A mixture of exultation and sadness is likely to prevail on Friday, when Downey Civic Light Opera concludes its 58th season with the group’s final production, the rollicking Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon. DCLO’s longtime executive producer/director Marsha Moode will make a formal announcement to opening weekend audiences that this will be the company’s final production.
This painful decision came after consultations between Moode and VenueTech Management Group LLC, which took over operation of DCLO’s longtime performing venue, the 738-seat Downey Civic Theatre (owned by the City of Downey) last year. Moode, the indefatigable driving force behind this nonprofit theater company since 2000, when she advanced from its publicist/fundraiser to top manager and artistic director, says that she had considered phasing out DCLO two years from now, to coincide with the company’s 60th anniversary milestone, but unfortunate new developments caused her to move those plans up.
Six Decades of Entertainment
DCLO, founded in 1955 as the Downey Children’s Theatre, first performed in a Downey high school cafeteria, staging children’s plays and shows for teenagers, as well as musicals. The company eventually switched to a strictly musical-theater format, as the re-named Downey Civic Light Opera moved into the Downey Theatre in 1970.
Moode explains that a combination of drastically increasing rent under the new management, as well as the new requirement for DCLO to turn all box office functionality and control of ticket sales to the management firm proved unfeasible for the company. She adamantly states that she can’t manage the organization’s cash flow and financial obligations under the drastic changes being mandated.
Last year, she had tenaciously and successfully negotiated with the City and VenueTech to complete the 2012-2013 season under DCLO’s longtime rental and ticket-sales arrangement. but she is not being given that option for future seasons. There are additional issues that Moode says are extremely problematic, including the loss of key dates in DCLO’s opening week schedules, as VenueTech plans to book the facility for a variety of brief-run events, such as concerts. Moode decided that, all in all, the changes would not be workable for DCLO, and that it sadly is time to close the shop.
In the Moode
It’s not surprising that bringing her labor of love to a close is a highly emotional experience for Moode, who admits she hopes to avoid breaking into tears too much on opening night. Beloved by her loyal audiences, Moode charms the crowds with her wry wit and hospitality, personally greeting every incoming ticket holder at the door, at every performance. She’s also well known for swooping onstage following the intermission, a la Loretta Young, attired in a smart evening gown that often befits the theme of the current show, as she speaks about upcoming shows, acknowledges donors and frequent cast members in the audience, and cracks droll jokes.
She wryly feigns lack of sophistication, such as when she suggests that Downey is the center of her universe, and that people driving from the Valley or Orange County have made a trek somewhat akin to intergalactic travel. She also relishes her popular ritual of drawing a raffle ticket to reveal which member of the audience will win a guest cameo in the next DCLO musical. A warm community vibe permeates the experience of attending DCLO musicals.
As a dedicated workaholic, Moode’s impressive job title has never prevented her from rolling up her sleeves to deal with financial challenges, publicity and box office chores, and anything else that must be done. She is the only paid full-time employee, while a large volunteer staff handles responsibilities ranging from house management to office management. Moode’s mother, Florence Moode, sells program ads, plans the opening night receptions with Marsha, assists her with casting, and sits by the main entrance selling souvenir programs at each performance.
Marsha Moode expresses pride at the 100 or so actors who form her “unofficial repertory company.” Under an agreement with Actors’ Equity negotiated by Moode when she became executive producer/director, each production includes three paid guest-artist union performers in lead roles. “They have allowed us to have four for Paint Your Wagon,” she says, “since it is our final production.”
She proudly touts the fact that DCLO has never run up credit cards nor failed to pay bills when due. She notes, “We pay as we go. I know people think that’s quaint and old-fashioned, but it has worked. We’ve been so careful.” For example, she passed on scheduling Titanic after James Blackman of the now-defunct Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities in Redondo Beach offered to rent the mammoth set his company had built for the show. She says, “We would never have been able to pay for the mammoth crew and other requirements for that show. Our formula has been two bigger shows in between something a little smaller — something more nuanced like Tintypes, Nunsense, or Rodgers and Hart: A Celebration. That formula has worked very well for us.”
Most of the large-scale shows have been perennially popular titles like Hello, Dolly!, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, and Oliver! Once in a while Moode has allowed herself to indulge in one of her personal favorites that has less box office assurance. None was perhaps as risky as the 2007 production of the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse absurdist-flavored curiosity The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd.” Moore admits that many of her regular patrons were somewhat surprised — and a bit baffled — by that challenging show.
Two years ago, DCLO offered the rarely revived Broadway classic Funny Girl, the 1960s vehicle that shot Barbra Streisand to super-stardom on stage and screen. The Downey production, starring Karen Volpe as Fanny Brice, ran a few months before the Ahmanson Theatre was scheduled to launch a pre-Broadway production, starring Lauren Ambrose and Bobby Cannavale. Yet what would have been Broadway’s first-ever revival of this classic was canceled and thus pulled from the Ahmanson season schedule, with no news so far of this Broadway project being resurrected. 3-D Theatricals in Fullerton will offer its take on this Brice bio-musical in September.
How Moode Met Downey CLO
Moode, a native of California and a graduate of USC, says that Wagon is the 33rd DCLO musical that she has directed and that during her career, she has acted in, directed or written more than 150 productions. Among local theaters where she has performed are Theatre 40 and Shakespeare Society, working at both “for years.” She adds, “Out of state, I have worked at theaters in Kentucky, Virginia and Washington.” She started as Ramona in the Ramona Pageant in Hemet for three years. She conducted a Shakespeare seminar at Cerritos College for 10 years.
Some of her directing projects prior to coming to DCLO include Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Spoon River Anthology, The Little Foxes, A Celebration of Pirandello, and her original play Final Dress, which she produced, wrote, directed, and performed, at the Gene Dynarski Theatre in 1982. She has also appeared in television. For Time-Warner, she hosted two 90-minute programs for 18 years: Campaign Series and Good Company.
Moode had played a key role in pushing DCLO forward for years prior to becoming executive producer/director in 2000. She explains the circumstances leading to her association with the company: In 1986, “I was teaching a one-day Shakespeare seminar at Cerritos College and I was taking a busload of people to San Diego to the Old Globe. On that bus was a woman named Helen and she approached me and said she worked with DCLO. She told me, ‘You live in Downey. How about coming and being part of that situation?’ Moode explained that her father was dying of cancer, but Helen stayed in touch with her and eventually invited her to come to the theater, where Moode met with two board members. She was invited to be PR director for the company, as it had never had one. After her father died, she finally relented in 1987 and went to work for the company.
Moode remarks, “I said to myself at the time, ‘I don’t know how this is going to work out. I’ve been an actress all my life. I don’t know about doing PR.” Yet she decided to give it a try. She continues, “The theater at that time owed the city $10,000 and they didn’t know what to do. I went around meeting people here and there and I went to Rockwell, which was still in town at the time. I was able in the first few months to raise a $15,000 donation. We paid off the city, we never took another loan, and we had $5000 extra toward productions. I gradually took on more and more duties and came up with the idea for the opening night receptions.”
Moode recalls that 13 years ago the company was struggling to survive financially. She then made a decision to give the organization everything she had, giving up her union memberships to focus on DCLO as she accepted the post of executive producer/director. She credits a longtime DCLO worker, the late Marge Jacobs, with helping her learn the ropes in the organization: “I don’t own a computer, and I’m not the smartest person in the world. But I know you don’t spend more than you have. I learned those things the hard way. I discovered the trucking company was overcharging us, and I looked around until I found good trucking.” Meanwhile, Moode began directing all of the productions, beginning with The King and I.
She says this was her first time directing musicals, so she worked closely with the musical directors and choreographers. She has consistently achieved crowd-pleasing productions and favorable reviews. She elaborates, “I realized that everything I knew about directing theater applies to musical comedy. Let the actors mean what they say and listen to each other, let the moves be logical. The good principles of direction of a play like Death of a Salesman apply to The King and I. So I brought in these perspectives. I think I might be the only person who had a non-musical background who became a director of musical theater.”
Got a Dream, Got a Song
Paint Your Wagon, a 1951 Broadway musical featuring a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe (the creators of My Fair Lady and Camelot) was adapted into a 1969 film starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and Jean Seberg (none of whom were trained singers). The narrative was heavily revised in Lerner’s screenplay adaptation, and it has also been tinkered with in other versions, including the late director Gil Cates’ 2004 production at the Geffen Playhouse , with a new book by David Rambo. That version never made a planned segue to Broadway. Set during the Gold Rush in 1853 California, the narrative involves romantic entanglements in a mining camp, including some dicey themes for a musical created in the 1950s.
Moode points to a fortuitous instance of serendipity: “One of the shows that was done by DCLO, right before I got involved, 27 years ago, had been Paint Your Wagon. But I didn’t know that when I decided to do it this season. The wonderful thing is a lot of people want to see it, and I feel a kind of familiarity with it because of the movie and because everyone knows the songs ‘They Call the Wind Maria’ and ‘Wanderin’ Star,’ so we’re getting a nice reaction to it.”
Looking Back and Forward
Moode speaks of some of her favorite DCLO productions. “I loved Man of La Mancha — including the set and the people. And Gypsy, because I love that show so much. Of the later shows we’ve done, I really loved The World Goes ‘Round. I’m so proud of it. I would love to tell [composer] John Kander ‘Look at this and see if we didn’t give you and your partner [the late lyricist Fred Ebb] justice.’ I loved my Fiddler and Good News. Another of the best was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Nick Santa Maria [who played the lead role of slave Pseudolus, made famous by Zero Mostel] was a riot. And I loved doing My Fair Lady and Crazy For You. It’s great that we have had several hundred Equity actors and several thousand performers over the years. Paint Your Wagon has a cast of 42 — 47 counting my crew, who will be suited up as cowboys. I think we’ve had bigger casts more consistently than any of the other musical theater companies here.”
“When you go to the theater, ” she adds, “you don’t want to just see two people talking. You can see that on TV.”
She identifies some of her most challenging shows as My Fair Lady and Forum, because of the elaborate sets: “As we went along, we got more sophisticated.” She’s been very grateful for the two large side areas, to the right and left of the proscenium, where the designers can create elaborate settings for special scenes, which also allow for quick and efficient transitions during the performances. She says, “We did a 1950s kitchen and sink in The Pajama Game. For Funny Girl, we had a 1919 kitchen, complete with old dishes.”
Moode recalls, “For me personally it has been a struggle this whole year to do this season, because the one thing I didn’t want to do was collapse. I wanted to give my subscribers what I had offered, as a season subscription base. And that meant to do all three shows [Crazy For You, The World Goes ‘Round, and Paint Your Wagon]… That was a very important thing to me. Other companies have folded without doing planned shows and did not give the donations back, but I was determined not to do that.”
She continues, “It’s very sad that DCLO is coming to a close. We have 72 cities in our subscriber base. They are a boon to Downey business — especially restaurants and hotels. Each year, we bring in 8-12,000 audience members for our three productions. But I’m glad that we will close having fulfilled our obligations.” She calls her company “a real family.”
“The thing that makes me saddest of all about having to close,” continues Moode, “is we had everything down to a science. I’ve had letters from Equity actors, saying, ‘I’ve never had a better audition. Thank you.’ I take the time at the end of my callbacks and call everyone who has come. I give them a two-or-three-day time span and I tell them, I will call you and give you a yes or no — not only for Equity, also for non-Equity actors. And I always follow through with those calls.”
“Now with Paint Your Wagon, my 27 years here have been bookended,” Moode notes. “It’s not nice how things have happened now, but it’s right that I’m finishing up with Paint Your Wagon, and that we were able to do our last season. Not all change in life is for the better, but change is change and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Paint Your Wagon, Downey Civic Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd., Downey. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2:30 pm. Through June 16. Tickets: $15-35. www.downeyciviclightopera.org. 562-923-1714.
**All production photos courtesy of Downey CLO.Print