedule but our youth carried us along. The whole company was young."

As in Shakespeare's day, there was little or no scenery. The stage was built with a large apron extending in front of the proscenium arch and a two-story permanent set in the back of the stage. Scenes depicting a variety of settings merely shifted from the apron to the upper or lower inner-stage levels. "Shakespeare tells audiences (in his dialogue) where scenes take place -- 'here on this heath,' 'here in this ante-chamber,' 'on the coast of Dover' -- or whatever," Noel said.

In May of 1936, the Globe Players left for an engagement in Dallas and another company, The Fortune Players, moved in to perform until the close of the fair on September 9, 1936. The end of the exposition signaled the beginning of plans to tear down all temporary structures, including the Globe, the tavern and the curiosity shop.

"Fans who had been enthusiastic about the theater were shocked at the thought of its being destroyed," Noel said. A committee determined to save the Globe was quickly formed. Its aims were to convince city officials of the theater's potential as a cultural asset and to raise the money to remodel the Globe and the other two buildings.

The young woman chosen to head the committee possessed not only the youthful energy and skill to guide efforts to raise funds from a depression-blighted economy, she also had in mind a viable use for the theater. Mary Belcher Farrell, sister of Frank Garrettson Belcher, president of the exposition, had acted as her brother's hostess occasionally and attended Globe plays frequently. In a quote from a San Diego Union article of April 9, 1978, she said: "The theater has always fascinated me and I had done a great deal of work in drama while I was at Berkeley (University of California), Smith College and Berkeley Community Theater. When I came home, I was horrified to see that San Diego's community theater was in my grandfather's garage on Front street." The garage was called "The Barn" and one of Farrell's ambitions was to find its players a better home. She saw the Globe as the realization of that ambition.

The $15,000 campaign budget for the Globe restoration would be acquired on a matching-funds basis -- $7,500 to be raised out in the community and the other $7,500 to be provided by the city. Emily Cap well, the only paid campaign worker, earned $12 for a six-day week. She handled all clerical duties and received contributions at an office set up in the curiosity shop building. "Most of the donations were in the $1 and $2 bracket, with a few as high as $10. We never would have made it without those small donations," she said.

A popular opinion at the time -- that little was needed beyond the addition of a permanent roof for the theater -- was a tremendous underestimation. "It was in every sense a temporary building, put together with board and batten," Noel said. "In essence, it had to be torn down and rebuilt."

If $15,000 seems an impossible reconstruction cost even for the 1930s, it was. The depression itself, however, made the project possible. Labor was provided by the federal government through the WPA. Estimates of the value of that labor, by those trying to recall fifty-year-old facts, ranged from $40,000 to $100,000.

The theater's board of directors worked harmoniously on details of leasing the Old Globe buildings from the city and on coordinating the remodeling project, but became divided on a major construction effort. The late William (Bill) Wilmurt, architect, was confronted with the problem of appeasing board members with opposing views on the design of the stage. Noel recalled that: "Half of the board, hoping that the theater would continue to be used exclusively for Shakespearean plays, wanted an Elizabethan thrust stage with no scenery. The other half wanted a proscenium arch to allow for all kinds of staging. To please everyone, Bill designed the stage with an eleven-foot apron in front of a proscenium arch and a fifteen-foot stage back of the curtain line."

In 1937, the San Diego Community Theatre was chartered by the State of California as a non-profit corporation; Luther Martin Kenneth, Jr., a recent graduate of the drama school at Yale University, was hired as its first permanent director, and on December 2, the curtain rose on John Van Druten's "The Distaff Side," the first play in the newly remodeled building.

The community campaign for $7,500 actually netted over $10,000. The overage helped provide some working capital and, as Noel recalled, additional funds were raised by the board to underwrite the first season. Hopes that the theater would soon become self-supporting proved empty. "The hardest thing we tried to do was get audiences even though ticket prices were ridiculously low, only thirty-five cents as I remember," Noel said. "But, money was still tight and San Diegans were not accustomed to stage productions."

In an effort to recapture some of the enthusiasm shown during the exposition, Kennett staged several Shakespearean plays, but attendance remained meager. Then, in the summer of 1938 a melodrama called "The Gambler" was produced. An olio of "Gay Nineties" numbers was included, refreshments were sold and the admission price was lowered to twenty-five cents. "People came to cheer the hero and hiss the villian," Noel said. "They packed the theater throughout the summer and we made enough money to support the winter season." The next summer, "The Drunkard" was presented with even greater success and, as Noel said, "Summer melodramas set the pattern until the start of World War II."

Within twenty-four hours of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Navy took over Balboa Park evicting tenants of all buildings, including the Globe. In his UCLA thesis on "The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego," John Eugene Donnelly noted that during the war the Globe's "assets were stored in various places (in the city) and its grand piano loaned to the Fine Arts Society (San Diego Museum of Art), to be housed in the Society's wartime location in Mission Hills, dispossessed Globe members not called to active military duty managed to carry on as a group."

Donnelly records that Delza Martin was the leader in keeping the group together at monthly meetings and one-act play presentations at Dartlee Hall on Sixth Avenue. Two major productions also were given during that period, "The Male Animal," presented at the San Diego Women's Clubhouse, and "One Sunday Afternoon," in Hoover High School auditorium.

Members with singing and dancing talents represented the theater or joined USO troupes to entertain at military installations throughout the county. Performing in weekly drama broadcasts over Radio Station KGB also kept Globites active.

The San Diego Community Theatre's home front organization was intact and ready when the Navy returned the Old Globe in July, 1947. Old members began returning from military service and new volunteers became interested.

Noticeably absent from among the returning veterans was Craig Noel. After wartime duty with the Army's 37th Infantry Division in the South Pacific and Special Services with occupation troops in Japan, Noel became a film test director in Hollywood.

Delza Martin proved to be as skilled at keeping track of members dispersed by the war as she was at keeping together those at home. When the time came to put the first postwar show into production, she knew just where to find Noel. Noel agreed to come back to San Diego to direct the play which marked the beginning of a new era for the Globe. William Saroyan's "Time of Your Life" opened on October 29, 1947, to good reviews and fair-sized audiences. The need for money, however, was as great as it had ever been.

Despite an almost non-existent treasury, a little money was spent on interior decoration of the theater. Grateful for the refurbishing done by the Navy, the theater board decided to repaint the dead white walls with warmer colors and to replace the old exposition benches with true theater seats. Seats from an old motion picture theater went on sale and Martin, displaying yet another talent, struck a bargain to purchase 400 seats for $300. She negotiated to purchase 300 at $1 each and to get 100 free.

Volunteers kept costs down by helping to refinish the seats. They also painted heraldic shields and sewed banners placed around the auditorium walls to enhance the Elizabethan atmosphere. Volunteer work was general practice around the theater. The only paid staff at the time included the director, one office worker and stagehands and electricians required by labor unions. Nevertheless, the theater's major asset, the grand piano, had to be sold to help finance the opening season. By the next summer it was again necessary to produce money-making melodramas. But, the two presented in 1948 -- "The Drunkard" and "Ten Nights In a Barroom" -- were the last.

By the summer of 1949, the theater's most valuable asset was its director. Craig Noel had decided to stay as permanent director and the Globe felt ready to take the gamble that was to be its first step toward national recognition. Hunton D. Sellman, then head of the drama department at San Diego State University, invited the Globe to join the university in bringing B. Iden Payne to San Diego to direct a Shakespearean play to be presented at the Globe. The first San Diego National Shakespeare Festival was co-sponsored by the Globe and the university. It opened on June 15, 1949, with "Twelfth Night." "That was our reintroduction of Shakespeare after the war," Noel said. "Audiences liked it. We were able to charge a little more for tickets and the summer was considered a success."

In another daring move, the Globe followed that summer festival with an original production. The idea for a topical revue had been brewing for some time among a small group of theater members. Gilbert Warner, pianist and composer, recalled that it all began at the home of Sadie Lou Tieri: "Sadie had a piano. I would play some music and John Clark would scribble some lyrics. We were just having fun making up songs. One night, Jimmy Holloway came over and contributed some things and, before we knew it, other people were helping. We began collecting a lot of stuff about San Diego. Jimmy got the idea of putting the material together into a show and promoted it with Craig."

"Caught In the Act," directed by Noel, opened in September, 1949. Songs, dances and skits dealt with San Diego events, places, institutions, legends, noted personalities, eccentric characters, flora and fauna. Accompaniment was by duo pianists, Warner and Betty Hayter Meads. Brisk, satirical and original, it was a smash. In Warner's words, "The audience went insane. The theater was packed every night." It was a different kind of show for the Globe, demanding a different kind of talent. Former USO performers, encouraged by Margo Miller to participate in some of the Old Globe's regular Monday night workshops, made up a small core of available variety show talent.

"There wasn't the wealth of musical talent that there is today," Warner said. "We just made the best use of what we had. When we had to make a choice between a singer and an actor, we learned to choose the actor. An actor does better than a guy who has a beautiful voice but performs like a stone. We also were able to tailor numbers to the talent if we had to. And, something magic happened. Everybody turned out to be better than they were supposed to be."

The success of the Shakespeare Festival and "Caught" did not include financial rewards. "Catgut's" numerous set pieces and costumes created tremendous production costs, putting a particular strain on finances. Their values were in other attainments. The festival was acclaimed for bringing Shakespeare back into the Globe and the revue was cheered for originality and sheer entertainment.

They became annual events. "Caught" was presented for six years, ending when talent dispersed and subject matter dwindled. The festival, still one of the theater's great assets, has been produced each year except for the summer of 1953.

The association with SDSU made it necessary to cast students in those early festival plays. Noel experienced a growing dissatisfaction with the caliber of productions, attendance began to drop off and the board of directors decided to drop the festival after its fourth season.

The Broadway hit play, "Mr. Roberts," was released to amateur companies the next year and Noel chose it as his summer production, opening on July 8, 1953. "The success of 'Mr. Roberts' was the turning point in the history of the theater," Noel said. "It played sixty-nine performances to standing room every night. We cleared $70,000 -- more money than we had ever had at one time. Lowell Davies (board president) was so elated, he kept sending box office reports to Jack Moser (treasurer) who was then in Europe. The Globe was never, ever again in danger of going under or fearing it would be unable to produce a next season."

Despite its critical and financial success, "Mr. Roberts" did have its detractors. Lovers of the classics were offended by the decision to replace a summer of Shakespeare with a modern play. "The attitude was, 'How dare the Globe not do Shakespeare again this summer/ " Noel recalled. "There was national publicity on the subject and a number of local editorials. One of the headlines I remember was, 'Mr. Roberts sinks Shakespeare.' "

Shakespeare surfaced again the next summer when the festival was presented under the aegis of a single producer -- the Old Globe Theatre. It was as Noel said, "a whole new festival," coming at the end of a successful winter season of seven popular plays and with the treasury at a comfortable level.

The 1954 San Diego National Shakespeare Festival included three plays with three guest directors: "Othello," Frank McMullen; "Twelfth Night," Patrick Wymark, and "The Merchant of Venice," Philip Hanson. Student participants were Globe scholarship winners selected on the basis of talent. Noel noted that "the standards of our festival productions began to rise and the scholarship students contributed to that."

A women's committee, with Marian Trevor as chairman, was organized to help promote the 1954 festival and to stimulate more community involvement in the theater. So successful was the committee in carrying out its aims that the formation of a permanent women's support group became inevitable. The Globe Guilders was founded by the late Irma Macpherson in 1955. It continues as an integral part of the Globe with members performing valuable volunteer duties year-round.

Noel added a Shakespearean play to his on-going duties as winter season director for the first time that year. He directed "Taming of the Shrew" in the 1955 festival, joining guest directors B. Iden Payne, "Measure for Measure," and Allen Fletcher, "Hamlet."

With highly respected directors participating and recognition of the festival spreading to other parts of the country, the next move was not unexpected. For its first twenty-two years as a community theater, the Globe presented only amateur actors. Then in 1959, Shakespeare plays were cast with Equity players. "For a great number of years we were a professional company during the summer and an amateur company during the winter," Noel said. "We were both amateur and professional and we tried to be the best of both. A very special feeling developed about the work done here and about the reaction of the audiences."

That very special feeling, Largely associated with community pride, was one of the roots of the theater's growing success. Others were new audiences lured by such hits as "Caught" and "Mr. Roberts" and by social events presented by the Guilders. "It became socially acceptable to go to the theater," Noel said. "And, theater is habit forming."

Noel and others dreamed of catering to that habit by expanding the Globe's facilities. The dream began to take shape in 1963 with the introduction of arena productions in Falstaff Tavern. The main room of the tavern, previously used as a rehearsal hall and hospitality center where intermission coffee and tea were served, was rigged with bleacher-style seats around the arena stage. Small though it was, it gave the Globe an opportunity to offer art type plays for audiences interested in that side of theater.

The establishment of the arena stage brought Globe production to more than a dozen plays a year. The festival schedule of three plays remained constant. The winter season comprised six plays on the Globe stage and four or five in the tavern. William Roesch was named associate director to share winter season duties with Noel.

Self-supporting through good years and bad, the Globe began receiving outside help with its first grant from COMBO (Combined Arts and Education Council of San Diego County) in 1964. Given that financial buffer and with an awareness of the community's ever-increasing regard for the theater as a cultural asset, Globe leaders set plans in motion to fulfill the dream evoked by the success of the arena plays -- a true center stage theater. Remodeling of the Falstaff Tavern into a 225-seat arena theater began in October, 1968, and the Cassius Carter Centre Stage opened on January 23, 1969.

The Globe had become a successful dual-theater project. Prospects for continued growth were shining. Noel envisioned the form that growth would take. "I began talking about an additional theater in about 1970," he said. "Early in 1978, the board appointed Jim Mulvaney and Deborah Szekely cochairmen of a committee to raise $3 million to build a third theater."

The committee's work had hardly begun when, on March 8, 1978, the greatest imaginable tragedy struck the theater. The Old Globe was destroyed by arson. The shock felt by thousands of San Diegans was expressed by a tearful Delza Martin: "I feel as though I've lost a member of my family." The mourning period was brief. The Globe had survived a world war and poverty and it would survive the fire.

On the credit side, the theater was the only building lost. The offices, rehearsal hall, dressing rooms, storage areas, scenery and costume shops and the Centre Stage remained unscathed. Within hours, the board of directors went into session to plan immediate action for meeting the emergency. Mulvaney and Szekely accepted the task of mounting a rebuilding fund campaign. A search also got underway for a temporary theater to keep the Globe in production. Six days after the tragedy, "The Sunshine Boys," which had been playing at the Globe opened at the Spreckels Theater. "Old Times," the Centre Stage production, continued without a break.

The most exciting turn of events was the solution to the question of where to present the approaching Shakespeare Festival. The city agreed to release to the Globe the area thought ideal for a new theater -- the canyon east of Cassius Centre Stage -- as the site for a temporary outdoor theater.

Just 100 days after the fire the 29th San Diego National Shakespeare Festival opened in the new 620-seat Festival Theatre. Having lost its main theater, the Globe began producing on three stages. Center stage productions continued at the Cassius Carter and the Shakespeare Festival climbed to greater artistic heights in its new outdoor theater. Old Globe productions moved downtown for the duration. The first season of plays was presented in the Spreckels and the next two at the California Theater.

In an amazingly warm showing of support for the rebuilding program, the theater received nearly $500,000 in unsolicited funds within the first month after the fire. The total $6.5 million was raised in less than two years. With the successful conclusion of the campaign in sight and the construction of the three-theater Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts underway, an artistic-administrative leadership triumvirate was established in January, 1981. Named to guide the fortunes of the new enterprise were Craig Noel, executive producer; Jack O'Brien, artistic director, and Thomas Hall, managing director.

The new theater, dedicated on January 5, 1982, fulfilled the cherished hopes of artists, administrators and devoted fans alike. The outer appearance echoes the Shakespearean period in circular design and the suggestion of stone and timber construction. Red dominates as the warm and welcoming color of the auditorium's interior decor. Technical appointments range from the spectacular lighting system to the magnificent stage and are contrived to make possible the myriad illusions which are part of excellent theater.

The inaugural performance on January 14, 1982, was doubly appropriate. The play, "As You Like It," was by Shakespeare and the direction was by Noel. The dazzling gala which followed celebrated, not the rebirth of a lost theater, but the birth of a brand new facility to be the setting for a brand new theatrical era. It marked the beginning of a year-round professional acting company. The Globe had become an Actors' Equity theater.

Artistic accomplishments matched the beauty and practical assets of the new theater. Ticket sales set records for performances in the Globe as well as the other two theaters. Prestige grew with ever-widening national and international recognition and accolades from the theatrical world.

Then last year, on October 29, in an almost unbelievable stroke of misfortune, arson struck again. The Festival Stage was gutted. With no less determination than followed the 1978 conflagration, the staff and volunteers pledged themselves to the rebuilding of the Festival Stage in time for its 1985 reopening as part of the Old Globe Theatre's 50th anniversary celebration.

The glow of its golden anniversary undiminished by the smoke of destructive flames, the Old Globe Theatre is entering its second half century on a path alight with recently bestowed awards and growing opportunities to display its artistic brilliance nationwide.

But, its 24-carat luster is in the reflection of affection from a community which regards the theater as its own.

In Noel's words:

"There is no disputing that the Globe has been the prime theater in San Diego for the first fifty years."