Community Spirit Was Reborn in Work of Presenting Notable Stage Productions
There was a time in Santa Barbara when it was a common joke that no one’s wardrobe or furniture was safe from the prowling property committee of the Community Arts Players. If a man were so unfortunate as to be the “type” of a character in the play under production, he was as likely as not to be taken off the street and roped into the cast.
Everyone turned out to help produce a play. Actors were chosen from every walk of life. Santa Barbara artists volunteered to design sets and paint scenery. Business houses and private homes loaned properties.
Looking back on this unity of purpose, the late Dr. Henry Smith Pritchett of the Carnegie Foundation (then living here) wrote to the Rosenwald Foundation in 1932:
“The notion of the Carnegie Corporation in undertaking cooperation with the Community Arts Association of this small city (the population then was 25,000) was based on the assumption that if all the people of a community could be interested in a common effort for its improvement, the outcome would be not only an integration of the community, but also, in the long run, a satisfactory support for the various activities connected with the movement.
“That there has resulted a real development of community spirit cannot be doubted. This was admirably illustrated at the time of the earthquake in Santa Barbara nearly seven years ago. The quickness with which, within two hours after this staggering catastrophe, the citizens of Santa Barbara, rich and poor, had come together for common protection and help was very wonderful … With remarkable unanimity the community came together and much of this spirit was due to the fact that rich and poor had been working together in the service of the Community Arts.”
Old Potter Theater
As has been said before, the first plays were produced at the old Potter Theater at the corner of State and Montecito Streets, by the Community Arts Players, forerunners of the Drama Branch before the Music and Plans and Planting Branches had come into being. First, three one-act plays were given with such success that a series followed and the season was finished with several longer plays climaxed by “Pelleas and Melisande” for which Albert Herter painted the scenery. In all the history of community drama no production has exceeded the beauty of the Maeterlinck work as done by the Santa Barbara players.
After that a publicity and technical director was added to the staff. “In the second season,” it is recalled by Mrs. Michel A. Levy, one of the pioneers, “eight successful plays were given under the brilliant direction of Nina Moise and with the assistance of hundreds of workers on scenery, costumes and acting.”
It was at the very end of this season that a “whirlwind campaign” sprang up to raise money for a community theater.
By now the Drama Branch, School of the Arts, Music Branch and Plans and Planting Branch had incorporated as the Community Arts Association of Santa Barbara, the Carnegie Foundation was contributing $25,000 annually to its support, and the first talk was of restoring the old Lobero Theater. A sum of $125,000 was raised in three weeks by more than 300 individual contributors, and with an additional mortgage the fund was boosted to $185,000. The old Lobero was purchased. But a structural engineer hired to examine the adobe, frame and brick landmark rendered the verdict that it would be impossible to render it safe against earthquakes.
When, shortly afterward, in 1925, the earthquake destroyed many old adobes while the new Lobero Theater stood unscathed, the Association members were able to congratulate themselves on the wisdom of deciding upon a new theater. The successful weathering of the catastrophe by both the Lobero and The News-Press building were excellent arguments, incidentally, for the spread of Hispanic architecture.
‘Beggar on Horseback’
Its leading exponent, the distinguished architect, George Washington Smith, now deceased, was the man engaged to build the Lobero. To herald its completion in 1924 and open the new playhouse a magnificent production of “The Beggar on Horseback” by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, directed by Nina Moise, was staged and ran for several weeks before packed houses.
To advertise the opening, a pageant was worked up. It grew into the first Old Spanish Days Fiesta.
At the time of the opening, the Board of Directors of the Community Arts Association included: Bernhard Hoffmann, president; Mrs. Michel A. Levy, vice president; Pearl Chase, secretary; Robert C. Smitheram, treasurer; the late William North Duane, Miriam B. Edwards, Harold S. Gladwin, T. Mitchell Hastings, the late Mrs. Albert Herter, Mrs. John A. Jameson, the late Fernand Lungren; Hamilton MacFadden, executive director; the late Mrs. O. L. (“Anne”) Hathaway, business secretary and Edward Sajous, publicity director.
On the drama committee were: the late Samuel M. Ilsley, chairman; the late Margaret Whittemore, vice chairman; the late Marion Cate, Mrs. Robert W. Hyde, Mrs. Michel A. Levy, the late Mrs. Marie Burroughs Livingston, J. William MacLennan, Mrs. Frederick Forrest Peabody (now Mrs. Girard Van B. Hale), the late Mrs. George Washington Smith and Mrs. James H. Wagner.
3000 Shared in Project
Some years afterward in writing of the year 1924 Mrs. Levy recorded: “At the end of the third season of plays, out of a population of 25,000, 2000 to 3000 people saw the plays and shared in the ideal and understanding of the art and recreation of the theater.”
Looking over old programs and Community Arts Association reports, one finds that an average of from 10 plays a year to 16 in peak years were staged by actors drawn from the community. Society leaders sometimes played beside their butlers and maids and industrial tycoons from the East beside local fish merchants. The list of plays included works of Shaw, Shakespeare, Barrie, Ibsen, O’Neill, Milne, Galsworthy, Dunsany, Sheridan, Pirandello – to name a few. Among outstanding directors who succeeded Miss Moise were Colin C. Clements, Charles Meredith and Irving Pichel.
“The reason we did not build a larger theater,” Mrs. Levy explained, in recalling the “Golden Age,” “was that the Potter, a good commercial theater, was still standing, and we had every reason to believe that it would be there indefinitely. We built the new Lobero as a community theater. Its original capacity has been increased to 670-odd seats; also the shop and rehearsal hall were added.”
The Potter, as everyone knows, went down in the earthquake. Gradually the Lobero, which had always been opened to the Artist Series concerts arranged by the Music Branch and the Master Courses of the late Mrs. C. E. Herbert, began to admit road shows to its stage.
Due to its large financial obligations, after the withdrawal of the Carnegie Grant and the simultaneous appearance of the depression, the group long interested in the theater were called back to evolve a new plan for financing the Lobero. The present Lobero Theater Foundation was formed, the stock of the theater was handed to it free from debt with the understanding that the stock be put into the hands of a civic group and held in perpetuity as a community theater.
According to this plan, the theater was turned over to the County and leased back to the Foundation, which assumed responsibility for its upkeep and operation. Departing from its original plan, it does not now give community plays but makes the theater available to such groups as the Players Club, the former Civic Theater, the Youtheatre and others.
Twice since the change took place a brilliant Summer season at the Lobero has dazzled the entire Coast. One of these in the late 30’s brought Arthur Beckhard here to produce a Noel Coward series with luminaries from the screen and stage composing the cast. The other was the season given by the Selznick Company in 1941 when Geraldine Fitzgerald, Dame May Whitty and other notables were the actors.
An example of the position the Lobero continues to occupy was the recent world premiere performance on its boards of “The Story of Mary Surratt.” Santa Barbara having given it a fine send-off, now the play is Broadway bound.