Photos by Jason Ruiz.
While United States soldiers were storming the beach at Normandy and battleships sailed into the Pacific Theater during World War II, the Long Beach Playhouse was experiencing what Playhouse Administrative Assistant Jane Nunn described as a golden period for the theater. The city’s role as a Navy port and the influx of workers from Douglas Aircraft Company created a population of people who needed to be entertained, and the Playhouse was there to fill that need.
As part of the Playhouse’s year-long celebration of its 85th year in existence, the theater will recreate an interactive Stage Door Canteen fundraiser show September 13 at 6:30 PM, which will help raise money for the community theater while simultaneously tipping its cap to the city’s Naval history.
Fashioned after the shows that the United Service Organizations (USO) produced for soldiers during the war, the Canteen will transform the theater’s downstairs stage, bar and solarium areas into a 40s-era canteen complete with casino tables, a tattoo parlor and celebrity impersonators like Bob Hope and Clark Gable who will interact with guests. Nunn said the Playhouse’s desire to put on a unique fundraiser and the military’s ties to the city’s past made the interactive USO-Canteen there a no-brainer.
“We thought with the Port and Long Beach and the Navy and everything we’d do a stage door canteen,” Nunn said as actors were fitted for their WWII-era attire in the theater’s costume shop. “Everybody has [fundraisers]; it’s usually a chicken dinner with speakers and everything. But we’re a theatre so we’re going to do it different. We’ve got a floorshow that will go on on the main stage with Mae West and Jane Russell, Bob Hope and Ethel Merman—if you squint really tight.”
The floorshow, which was written by Terra Taylor Knudson, is composed of three separate 20-minute shows in conjunction with the interactive casino and bar where attendees can gamble for the chance to win prizes while they mingle with Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn, or while being serenaded by the Andrews Sisters. A silent auction will also be held with prizes including tickets to Disneyland, jewelry, a tea party at the Playhouse as well as the possibility of a walk on role in this year’s production of A Christmas Carol.
“It’s really funny, it’s very clever,” said Long Beach Playhouse Board of Directors Co-President Roxanne Patmor. “It plays off of the actual shows that Bob Hope would’ve done but with a Long Beach twist. It’s a very cute script.”
Making the costumes historically accurate was made easier by the fact that so many samples from this era exist online. Costume shop manager Donna Fritsche utilized web searches to design costumes for John Wayne’s more iconic western look and used existing materials to piece together the outfit for Clark Gable from his role as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.
Commemorative plaques, available to purchase, line a wall of the Playhouse.
“Because the celebrities are from the 40s we have plenty of photographic documentation for them,” Fritsche said. “So it was pretty easy to look up on the internet. Uniforms are a lot easier because they were uniform, and I have a lot of vintage uniforms that were donated to the Playhouse from the 40s.”
Guests are invited to join the cast in dressing up.
Tickets for the fundraiser are $100, a price that Nunn recognized is steep compared to the cost of most productions at the Playhouse. Despite the Playhouse finishing in the black last year and being able to get by on just ticket sale revenue in the past, the financial realities of operating the theater have prompted them to put on fundraisers like the speakeasy-themed party for their 80th anniversary and this year’s Canteen show.
Additionally, the Playhouse will be selling metal blocks to commemorate the anniversary. The blocks, which will be displayed near the entrance of the theater with the donor’s name,will cost $85. And like the USO shows, the Canteen at the Playhouse will also sell bonds the same way that celebrities did 85 years ago while entertaining the troops.
“That was one of the big things that went on at these stage door canteens. The actors went on tour and sold war bonds for the war effort in the 40s,” Dunn said. “Well, we’re going to do the same kind of the thing but the bonds are going to be for the Playhouse. They’re going to be theater bonds.”
The Playhouse, which has been in continuous operation since 1929 and is the oldest arts organization in the city outside of the Municipal Band, is hoping to raise $10,000 through the fundraiser, money that would be well-spent according to Nunn. She said that the theater is an irreplaceable part of the city and its important that it stays in operation.
“It gives people the opportunity to come and see shows, at a reasonable price,” Nunn said. “I’ve been involved with theater since I was in 3rd grade. People consider this community theater, but I’ve seen this theater here and I’ve seen theater on Broadway. And other than money to put sets and costumes together, which we can’t hold a candle to, the talent that comes to this theater and auditions and performs is as good as any talent that you’ll see in LA or New York.”
Tickets can be purchased at the Long Beach Playhouse website or by calling 562-494-1014 ext. 506 or by visiting the box office in person during normal operating hours. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim Street.