Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 1997

The agri-businessman pauses and reflects.   From his 18-acre Santa Barbara ranch, he ponders lemons and avocados. But fifty years ago, his face was on-screen and his mind was on the stage.

Mel Ferrer recollects early details like they were inscribed in his brain. The 80 year-old actor/director/writer/producer spouts names like a geyser.   He remembers every play and movie he was in over his long career, and every actor, director and stage manager associated with each. But he thinks most fondly of the startup of the La Jolla Playhouse with a bunch of his Hollywood cronies.

It was 1946, and movie mogul David O. Selznick had “five people under contract who were extraordinarily interested in theatre,” recalls the friendly and garrulous Ferrer; those five became the new theater’s Board of Producers: Ferrer, Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten.

“David said, ‘I want you to meet Greg Peck; you two were made for each other.’ We hit it off instantly. He was in tremendous demand at the time.   But we shared a passion for the theater, and we wanted to keep a hand in it even though we were involved in motion pictures.  

“And,” he chuckles, “we wanted to do it far enough away from the critics, in case it didn’t work out.   So we had this idea about La Jolla, where Greg was born and still has family and friends. He said, ‘You and I will produce all the shows, and I’ll come down once a year and act.'”

For their startup, Ferrer borrowed ten thousand dollars from Selznick, interest-free; “it took us three years to pay him back, just from subscription sales.”

They set up shop in the La Jolla High School auditorium, with its minimal rent, folding chairs, and no backstage ability to get from one side of the stage to the other (they had to run around outside the building).  

They relied on scores of local volunteers (Ferrer names them, too: people like Frank Harmon, Dick Irwin and Marian Trevor — still a La Jolla resident) who sold 60% of the subscription tickets without any knowledge of what shows or actors would be featured. (Prices at the time ranged from $8.40 to $21.00 for a seven-play summer series).  

[Ironic update: This 50th anniversary season, the La Jolla Playhouse sold a large proportion of its subscriptions on the basis of only one announced show, the fresh-from-New York, West coast premiere of artistic director Michael Greif’s blockbuster production of “Rent”, which runs July 1-August 31; the 1997 six-show subscription ranges from $165.00 to $234.00].

“We had big support from the press in San Diego,” Ferrer remembers, “and that helped a lot.” It was a pretty huge undertaking: seven shows in seven weeks, eight performances a week.  

“It was quite a juggling act,” says Ferrer.   “We were always operating just one week ahead; then we had one week rehearsal and one week performance for each show.”

Ferrer and Peck chose the plays to be presented and they asked their friends to participate. “We wanted very, very professional productions, but we didn’t want to play to motion picture people. This wasn’t Beverly Hills chi-chi kind of stuff.”

They opened July 8, 1947 with Emlyn Williams’ 1935 drama, “Night Must Fall”, and “we were a success right off the bat.   By our third season, Time Magazine called us ‘America’s best Summer Theatre.’ ”

So, they continued bringing in buddies — like Jackie Cooper, Richard Basehart, Eve Arden, Vivian Vance, Vincent Price, Groucho Marx, Jose Ferrer (no relation), Louis Jordan, Eartha Kitt, Olivia de Havilland — all of whom worked for minimum Equity (union) pay of $55.00 a week.

“It was altruistic in every sense,” asserts Ferrer.   “Nobody came because of quick money; they just really cared about theater. We developed our own little gang, and we had tremendous respect from all the actors.”

Ferrer continued producing, directing and acting in La Jolla until 1954, when he began to spend more time in Europe making films.   For several years, John Swope, Dorothy McGuire’s husband, took up the reins. After 1964, the company languished, until Des McAnuff was brought in as Playhouse artistic director (1983-1994) and resurrected the theater, helping to put it back on the map and establish it in a permanent home (the Mandell Weiss Theatre and Forum) on the campus of UCSD.

So this is also a fifteenth anniversary celebration of the reincarnation of the La Jolla Playhouse, which has continued to win national acclaim, including a Tony Award for best Regional Theatre in 1993.  

The season opens with “The Importance of Being Earnest”, starring Tony, Obie and Academy Award-winner Linda Hunt as Lady Bracknell (May 13-June 15).   This La Jolla Playhouse production recalls an earlier one, in 1949, featuring Dorothy McGuire, Mel Ferrer and Jane Wyatt, with Mildred Natwick as the hilarious grande-dame.

On Saturday, May 17, the Playhouse hosts a dinner+show 15/50 “Anniversary Gala,” with special guests Mel Ferrer, Gregory Peck and Des McAnuff. (For information, call 550-1070).

Mr. Ferrer, who’s just finished writing, directing and producing an opera for children, says he “wouldn’t miss this for the world.   I can’t always remember what I did yesterday, but those days are engraved in my memory.”

©1997 Patté Productions Inc.