Treading the Boards: A Program for the Pasadena Community Playhouse, 24 July to 4 August 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For over a century, the Pasadena Community Playhouse has been a preeminent institution for presenting theatrical works and its 1925 facility is a striking architectural specimen, as well. Tonight’s post highlights a program from the venue for the period from 24 July to 4 August 1928, when its managing director Gilmor Brown and staff put on an ambitions slate of productions.

The play that closed at the end of that period was Dear Brutus, written in 1916 by Sir James M. Barrie, who achieved wide renown and fame for his fantasy Peter Pan. Also a novelist, Barrie wrote other works for the theaer including The Admirable Crichton and Quality Street, but Dear Brutus was often viewed as an adult version of his most famous work.

Pasadena Post, 24 July 1928.

In a revival mounted in England several years ago, director Jonathan O’Boyle told The Guardian that “the enchanted world Barrie created served a different purpose” than in Peter Pan, especially during the horrors of the First World War and the personal upheaval of divorce. Consequently, “in this mood, he wanted to write a comic fantasy for adults, with much darker concerns.”

Basically, there are four couples gathered at a home of a character named Lob (something of a reference to Shakespeare in name and type) and on a midsummer night an enchanted garden springs up. The eight persons, all feeling that they’d made wrong decisions in their lives, are given second chances in this magical environment and, when they return to real life at the end of the play, there are different lessons learned from the fantastical experience. Though the play’s name came from a quote from The Bard’s Julius Caesar, the resemblance was clearly stronger to A Midsummer’s Night Dream.

South Pasadena Foothill Review, 27 July 1928.

The program notes to the play observed that the 68-year old playwright was “like Peter Pan, [in that] he will never ‘grow up,'” and that “his genius has so much of the quality of perennial youth and unworldliness.” As to the actors, Junius Matthews was given first attention because he was “a professional who has enjoyed much success” and recently completed work on The Taming of the Shrew at the Garrick Theatre in New York City.

That finished, Matthews “decided to spend his vacation in California, and at least part of it working under Gilmor Brown” playing Lob, “the eccentric and jocular host to a group of malcontents whose unanimous wish is to have a chance to improve their lives from an entirely new start.” Late in life, Matthews became well-known as the voice of Rabbit in Disney’s series of Winnie to Pooh movies.

Los Angeles Times, 29 July 1928.

A young actor who’d worked with Matthews previously, Margaret Hayes, appeared in Dear Brutus and went on to work in films, such as Blackboard Jungle, and television from about 1940 to the mid-Sixties. Dayton Lummis, in his mid-Twenties and trained at the Martha Oatman dramatic school in Los Angeles, also had a long career as a character actor in movies and he and his wife, Charlotte Young, had featured roles in the play.

Also highlighted was “Sam Hinds, whose ingenious butler role in ‘The Admirable Crichton,’ will be recalled with pleasure” and whose role, as the cynical artist Will Dearth, was such that “a better character could not be selected for Mr. Hinds.” Unlike the other featured actors in the play, however, Hinds was probably the most unlikely candidate for a thespian.

Lawyer-actor Samuel S. Hinds gave a dramatic monologue to the Rotary Club, Pasadena Post, 2 August 1928.

Born in 1875 in Brooklyn, then an independent city not annexed to New York City for another fifteen years or so, Hinds was the son of the president of the United States Playing Card Company and a descendant of prominent British poet Robert Southey. He attended the prestigious Philips Andover prep school and then Harvard before completing his education at New York University, where he earned his law degree.

Hinds was in private practice in the Big Apple, when the family relocated to Pasadena in 1902, and he hung his shingle in the Crown City. After his death, his sister told the press that he hated the law, but he built a very successful practice as a corporation attorney, becoming a multi-millionaire and living on a large estate off the west bank of the Arroyo Seco. Yet, he was said to have been one of the founders of the Pasadena Community Playhouse when it opened in 1917 and appeared in quite a few productions during the next dozen years or so.

Hinds, best known as the kindly, ethical building and loan company owner and family patriarch Peter Bailey in 1946’s Christmas chestnut “It’s A Wonderul Life” was a prominent Pasadena attorney for nearly three decades; this is his self-submitted mini-biography in the 1909 “Bench and Bar of Southern California.”

While Hinds retained his practice and was still listed in the 1930 census as a lawyer (though, strangely, his British gardener and housekeeper husband-and-wife team were listed above him as the heads of the household and he as a lodger), he was gaining much local renown for his performances in productions at the Playhouse, including in Dear Brutus.

In 1929, when the stock market crashed in New York City that October, Hinds was financially ruined, which may explain the unusual census listing the following spring. It was widely stated that the reason he turned to acting full-time was because of the financial disaster that beset him, though it seemed awfully risky to rely on the fickle nature of show business to make a reliable living.

Yet, it worked. Hinds worked steadily over close to two decades in Hollywood (and was listed as a “moving pictures actor” in the 1940 census) with his best-known role being the kindly and highly ethical building and loan owner, Peter Bailey, in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946.) Hinds continued acting until his death in 1948 at Las Encinas Sanitarium in Pasadena.

Returning to the program’s notes on the play, it was asserted that:

There is hardly a man, woman or child who cannot be reached by Barrie’s delightful dramatic excursions into the complexities of life and “Dear Brutus,” while for the adult mind, is not exception so far as intriguing the imagination is concerned. His people are real people, but in this play he makes Lob play a trick on them. The genii comes when the wishing lamp is rubbed, and the prayer for a new start is answered. But what these guests of Lob do is not what we would do—or is it just what we would do?

O’Boyle in speaking about why he brought the play back into production, observed that “our audience, in the middle of fears about terrorism and politics, I am sure really want to escape the world around them.”

Also on the calendar in late July and early August was a workshop performance; a “ballad opera” of folk dances with music by the remarkable poet and novelist Robert Graves (best known for his later historical novels like I, Claudius (1934); and a matinee puppet show. In fact, the Los Angeles Times of 29 July, under the headline of “Vesuvius of Activities on at Playhouse” claimed that “the ringmaster in a three-ring circus has nothing on Gilmor Brown when he begins in earnest to produce plays.”

Soon to be opening were Pomeroy’s Past by Clare Kummer, a grand-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin renown and a composer and lyricist as well as a playwright, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s presidential campaign satire, The Vegetable, adapted from a short story, but not a success on the stage.

Also of note in the program was that associate director Maurice Wells, was given a leave of absence for nine months so he could “investigate a number of opportunities that have been offered him.” Wells joined the well-known Theatre Guild in New York City and went on to work extensively on Broadway through the Forties.

Finally, there is the thirteenth installment of a “Short History of the Theatre in America” by Ralph Freud, who spent fifteen years at the Playhouse as an actor, including in Dear Brutus and director. Freud had a long and distinguished career teaching in the Theater Arts Department at U.C.L.A. and was the head and chair of the department for many years. The department theater was renamed for him in 1969, when a fellowship fund was also established in his honor, four years before his death. The article focused on the dramatist August F.F. von Kotzebue, known as the German Shakespeare, and his popularity in late 18th century America.

For publications like these, it is also very interesting to peruse the advertisements with many of these appealing to the affluent who formed the core audience of the Playhouse. So, there are ads for the prominent Cheesewright Studios of decorators and furnishers; the Pasadena School of Tutoring; quite a few dress and millinery shops, including one that happened to be called the Peter Pan Wash Dress Shop; Don Lee’s Pasadena showroom for Cadillac and La Salle automobiles; the jewelers Walton and Company; the interior decorators Chilton and Lee Studio; and William R. Staats Company, the “Oldest California Bond House.” For ice cream lovers, there is also the ad for Fosselman’s, then located on South Fair Oaks since 1924 and still operating in Alhambra.

As for the Pasadena Community Playhouse, it proudly notes on its website that it is “one of the most prolific theaters in American history with a legacy of profound theatrical impact and courageous new work.” In 1937, the California legislature voted to make it the official state theater and it became a veritable “star factory” for film, radio and television performers over its long history.

This edition of the Pasadena Community Playhouse News is one of several artifacts in the Homestead’s collection connected with this important local theatrical institution, so we’ll definitely showcase some of the other objects in later editions of the “Treading the Board” series of posts on this blog.

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