It all started with … Choir Robes …
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. 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.
Comedy, Drama, Music ON & OFFSTAGE
The second decade finds the Masquers happily producing four shows per season: one musical or a melodrama with olios, one drama or suspense/thriller, and two comedies. Reasonably secure that they would be able to renew their lease every three years, they scheduled each show to run for five weekends with tickets priced at $1.50. Ten years later, each show ran six weekends, or seven by popular demand, and ticket price was now $2.50.
The shows attracted patrons who wanted to be entertained but not shocked or confronted by gratuitous vulgarity. Masquers comedies were often risqué but never obscene. According to the critics, dramas were riveting, musicals sparkled, and “mellerdramas” — well, they were just plain corny.
Resident Director Jo Camp continued as Resident Director, keeping the company’s energy flowing, running a tight ship fiscally and organizationally, and always welcoming newcomers.
She acted in very few plays but when she did she was “a complete delight” as one reviewer said of her performance as the former wife in Pleasure of His Company. As director of 27 of the 40 shows this decade. Jo received solid accolades: “directed with sensitivity and charm,” “skillful,” “intelligently low-key.”
Musical direction was most often in the talented hands of Virginia Cherniak, who also directed four shows this decade and served as Business Manager. She chose pianists Victoria Kellogg, Janice Jones, and Joanne Gabel to provide the accompaniment. One pleased reporter said the piano was so effective that full orchestration was hardly missed.
The first musical Masquers presented at the theater was Tenderloin in 1965, a large cast musical set in the 1890s. Ticket price increased to $2.00 for their second musical, Tovarich, set at the other end of the social spectrum. With lavish costumes, multiple set changes, a large cast and chorus, the Masquers demonstrated that the small size of their stage and narrow backstage area would not prevent them from mounting big productions. Oakland Tribune reviewer Herb Michelson wrote, “I simply can’t get over the effectiveness of this singing ensemble during production numbers. You can shut your eyes and pretend you’re at the Curran, the work is that stylish.”
Resident Stage Manager
While Jo Camp was in charge of what happened onstage, backstage was the domain of Dorth Hadley, who took this position with the Masquers’ very first production. Greatly respected by all cast members, her word was LAW, Jo declared to each fresh cast.
When not on stage, actors were to be quiet and in their designated areas. “Off my stage!” trained wanderers quickly. Her well thought out backstage techniques ensured that the many complicated set and costume changes occurred swiftly and smoothly in a theatre with minimal wing space. Shirley Hickman remembers Dorth as a commanding stage manager who did not allow anyone back stage until just before their entrance, and would even cue entrances with a countdown: “10 …9 …8 …7 …6 …5 …4 …3 …2 …1 …Go!” Despite her strict control of all things back stage, Dorth was not adverse to hijinx and amazed everyone by playing the Great Pumpkin when members of the group dressed as the Peanuts gang one Halloween.
According to Masquers lore, Dorth’s presence continued to be felt even after her death. Was it time to replace the lights in the auditorium? The vote was decidedly Yes for right in the middle of discussing the topic, the light fixture over where Dorth customarily sat …suddenly crashed to the floor! (The replacement for that light was dedicated to Dorth.) When she died suddenly in 1971, the night before the fall show was to open, cast and crew agreed she would want the show to go on and so it did — on schedule. Everybody Loves Opal was both a hit and a highlight of the decade.
Although Jo Camp and Virginia Cherniak enjoyed much success in their directorial capacities, guest directors produced successful shows too. Other actors in the company who were lucky enough to get to try their hand at directing included Ivan Paulsen, Kaye Parisho, Chris Christian, Rhoda Plymack, Scott Campbell, Sue Daily, Jim Bradeson, Daphne Haacker, and Charles Schlaudt. Ivan Paulsen starred in Peter Shaffer’s drama Five Finger Exercise, directed by his loving partner, Kaye Parisho, and was hailed as “splendid” in the role of the affection-starved German tutor.
Theater critics were surprised to learn that Plaza Suite was Rhoda (Plymack) Ellenbogen’s first stint as a director. “Her blocking is excellent, her characters well-etched, and the pacing is ideal.” Rhoda credited her New York Jewish background for her special understanding of Neil Simon’s humor. Scott Campbell directed a “fun production” of Ira Wallach’s Absence of a Cello, despite only modest success on Broadway. Critics noted that Masquers more than once achieved success with plays that had a similar history. Ticket price was raised to $2.50 with the show Ten Little Indians, directed by Daphne Haacker. Keith Reagan wrote, “Believe it or not, Agatha Christie’s mystery is so well done here that a [nearby patron] was screaming in alarm on Opening Night.”
Although press coverage for amateur theater seemed to diminish during this decade, the Masquers still enjoyed articles in the major newspapers, thanks to the Publicity Manager and to the relatively few organizations vying for space.
Headlined two-inch articles described upcoming tryouts, the opening of shows, and humorous asides, such as the story of Ginger the calico cat who won an audition by not delivering a monologue. Even Masquers social events were covered. When 20 Masquers traveled to the Stanislaus River in Amador County for the annual summer outing, a four-inch article declared. “Masquers Go Picnicking!”
Upon seeing Jo’s “hilarious” production of George Kaufman’s beloved chestnut You Can’t Take It With You, one critic added this endorsement of amateur theater: “Unlike going to the Geary or Curran in San Francisco, one doesn’t have to pay for parking, the ticket takers and ushers are polite and eager to please, there’s good coffee and cookies in the lobby, and one pays much less for a far better seat a lot closer to the action on stage.” To augment the major press, small circulation publications such as Keith Reagan Theater News arose, devoted to promoting high quality amateur theater.
The Masquers were popular because they loved to do what their audiences loved to see: goofy comedies, glamorous musicals, suspense thrillers, and touching plays. They produced frothy fare, cherished thoughtful drama, riveting plays that explored family relationships, ethical choices, and the challenges of life and death. Press deemed The Highest Tree a “must see” and reported that Ralph Miller did “an outstanding job” in his portrayal of a dying nuclear physicist.
The press may have yearned for edgier plays, but Masquers stayed well within the boundaries of good taste. Jo would never advocate the alteration of a play’s themes or characters in order to be acceptable to the audience and would rather not select a show than to do that. But she did feel that Masquers should protect its patrons from profanity and therefore did remove or make substitutions for strong language. Further, she did not want to hear swearing from her actors whether in or out of character (so of course they teased her…“What did you say?!?” She would ask the actors rehearsing their lines, “Nothing, Jo.”)
Cast and Crew
The Masquers enjoyed theatrical, creative, and social camaraderie during production and throughout the year. After a performance, Masquers and friends usually headed over to a nearby restaurant bar, particularly The Point, The Hotel Mac, or the Baltic. With little or no encouragement needed to break into song, Masquers caroused long into the evening. More than once, Bernie Johnson played piano for them way past the 2:00 am closing time. Our own Brown Derby, the Point displayed framed and autographed Masquer head shots above the bar.
Every year Masquers in small or large numbers went on outings together — a bonfire on the beach, a tour of a new winery, a trip to the Sierras, a visit to Carmel. In addition, there were many parties. The Cherniaks and the Wedells were frequent hosts who invited Masquers and friends to their homes for food, drink, singing, and storytelling.
In this decade an opportunity arose to purchase the playhouse for well under $30,000. Though several Masquers dreamed of buying the building, the Board was not yet ready to take this step. They continued to channel their energies into putting on shows and did not attempt to raise extra funds, considering themselves a non-profit in the truest sense of the word. They maintained and improved the theater on a shoestring, updating the seats, improving the wiring, and decorating the lobby. Lighting the stage was effective and highly praised in spite of the rudimentary equipment. Dimmers were shielded with 2 lb. coffee cans, changing a special light cue might require two hands and a foot, and box office personnel had to be trained in how to replace a blown fuse.
The increasing number of costumes needed more and better storage facilities. Mary Jo Campbell and the other costumers had been using a dank underground basement near the theater until John Wedell arranged to use a vacant room above the Point bar across the street and installed three-tiered shelves for the costumes. Now they needed a ladder in order to hang up a blouse, but this was much better than stooping through a “bend or bump” doorway and not being able to stand up to full height once inside.
Masquers was clearly thriving, welcoming newcomers whether experienced or novices, tackling each season’s ambitious slate of shows with energy and enthusiasm, and benefiting from the stability of a long-term lease. Sure, plastic sheeting blew off the leaky Playhouse roof and landed all over town. Okay, someone was always opening the stage door just when you took off your pants, and yes, the passing railroad train drowned out your best lines, but hey! everyone was having an absolute whee of a time! Masquers were sustaining their vibrant organization with hard work, devotion, and good cheer. With such spirit, they attracted many talented people to the group. What would the next decade hold?
There’s No Place Like Home
When the Masquers began in 1955, they met an immediate need for live theater on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. As other amateur theaters sprang up, Masquers discovered that their venue provided a uniquely intimate theatrical experience: just 97 seats in eight tiered rows, a 20 ft x 16 ft stage only 2 inches off the floor, and actors within spitting distance of the patrons, not that that ever happened! (Well, almost never.)
Theatergoers marveled at how Masquers overcame their small stage. Shows were regarded as “excellent for taking children to see. The theater is small so you can get close enough to see the details and notice the nuances,” one wrote. On South Pacific (directed by Jo Camp, musical direction by J. Michael Speakman), “The Masquers fit a whole chorus line on that tiny stage with ease. They didn’t seem at all crowded. I still can’t figure out how they did it.” Another wrote about Guys and Dolls (dir. Jo Camp; mus. dir. Laurie Battle), “Even with a dozen or more onstage, they remain well-blocked, confident, and pleasing to the ear with their chorus and harmonies.”
In a 1982 Benicia Review article supertitled “Where is Point Richmond?” the author was surprised that Neil Simon’s Chapter Two comedy in the Masquers’ “tiny theater” was one of the finest community theater efforts she had ever seen. Abel Kessler noted “somehow the gags come through sharper and funnier,” praising director/set designer Doug Ham’s ‘clever staging” as an “improvement over the movie.”
A San Rafael writer showcasing the Masquers said: “This small, professional troupe has standards and abilities far beyond its size. One of the most remarkable things about the company is its use of its extremely small space. In the case of La Mancha, the stage was transformed into a Spanish prison during the inquisition. In this case [Born Yesterday] it is a luxury Washington D.C. hotel room. In both cases, the job is exceptional. Jerry Johnson’s direction is equally good, providing strong pacing and rapid-fire comedy. The Masquers is a fine theater and well worth the jaunt across the Richmond Bridge.” Point Richmond, he continued, is “a community in the process of revitalization, its main street is a combination of chic shops and some excellent restaurants, a fine place to spend an evening having dinner and attending the theater.” Therein lay the rub. Rents were increasing as were housing prices. Masquers were well established in this historic building in Point Richmond but would they be able to stay?
Actors, Directors, Stage Managers, Set Designers, Costumers, Painters, Musicians
Through it all, Masquers continued to attract new talent and gave newcomers and veterans alike ample opportunities to use and expand their abilities. The physical space was small, but there was always plenty of room to pitch in. From individuals to whole families, the young and old, experienced and beginners, all worked happily to solve a variety of creative challenges that went into putting on a show.
Mainstays Mary Jo Campbell, Kaye Parisho, and Marie Wedell welcomed other costumers and upholsterers. Jo Camp accepted many new stage managers. Though Donna Ham stage-managed 15 shows this decade, the other 35 shows needed 22 stage managers.
From retired art teacher Freeman Sargent to Chuck and Daphne Haacker to the Collins family, the Nelsons, and many others, new people added a wealth of talent to the Masquers. Freeman acted and painted each show’s billboard on the outside wall of the building.
Chuck and Daphne, who met at the Masquers, thrived as actors, directors, stage managers, and more. A professional photographer, Chuck took all the pictures of the period and also did set construction and light design, and Daphne took a stint as business manager.
Two generations of Collins (Eddie, Theo, and Chris) and two generations of Nelsons (Pat and daughters Julie and Debbie) came in this decade. Dentist Eddie Collins could act, construct sets, and make videos of all the shows, and was perfectly suited for making vampire fangs for Dracula and his victims. With academic training in theater arts and experience acting in Oakland Civic Theater, Theo could act, direct, design, and construct sets. So teenage son Chris grew up on the Masquers stage, first playing gawky teenagers and by the end of the decade, a well-to-do sophisticate. Behind the scenes he was a drummer in Joe Cravotto’s newly formed combo and for special effects in Dracula, he masterminded the scary bat that flew over the audience.
Dozens more Masquers in this decade graced the stage with their can-do attitude and devoted time and talent to putting on shows that patrons enjoyed. The choice of shows pleased the patrons and they appreciated ingenuity and flair on a small stage with a shoestring budget, particularly evident in the musicals.
For Guys and Dolls, R.S. Pease wrote, “George Johnson created ingenious low-budget sets… the pianist Arthur Davis doubles as a magazine vendor, his piano cleverly disguised as a magazine stand.” The piano and accompanist (as for past Masquers musicals) was tucked in the right corner between the audience and the curtain. Lance Gilmore praised director/set designer George Johnson’s Dames At Sea:
“constantly funny, terrific sets, and excellent use of the matchbox theater.” Another recommended the show saying it was “choreographed beautifully, you don’t want it to end.” Abel Kessler called George’s next musical, Very Good Eddie, a “theatrical treat often surpassing high-priced, over-produced performances by touring national companies.” For Moss Hart’s Light Up The Sky, directed by Scott Campbell in 1977, R.S. Pease wrote, “All the principals play together and off each other with such attention to timing you’d think they were the Boston Symphony Chamber Orchestra.”
Resident Director Jo Camp was adept at directing every genre and consistently delighted audiences with her solid fast-paced shows. Though Jo directed many shows this decade (16), they constituted barely a third of all the productions. The rest of the shows were now open for others eager to direct on the Masquers stage. Unlike past decades, over two dozen other actors got to stretch their directorial wings.
Theo Collins directed six productions: Finishing Touches, Jane, Bus Stop, Night Must Fall, Rain, and The Devil’s Disciple. Besides Dames at Sea and Very Good Eddie, George Johnson directed Skin of our Teeth and Something’s Afoot.
Pat Nelson directed Man of La Mancha, The Fantasticks, and George M. Rhoda Plymack directed Prisoner of 2nd Avenue, The Odd Couple, and Middle of the Night. Doug Ham was the director of Come Back Little Sheba, Chapter Two, and Bedroom Farce.
Virginia Cherniak helmed She Loves Me and Fiorello! Ivan Paulsen directed Shadow and Substance and The Late George Apley. Daphne Haacker directed Royal Gambit and Godspell. Scott Campbell directed Light Up The Sky and Brigadoon.
Most directed only one: Charles Haacker Solid Gold Cadillac, Jerry Larue Time of Your Life, Charles Tisher Strange Bedfellows, Richard Miami Dracula, Jerry Johnson Born Yesterday, Nancy McKinnon Kiss Me Kate, and Jama Clark Dark of the Moon.
Paul Drake, who played the cowboy in Bus Stop, headed for Hollywood right after this show and landed choice parts in Beverly Hills Cop and Sudden Impact. “A well-staged, well-acted show.” Others could also have pursued fame and fortune, judging by their lavish accolades.
Henry Bers’ performance in Man of La Mancha one columnist called “one of the two best Sancho Panzas I have seen in the 11 different productions I’ve witnessed over the years, and that includes the original Broadway version.” Abel Kessler wrote, “Arlene Getz is an actress-comedian who has divine-given timing — a rare asset on any stage.” San Rafael’s Rob Weinstein called Born Yesterday lead actor Wayne Hansen “excellent as the oafish thug of a junk magnate, bullying his way over anyone who gets in his way.”
Will We Be Evicted?
Every 3 years, Masquers anxiously awaited the proposed terms for their next lease. Would it be more than they could afford? To produce the shows and pay the bills, the I&G reported, “the troupe relies on revenue from ticket sales, along with annual dues from its members and occasional small gifts from patrons.” The possible sale of the building to someone else loomed large. Rumor had it that if the building were sold, rent could triple (from $500 per month to $1,500). A Masquers task force looked into the choices: buy the building, find another location, or disband. The impetus to try to buy the building was at last strong enough that the decision was made and fund-raising began: “The Masquers membership is agreed that the group should make every effort to remain at the present location by means of purchasing the theater outright. Donations are tax-deductible.”
Heartened by public response to the fund-raising campaign, an article reported in 1982, “Good news about the Masquers. It now appears that there will be future shows.” But then a new buyer came on the scene. A few months later when the sale did not go through, Masquers were determined to be the qualified purchaser. “The building that houses the theater is up for sale and if the Masquers can’t acquire it, we can lose the Masquers.” The goal was $200,000 for purchase and repairs; an advisory committee was formed to direct the campaign. The Richmond I&G ran a huge cover story in their Sunday magazine on Masquers Playhouse and Contra Costa Civic Theater. “The Masquers perform a real service” producing quality revivals — not just Broadway hits but New York’s ”should-have-been-hits, and near misses.” 1984: Two papers favorably reviewed Something’s Afoot. “The cast plays well together, pulling off some very fast-paced scenes with impressive precision.”
The final show of Masquers third decade was Bell, Book & Candle. Ticket prices after ten years were still low: $5.00 for all shows ($4.50 for matinees). The show attracted capacity crowds, Callete, the cat who played Pyewacket delighted audiences with her “well-timed meows,” and most of all, the program notes included wonderful news: “TO OUR LOYAL AUDIENCES: We have made the $30,000 down payment on the theater—thanks to all of you. We now own the theater—and a large mortgage!
History of Excellence
The loyalty, dedication, and talented expertise of new and long-time Masquers catapulted the group to new heights of creative endeavor during this decade. The Masquers’ welcoming spirit and unique culture of all pitching in to perform mundane duties in between glamorous feats created superior productions, filled the houses, and inspired dreamers to keep dreaming of ever new artistic challenges.
Thanks to sustained efforts of David Vincent and the Board of Directors, by 1994 the playhouse was wholly owned by the Masquers and a warehouse in Richmond was purchased to serve as a workshop, costume/prop room, and rehearsal space.
The Board solicited corporate grants and administered acting classes to benefit the community and introduce youth to the Masquers stage. Using the signature artwork of local cartoonist Joel Beck, David created fund-raising flyers and organized envelope parties to prepare them for mailing, and the list of donors grew. David, Virginia Cherniak, Margaret Paradis, plus other industrious Masquers and board members pulled off such entertaining money-making events as Indian Statue Day, the special Sunday brunch at the Hotel Mac, and a golf tournament with buffet banquet. T-shirts were sold in the theater lobby (and even ant farms during the run of Under the Sycamore Tree) with the ad, “You take the farm; we mail the ants.”
Masquer entertainers called the Ambassadors played at civic functions. Champagne galas at the theater were conceived. The first gala was a sold-out fully costumed A Night of Shakespeare champagne/dessert formal event in 1993 produced by Patricia Inabnet. For the 1994 gala, Jo Camp directed what would be her final show, a poignant comedy on elderly actresses, Waiting in the Wings. Thank-you notes with unsolicited donations came in. First row opening night patrons of The Barretts of Wimpole Street wrote: “… as good as any professional production one could ask for. Presentation was perfect — the cast, costumes, and sets. We felt we were really right there in the house of the Barretts.”
Ticket prices continued to rise, but very slowly, out of concern for loyal patrons. After 40 years, Masquers musicals were now only $10.00, and plays were $8.00.
Just a sampling of many fine reviews from several reviewers during this decade . . .
On Barretts: “There are obviously some very talented and dedicated people behind the scenes” Charles Jarrett wrote. “They should be the envy of every small theater around.” Masquers is “a training ground for those who have a lot to learn from the extremely professional talent. It amazes me time and again how this little theater can consistently produce winner after winner with its small space, difficult income problems, and off-the-beaten-path location.”
On I Remember Mama: “This is such a little theater with so little resources and yet there is so much talent, excitement, and gigantic energy that it puts many major theaters to shame. They ought to rename it ‘The Little Theater that Could.’”
On Camelot: A reviewer raved that the scene changes were done rapidly in a variety of imaginative and surprising ways. Costumes created by Jo Lusk, Julie Cravotto, and crew were “excellent,” “opulent,” “authentic-looking,” and “spectacularly elaborate.” “The talented crew not only mastered the many challenges of this full-scale Broadway musical, but did it with seamless finesse.”
On She Stoops to Conquer: “fine group of very talented actors bedecked in exquisite costumes.” Don McCunn taught a dozen seamstresses and tailors to construct clothes from muslin patterns.
When musical accompaniment was provided by a band, it had to be stuffed in a corner offstage or tucked in back of an upstage scrim. Cramped quarters, awkward sight lines, and less than optimum acoustics inspired an up-to-then unimaginable idea: how about adding an orchestra pit! Enthusiastic, confident, and with backgrounds in construction, Masquers Albert Meyers, John Hull, and Joe Cravotto convinced TAS and the floored membership that they could do it and did! The first show was A Little Night Music directed by Pat Nelson. Even though the pit took away a few inches downstage, George Adams’s choreography was lauded by reviewer Phyllis Lyon as “elegant, humorous, and innovative.”
Scads of new talent burst onto the scene and joined the Masquers. Linda Woody-Wood was on the boards in several productions this decade, even on roller skates. Al Schmiedeke did show after show and wrote, “After my first audition at the Masquers for Witness for the Prosecution, Jo Camp called me to say she had a ‘small’ part for me and hoped I’d be interested. What Jo didn’t tell me was that she was a CARRIER of the ‘Acting Bug!’” Dick Krabbe had been on the boards 30 years when he joined and promptly won several lead roles with his “shock of white hair, courtly manners, glinting humor, and big rich voice.” A Little Night Music in 1990 not only sent in the clowns but also brought the operatic voice and derring-do of Betty Baker Bindner. Convinced to audition by fellow voice student Robin Steeves, Betty proceeded to wage operatic arguments with Tim Hart in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Within 3 years she was directing Amadeus, a production hailed as an ambitious undertaking “pulled off with stylish grace.”
New Masquers Rob Bradshaw and Mark Kramer earned critical acclaim for sets they designed with the training and assistance of scenic coordinator John Hull (“Don’t design while you build.”)
A reviewer was thankful that the Forum set was “simple and well-done — not like sets which all too often look to be rock-solid Roman architecture, yet wobble and sway when the actors move.” Half the shows were directed by four Masquers: Jo Camp, Pat Nelson, Rhoda Plymack, and Steve Hill. A dozen directors this decade had never directed at Masquers, and some were first time directors.
Robert Love joined in 1986 and over the next 8 years wore numerous disguises, designed four sets, directed Girl of the Golden West, staged the opera Gianni Schicchi, donated his wig collection, designed make-up and hair for the shows, and was on TAS as Secretary. He, George Adams, and veteran Don Waight were the Kings in Masquers holiday opera for all ages, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Keys to the “steady stream of finely staged productions” were the Theater Administration Staff (TAS) who chose 22(!) directors with a passion for the ambitious shows they wanted to do; the energetic new and long-time Masquers who shared their confidence, excitement, ingenuity, and flair; and the Masquers who tirelessly volunteered for one show after another, very often switching hats to take on the role of designer, builder, actor, director, stage manager, technician, or whatever else was needed. The many new Masquers depicted in these photos on stage and behind the scenes represent only a small fraction.
Raison d’Être — Why volunteer?
On Call Me Madam, Charles Jarrett wrote: “Once again the Masquers pull a thoroughly delightful show out of their magic hat. This production is a brilliant job.” Where did this “magic hat” come from? Why did people, employed in full-time jobs, devote so much of themselves to the Masquers? Al Schmiedeke said “Perhaps it was for a shared sense of accomplishment” and “friendships that can only be forged in groups like the Masquers.” S.F. Chronicle photographer Jerry Telfer wrote, “In my work, I dress funny and do peculiar things in front of people I don’t know. At The Masquers, I use these same skills, but I get to SING too!” And veteran Henry Bers advised, “Playing ‘Let’s pretend!’ keeps you young, healthy, and out of trouble.” Whatever created the magic, this “viable and venerable” amateur theater was a dream machine in perpetual motion, and in excellent condition. Actors, designers, directors, and craftspeople hummed and whirred and produced “winner after winner” — musicals, comedies, thrillers, and dramas, with every intention of continuing on into the 21st century with the same simple desire, “Let’s put on a show!”
On Woody: “beyond brilliant.” On Jo Camp & cast: “timing is perfect, blocking effective, and every actor well rehearsed.”“Just another quality production in its continuing history of excellence including Most Happy Fella, High Spirits, I Remember Mama, Lion in Winter.”
A surprise tribute to Jo on opening night prompted her to write: “I am indeed proud of having been the founder of the Masquers and of having been able to watch it grow and prosper. With the support of Board members like you, plus the hard-working membership, our theater is becoming ever more widely known and respected.”
In a splashy newspaper article in 1991, Masquers founder and Resident Director Josephine Camp said, “I want the Masquers to grow in talent, enticing more actors, more audience.” She had said with pride, “We have a professional attitude. And it’s always been a very friendly group. Nothing that we’ve set out really seriously to do have we been unable to complete.”
Expressing her sentiment, she said, “I feel such pride in every member of the group. It is their theater.” Four years later Jo was gone. In July 1995, Masquers 41st season, she succumbed to debilitating lung disease which had weakened her body but never her spirit.
Her beloved Masquers Playhouse, that she helped to build and sustain, was now completely in the devoted and capable hands of other hard-working volunteers who embodied the same regard for producing quality theater in a friendly and fun atmosphere. Would Masquers falter? By no means. For many terms beginning in the 1980’s, Pat Nelson was Business Manager. Elected for any number of 2-year terms, the Business Manager was not only an administrator but a hard working motivator, who conducted the group business meetings with positive energy, creative expertise, and good humor. Chris Dover volunteered to take on the financial duties and she also accepted a stint as Business Manager. When Pat resumed as the head of the Theater Administration Staff (TAS), the new position of Financial Manager was created and also her new position, that of permanent Managing Director.
The Masquers welcomed dynamo Robert Love as her successor when Pat retired in 2001. A longtime Masquer actor, director, and set designer, Robert responded to his added responsibility by devoting even more energy and dedication to the functioning of the Masquers. The Playhouse burgeoned with theatrical offerings throughout this decade. Not only were main season shows in full flower, but many other fine shows took root and flourished on the nubbins of the Masquers stage calendar.
Praise from reviewers for directing, acting, and set design continued to be strong. Sweeney Todd : “sharp direction of Robert Love,” “particularly inventive staging .” A Few Good Men: “riveting,” “precisely directed by Betty Baker Bindner.” Man of La Mancha:
Pat Nelson’s direction “expert” and “unerring” and the show “inspirational.” The Secret Garden: “Director Debbi Sandmann works magic across the small Point Richmond stage, fusing together reality and memory though song, lighting, and movement.” Picasso at the Lapin Agile: “such a believable set [by Linda Ellinwood] you’re almost tempted to hold up a couple of fingers and order another round at the bar.” You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown: “…and what struck me most was the richness of just being in a theater steeped in dedication and hard work… the performers are not paid, they donate their talent because they love to act. Countless hours are put into staging the show…”
Mindful that Jo Camp had championed a kind of good taste she knew some patrons counted on, the group was nevertheless eager to push some traditional boundaries to offer grittier fare. If a show contained harsh language or scenes, warnings could be added to the promotional flyers and to answering machine messages. The 2003 main season musical, Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera directed by Robert Love, was such a show that patrons either were wild about or hated. Luckily, patrons who were put off by indelicate scenes were delighted by the next musical that year, The 1940s Radio Hour, a sentimental tribute to the soldiers and songs of World War Two directed by Betsy Bell Ringer.
Other main season firsts this decade included Masquers taking on Shakespeare (The Comedy of Errors and Romeo and Juliet) and creating their own musical tribute to the century gone by (The 20th Century Follies, co-created by John Hull, Pat King, and Robert Love). Shows were well-attended this decade, helped greatly by the support of the local newspapers, notably Jack Tucker of the West Contra Costa Times. His reviews inspired many readers to head to the Point for an enjoyable show at the Masquers. When his column was in danger of being dropped, supporters of amateur theater rallied, appealing to the newspaper to continue to offer this lifeline to East Bay theater. Happily his column continued throughout the decade.
The Envision program got rolling in 1995 and mounted over 20 productions in 10 years. Sets and lighting needed to be of limited scale and cleverly designed to make use of the main season designs as much as possible due to the short dark time between main season offerings. Audience and actors experienced worthy and memorable shows that for one reason or another were not appropriate for the main season.
Envision gave new directors and playwrights a chance to hone their skills and sometimes chose provocative topics. Oleanna audience members were given an opportunity to discuss its disturbing subject matter. Headed by Theo Collins shortly after its inception, the Envision committee chose a gamut of theatrical fare, from the simple heartwarming what-if tale in 1997 of Camping with Henry and Tom to the shocking, poignant and humorous Sondheim musical Assassins in 2003.
Galas were also held in the between times. In 1998, Robert Love put on the raved-about concert version of Annie Get Your Gun. George Johnson put together Leading Ladies Sing Broadway with a buffet, and reprised the format with a Ladies and Gents version. John Blytt’s flamboyant and warm-hearted ZaZa, a character created during La Cage Aux Folles, became the host(ess) for both galas and for special New Year’s Eve variety shows. For the Christmas seasons of 1995 and 2000, Pat Nelson reprised Masquers’ beloved production of Menotti’s Christmas operetta, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Stage One, as the summer workshop for youth came to be called, enabled local kids to gain theatrical experience and skills. Later some would add to their experience and fun by participating in a main season Masquers production. John Magee on the Masquers Board of Directors administered the program and local parents found it to be the highlight of their kids’ summer.
Supporting the Playhouse
In 1998, sensing a change in audience preferences, curtain time was changed to 8:00pm from 8:30pm. As always, a Masquers show cost barely more than a movie. To offset higher expenses, single ticket prices for non–musicals by the end of the fifth decade cost $13 and musicals $15. A season ticket was only $55.
Masquers did find ways to cut expenses, such as Ticket Manager Robert Hamm’s clever idea of creating reusable plastic cards to eliminate the need for new paper tickets for each performance. But expenses were unavoidably higher now and the facilities needed renovating and upgrading. For example, Ticket Manager Arthur Atlas initiated the Commode Replacement and Porcelainization Fund and championed the issue until conditions improved. Intermissions flowed much swifter with the addition of a second stall in the women’s restroom, an amazing feat given the small space available!
Generous donations helped the Masquers each year to accomplish their goals thanks to fundraising coordinator David Vincent, Board members, and Masquer volunteers. Masquers celebrated full ownership of the large warehouse that was boldly purchased the previous decade to house costumes/sets/props and provide office, workshop, and rehearsal space.
The Board of Directors chose a new president this decade. At a 1997 board meeting, Bob Goshay excused himself to use the men’s room and discovered upon his return that he had been elevated from board member to board president. Soon after, he drafted a formal proposal to the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation and within a year received our largest donation ever, a grant of $25,000. As shown in the printed programs, it and other foundations, community businesses, and donors continued to donate to the Masquers and the Stage One program throughout the decade.
Other needed fund-raising traditions were initiated by Board Member Marie Peckham whose local grocery store, Santa Fe Market, donated beverages for years for intermission refreshments. This decade continued her idea for an annual raffle with the top prize of a chauffeured progressive multi-course dinner and dessert at several Point Richmond homes. Also, the annual Labor Day all-Point-Richmond Yard Sale continued where sellers donate 10% of their profits to the Masquers Playhouse. And patrons can buy a bronze nameplate for a theater seat.
Onward and Upward
Jo put it in a nutshell when she said for the newspaper, “There’s been a feeling — I like to think I had something to do with it originally — that we did the shows for fun but we always did the very best we could.” Looking back on four decades, she said, “We’ve done so much good work here, and we’ve had great fun and great success.” This statement summed up the fifth decade as well. May it continue to be true for as long as the Bay Area and its community theaters thrive.