It all started with
At the start of 1955, Masquers Playhouse did not exist — no actors, no designers, no stagehands, no season. But then a church choir decided to raise funds for material to make choir robes. Virginia and Basil Cherniak and others agreed that a play might have broader appeal than one of their usual concerts.
No one knew how to stage a show, but someone did know of a woman who had directed and taught theater by the name of Josephine Camp. Jo was contacted and she cheerfully agreed to direct “one or two shows.”
Calling themselves The Masquers, the energetic group put on three lively productions (Stardust, Gramercy Ghost, and The Curious Savage) at the wooded Hillside Community Church in El Cerrito (which still has a wonderful stage and auditorium!). Presented a year apart, the first two shows played for one weekend in the spring of 1955 and 1956 to happy crowds more than willing to pay the 75-cent ticket price. They raised funds for the choir robes and put on a benefit performance for the local school for retarded children. For their next play, the Masquers confidently doubled the number of performances (to four!) and jacked up their ticket price to one dollar.
El Cerrito and its surrounding communities were eager for live theater and the press generously provided the Masquers space for plenty of articles on their plans, activities, and accomplishments. With Jo Camp and Dorth Hadley as permanent director and stage manager, the core group of Masquers was well on its way to establishing a full-fledged amateur theater.
In 1957, Masquers moved down the hill to the El Cerrito Boys Club (the site of today’s Contra Costa Civic Theater). They produced eight more plays, including comedy, mystery, and drama, beginning with Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, featuring Jo Camp as the medium Madame Arcati.
The group was close-knit from the get-go. Some of these early Masquers who were devoted to the group and contributed steadily for many years included Bob & Jeanette Gilmore, Charles Reynolds, and Ken & Kay Guthrie. Bob built sets, providing paint from his hardware store; Dorth’s sister Jeanette acted and designed sets that drew critics’ praise; Chuck loved to be on stage and also helped behind the scenes; Kay starred in many plays while Ken did loads of work to make the sets.
Masquers always welcomed and encouraged new people to join in the fun. Effective recruitment for Masquers plays was done by personal invitation, the program notes of each show, and through ample newspaper coverage. An article on tryouts for George Kaufman & Edna Ferber’s The Royal Family announced that many roles were “easy for neophytes yet valuable for experience.” Reviewer Theresa Loeb Coen echoed later that while some of the players “fell considerably short of the ‘expert mark’, the Masquers demonstrated they do have a decided flair for comedy.”
Chalk Garden, in 1958, was the first show not directed by Jo Camp so that she could go on vacation! Charter member Jerry Larue, who had already been in six Masquers shows, directed the play, which featured Louis Flynn.
Suds in Your Eye boasted actors with day jobs ranging from singer to plant manager, junior high school principal, phone company switchman, and Fire Department lieutenant.
In the fall of 1959 the group vacated the El Cerrito Boys Club so that it could undergo repairs, and produced a lavishly costumed Student Prince at the Albany Veterans Memorial Building. Then the possibility arose for a long-term lease on the theater building at 105 Park Place in Point Richmond, known as the Village Playhouse. Announcing the new location as “our future home,” Masquers put on The Happiest Millionaire in early 1960.
According to the newspaper, their next play, Ladies in Retirement, was so funny that an expectant mother in the audience had to make an emergency trip to the maternity ward from laughing so hard.
In August 1961, the theater was redecorated inside and out and officially dubbed the Masquers Playhouse. The play was Man in a Dog Suit, a comedy hit extended to 5 weekends. Shirley Hickman’s performance was reviewed as “brilliant and professional.” Ticket price this season was now an unabashed $1.50!
They were now able to offer four plays a year, with a four-weekend run for each production, with an option to add a fifth weekend by popular demand.
As a Masquer, you were (and are!) encouraged to participate in more than one area. A set builder might be enlisted to dress up and deliver two lines on stage; actors euphoric to land a part would find themselves building and painting sets also — and enjoying it! Everyone pitched in, hauling furniture, hanging lights, making costumes, or serving cookies because they loved theater or because they loved someone who had been “bitten by the bug.”
Roland Scrivner saw a Masquers audition notice in 1958 and tried out though he had never acted before. His wife Inez helped in a variety of support duties. In 1962, 15 Masquer roles later, he was directing and acting in his 16th play, an original “mellerdrama,” Curse of the Devil’s Eye, or Fast Friends Foil a Fiend, written by John Moore. The peanuts handed out during the play delighted audiences (but not the clean-up crew!). Jo declared “Never again!”.
Point Richmond residents Virginia and Basil Cherniak returned to the Masquers in 1961. By the end of the first decade, they had been in seven Masquers Playhouse productions and Virginia was Business Manager of the organization.
Betty Magovern moved overseas immediately after the closing of Chalk Garden. Upon her return five years later, she won not only comic parts but also choice dramatic parts. The title role in The Country Girl garnered effusive raves from Jack Allard’s Intermission column in November 1963: “strangely piquant …projects with warmth and conviction …sympathetic and engaging.”
TV personality Bob MacKenzie reviewing A Mighty Man Is He for the Tribune wrote, “…Colleen Turner, maturely attractive and nimbly-spoken …and Miss Cherniak make a formidable pair, trading the purrs and cobra strikes that pass for conversation among women.” Colleen performed in seven shows during this period. She and her two young sons, Randy and Tim, were in Strange Bedfellows. Forty years later Tim’s daughter Kit was acting on the Masquers stage.
All in all, that first 10 years, Masquers performed in five venues and put on 31 productions for a total of 223 performances. From 1960 to 1964, they tripled the number of performances they had done previously. In 1965, they were a solid organization with years of experience, a long-term lease, and looking forward to the next 10 years.