Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 2001
It takes some pretty fancy footwork to sustain a longtime partnership. But Don and Bonnie Ward have waltzed and tapped their way through Moonlight and Starlight and around the Globe.
They first met in 1942, in dancing school; she was 6 and he was 8. They noticed each other then, even though he was studying tap and she was into ballet. They both came from performing families (and they passed that onto their kids, who are third generation entertainers and San Diegans).
Don made his debut at the Old Globe, in the annual season opener, “Caught in the Act.” Soon they were both appearing at Starlight Musical Theatre. “We were cast in the same shows,” says Don. “After awhile, we started to notice each other for other reasons.”
They began dating when Bonnie was 15, and married three years later. Since then, they’ve done almost 200 shows together — either acting, dancing, singing, directing or choreographing.
For a couple of years, they left San Diego to go on the road with their own nightclub musical comedy act. They sang, tapped and did exhibition ballroom dancing. ” We opened for Mae West, Red Skelton and Sammy Davis, Jr.” Don says proudly. “Nightclubs always had that kind of act. But we’d abandoned the musical theater, which we both loved.” So they returned home to settle down; Bonnie was pregnant, and they thought they’d pull back and raise a family.
“We quit the business four times over the years,” Bonnie reminisces. But they always came back. During the Korean War, they started a girls’ chorus line, sort of like the Rockettes, and mounted USO shows around the country. Don began directing musicals for Civic Arts for Youth, and Bonnie headed the dance program for the City of San Diego. They made their musical theater duo-directing debut on a big scale, in the Ford (later Starlight) Bowl in Balboa Park. “We cut our teeth directing for a 4200 seat theater,” Don chuckles.
Then Don became artistic director of San Diego Junior Theatre, a post he held for 15 years. He added a dance program, which Bonnie directed. They loved kids, but didn’t like working away from their own three children, so they brought them into the family business. They started a kids’ group, “The Bright Side,” which was “the biggest local convention singing act” that toured nationally. “Our first show,” beamed Bonnie, “was the inaugural party for Ronald Reagan, when he became governor. Jack Benny introduced us.”
In that first group of 28 kid performers was young Brian Stokes Mitchell, the San Diego powerhouse who starred in Ragtime and the Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate. He was 15 at the time, and he wrote the group’s theme song, “Look on the Bright Side.” “We gave him his first dance lessons,” said Bonnie. “And he sent us the neatest letter after he won the Tony [Award].”
All the Wards were in the original group; Laurie was 10 at the time; Kirby was 11 and Kelly was 14. All three later attended USC, and continued their involvement in musical theater. And Don and Bonnie remained in the spotlight — and the Starlight. From 1981-1993, they served as artistic directors/choreographers for Starlight Musical Theatre. Then there was a falling-out that no one wants to discuss. “We have no animosity,” says Don, “but our last years there were not a happy experience.”
They’ve been much happier since they moved out of the Starlight and into the Moonlight…. Moonlight Amphitheatre, that is.
“We’ve had nothing but happy times at Moonlight,” says Don. “It reminds us of how Starlight was back in the good old days in the ’50s: the attitudes, the camaraderie, the support and respect for actors.” And, adds Bonnie, “we get to take that same delight in watching kids bloom that we got back at Junior Theatre.”
They’re starting off the new year at Moonlight’s indoor venue, the Avo Playhouse, directing/choreographing Romance, Romance, a sophisticated little duet of one-act musicals. The Tony Award-winner by Barry Harman and Keith Herman spans a century of amorous adventures. The first act is set in 1890’s Vienna, with two philandering lovers and two “chorus/dancers.” In the second act, at the Hamptons in the 1990s, the couples change but the infidelities remain.
“It’s charming,” says Don. “In the first act, you get the Victorian costumes and wigs, waltz, polka and ragtime. And then there’s the harder driving, more contemporary music in the second act. It’s a really fun piece.”
The stars are two Moonlight favorites who are now guest Equity artists: Bets Malone and John Bisom. She was the first of the four “Annies” Don has directed over the years. He was the upwardly mobile employee to Don’s bigwig boss in the Moonlight’s recent production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
“We keep saying we’ve got to slow down,” says Bonnie. “But we want to have a good time as long as we can,” adds Don. “We adore working together,” says Bonnie. And, adds Don, “We’ve never gotten tired of that.”
Romance, Romance plays at Moonlight’s Avo Playhouse (303 Main Street, Vista) from Jan. 25-Feb. 18. Call Vis Tix at 760-724-2110.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.