The Pasadena Playhouse, dormant for 20 years, is about to reopen its doors. The one-time community theater that sent Hollywood such stars as Robert Preston, Dustin Hoffman, William Holden, Robert Young, Tyrone Power, Lee J. Cobb, Charles Bronson, and Gene Hackman will reopen April 19 with a four-week run of George Bernard Shaw's ``Arms and the Man.''
The Pasadena Playhouse's contributions to American theater are impressive. It was the first theater in the United States to do all of Shakespeare's plays, the first to operate in the round, and the only one to do Eugene O'Neill's spectacular ``Lazarus Laughed,'' a production requiring 200 actors and 22 musicians, as well as 400 costumes and 325 masks.
The elegant and historic Spanish-style playhouse opened in 1917. Twenty years later it became the official State Theater of California. Under the visionary leadership of founder and director Gilmor Brown and partner Ollie Prickett, the playhouse eventually had five stages operating simultaneously. At times it staged as many as 150 productions a year (minstrel, operetta, burlesque, melodrama, comedy, tragedy), sent out road companies, produced radio and television shows, and offered a full-time theater school.
One famous actor, Laird Krager, is said to have played in two playhouse shows simultaneously. Still wearing his costume from the first show, he would dash between theaters and hurtle onstage to be gratefully greeted by actors who had been stalling in his absence. Then he'd run back in time for the curtain call of the first show.
But the institution fell on hard times in the late '50s. The versatile and energetic Mr. Brown had trained no prot'eg'es before his sudden death in 1960, and the subsequent management never recaptured his magic. When the theater quit relying on volunteer actors and stagehands, that tended to undercut its support in the community. After the playhouse closed its doors, the building sat idle and was victimized by fires and vandalism. After a number of well-publicized failures in recent years to get the playhouse going again, a $4 million renovation is being completed to coincide neatly with the city's centennial celebration.
Developer David Houk, who bought the theater from the city and has spearheaded the renovation effort, recently presented the nonprofit organization that will run the theater with a check for $1 million for operations and productions and also gave the playhouse a 20-year free lease. And to protect the historical fa,cade of the 69-year-old, 700-seat theater, Mr. Houk donated that fa,cade to Pasadena Heritage, a respected local historical preservation group.
``The last seven years have been spent bringing back the physical plant,'' Houk told the gathering of press and acting alumni that included Dana Andrews, Bob Cummings, Buddy Ebsen, and others recently. ``We're here to tell you that's done. We're now ready for what the playhouse was built for, to put plays back on the stage,'' Houk said.
``Arms and the Man'' will be directed by Nikos Psacharapoulos, the longtime director of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts. New artistic director Jessica Myerson, former producer of the San Francisco improvisational group known as ``Committee,'' will stage Thomas Wolfe's ``Look Homeward, Angel'' (June 7-29). After that will come Stewart Parker's ``Spokesong,'' (July 12-Aug. 3) directed by Lewis Arquette.
``It's meaty stuff,'' says Robert J. Fitzpatrick of the first season's schedule. He is president of California Institute of the Arts and director of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. ``They're saying, `Let's not just write off a major piece of our cultural heritage but rather reclaim it,' and I say it's one more healthy sign for the revitalization of culture in a cultural center as vital as L.A,'' Mr. Fitzpatrick notes.
One thing the Pasadena Playhouse will now have to contend with that it didn't in the past is far greater competition from existing theaters. It used to be one of the few around, says Diane Alexander, author of ``Playhouse,'' a history of this theater. ``It was the world's best showcase -- a supermarket where Hollywood shopped for new stars.''
She writes, ``When `talkies' swept the movie world, the Playhouse became a veritable treasure trove for the Hollywood studios which were frantic for theater-trained actors. For a period of about 18 years, every Playhouse production was monitored by agents, producers, and casting people with an unquenchable thirst for new faces.''
``This was one of the best places to get experience,'' says Dana Andrews, who was discovered here while playing a Shakespearean role back in 1947. ``The same man that discovered Fred Astaire saw me on this stage and got me a contract with Sam Goldwyn, who shared me with Fox for 15 years thereafter.''
But artistic director Myerson makes clear that the new management will not emphasize showcasing and launching stars. ``We must honor the past, respect it, celebrate it, but not try to copy it,'' she says, stressing her determination to open up any parts that the union agreement leaves optional to community actors and actresses and to try to develop local writers, directors, and actors, without becoming provincial.
``You can't limit yourself in any of those categories without being destructive to the greater art,'' she says. She adds that the reason she picked Mr. Psacharapoulos -- ``considered a very East Coast theater person,'' she says -- was to bridge that well-known rift between West Coast ``film and television'' actors and East Coast ``theater'' actors.
The playhouse has been a springboard to Hollywood; now Myerson is hoping it will be a release valve from Hollywood. ``I do hope that many of the Hollywood people who feel they are stuck in a role on television will be attracted to coming here and getting beyond that.''
She says it remains to be seen whether the school can be revived, but she is approaching UCLA, Pasadena Community College, and Occidental College, about student participation in every aspect of production.