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L.A.’s most iconic theater legacy & its most intriguing future

It stands not only proud in its contribution to the artistic past, but as a beacon to the magnificence that theater is yet to become

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Courtesy of The Montalbán Theater, Hollywood, California

HOLLYWOOD – If one follows the paths of legends of Hollywood, breathing in the air of the greats from the myths and truths of movie industry lore, it is difficult not arriving at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. It is here that the historic pulse seems to emanate beneath the magic.

It is also here that feet away, and part of that pulse, is one of the oldest theaters in Los Angeles. It is one that stands not only proud in its contribution to the artistic past, but as a beacon to the magnificence that theater is yet to become. That theater is The Montalbán.

The Montalbán is the most recent, and likely forever permanent name to a theater that has evolved and fought for its place in the theatrical history books.  It was originally envisioned in drawings done in 1925.

As the brainchild of the famous Wilkes Brothers, its beginnings were notorious. The Wilkes Family was the foremost theater family in the United States at the time. The brothers were the grand nephews of the Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth who emerged from a play on stage one fateful night, to shoot the president.

The brothers fought with Paramount on the location of their new theater, and while they won that battle, they were to lose a later one when one of the brothers was criminalized for racketeering and money laundering to the tune of 12.5 million dollars.

In any case, theater landscape of Los Angeles was forever affected by the presence of the Wilkes Brothers Vine Street Theater.

Wilkes Vine St. Theatre as it appeared in 1928
(Photo Credit: Los Angeles Public Library Collections)

Years later it would become the Huntington Hartford, then the James Doolittle.  UCLA bought it then to use as a theatrical annex while its theater department on the Westwood campus was re-tooled. During that timespan, the theater saw many incredible pre- and post-Broadway productions represented for Los Angeles audiences.

Meanwhile, another legacy was being formed in Hollywood.  A young debonair Latin actor was making his way through the ranks of Hollywood, at MGM studios and on Broadway.  His name was Ricardo Montalbán. Through roles as the fantasy giving Mr. Rourke of Fantasy Island, the wrathful Khan of Start Trek fame and the uber-classy spokesperson for the elegant Chrysler for many years, Ricardo not only broke stereotypes of Latino men, but became ever enshrined as a unique icon himself.

He was dignity and grace, the ideal vision of a “gentleman.” Behind the scenes, he was more of a renegade and a cultural hero.  He fought Hollywood’s cliché depictions of Mexicans.  He was told Latinos in movies were to be “colorful characters.”  He fought back and was black-listed. He retreated to Broadway where he starred on stage with Lena Horne, and down the street from Sammy Davis Jr.  They each brought inter-racial relationships to the stage in the various productions—all challenging the status quo and sensibilities of the day.

In 1970, Montalbán would found the organization Nosotros, which today has become the oldest Latino arts advocacy organization. He held a lifelong vision to give Latino artists a path towards success and authentic representative careers in film, theater and television.

Friends with the then Chancellor of UCLA, Ricardo was given the opportunity to take over the former Wilkes Brothers/Huntington Hartford/ Doolittle theater—and he went for it.

Ricardo Montalbán died in 2009.  Today, he would be 101.

His legacy is as alive as ever, carried on by two men who each in his own way, embodies the Montalbán heritage.  The first of these men is Gilbert Smith, who came to Ricardo through a Hollywood-esque type love story.

Screenshot of Gil Smith and Jay North
1959 Dennis the Menace Episode: Dennis Goes to the Movies

Gilbert had been a child actor and seen on such shows as Dennis the Menace.  Acting was not his thing, however, even though he hung out on the movie lot with the likes of Jay North, Billy Mumy, Ron Howard and others.  He found himself enamored with the magic of visual arts instead.  As a young man he jumped into various image projects looking for opportunities to create. He was doing a shoot with a lovely model named Anita, and together they began brainstorming on a fashion layout for a client.  The photo layout did not work out, but the collaboration sure did. They became inseparable to this day. “She has been my life long partner in business, in love, in passion and in art,“ Gilbert told me.

Anita, is the daughter of Ricardo Montalbán.  

Ricardo became Gilbert’s true father figure.  Years later, as Ricardo was stepping away from the theater’s leadership, the Artistic Director Margarita Martinez-Cannon brought Gilbert on to represent him.  She felt the board needed to have the Montalbán family involved. 

He is now the theater’s CEO.

Margarita also brought on another gentleman, who would soon become her successor to run operations, Ricardo Ortiz-Baretto.  Ricardo had been named after Ricardo Montalbán. “My mom named all of us after the biggest Latino celebrities of the day. It was a spiritual kismet that I came to this theater to carry on his legacy,” Ricardo says.

Gilbert has been a mastermind of innovation, visual presentation and technique.  The theater has been remodeled from bottom to rooftop in a creative and flexible space.  The orchestra level of the audience has been built out so that it is level to the stage—giving the opportunity for both Covid-regulated distancing or avantgarde theatrical presentations. 

Ricardo, who moved back to Los Angeles after he and his husband raised four sons, has worked to bring in diverse and creative productions to live up to the legacy and vision that Ricardo Montalbán established. Besides Latino and Black theatrical troupes, the theater has been involved in various charities from AIDS to fostercare.

“Gilbert’s vision is huge, and a lot of what we are now being able to bring into the theater is because he is willing to take a chance,” Ricardo said. “He has the dedication to Ricardo’s vision, that it is realized. Theater in LA will bounce back from the pandemic shutdown.  There is a lot of good theater in LA. That will never go away—it is why people are here in LA.”

The current production, Rooftop Screams, is on the Montalbán’s rooftop oasis. The rooftop venue is outfitted with a bar, concession stand, and kitchen, providing an open-air movie theater complete with a large projection screen, state-of-the-art projector, noise-canceling headphones, and fresh popcorn.  

Rooftop Screams includes wickedly scary and horrifically spooky films from the past 50 years.  It started Friday, October 1, 2021 with the 1996 American satirical slasher Scream, directed by Wes Craven. Other fan-favorites this month: The Shining, Friday the 13th, The Exorcist, It, Hocus Pocus, Beetlejuice, and Pan’s Labyrinth. There will be a double-feature presented on October 31st with The Nightmare Before Christmas followed by The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  The program includes live interactions with many of the movies’ stars and dignitaries appearing on Zoom, and in person.

There will be weekend programs non-stop throughout the holiday season.  As the pandemic restrictions continue to fall away, the Montalbán Theater is locked and loaded.  “We have a number of productions that are just waiting for us to say ‘go’.” Ricardo Ortiz-Baretto promises. 

In 1993 Ricardo Montalbán won the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award.  In his speech, he teased about about his name.  His son-in-law Gilbert sat in the audience with his daughter Anita and Ricardo remarked,  “I would like to thank my wonderful daughter Anita, to whom I gave a glorious name, Anita Montalbán … but she got married. And now she is … Anita Smith.”

Anthony Quinn with fellow actor Ricardo Montalban (Photo credit: Courtesy of the Screen Actors Guild)

Fear not Ricardo.  Your glorious name lives. Fear not to the artists of color seeking to achieve greatness.  Your legacy will go on forever, as permanent to Hollywood as the famous sign in the hills, thanks to a man named Ricardo, and a man named Smith.

And the theater forever named The Montalbán.

********************

Listen to the complete interview on Rated LGBT Radio with Rob Watson:

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Theater

“Hadestown” now at LA’s Ahmanson Theater

It’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, who in Ancient Greece became renowned for making music so beautiful it moved the stones to weep

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

LOS ANGELES – By the time “Hadestown” won the Tony for Best Musical, it had already been around for more than 13 years. Conceived, created, and composed by singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell in 2006 in what she describes as “a D.I.Y. theater project”, it passed through several iterations (including a concept album and a New York Theatre Workshop production) in a lengthy development process before finally emerging as the Broadway Production that debuted in 2019.

Its story, of course, has been around for much longer. It’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, who in Ancient Greece became renowned for making music so beautiful it moved the stones to weep; when his beloved wife Eurydice was bitten by vipers and died, he descended into the underworld and used his musical gifts to persuade Hades himself to let her return with him to the world of the living – though with a condition attached to make the hero’s triumph less a victory than a Devil’s bargain, as anyone who knows this familiar tale will surely remember.

And it IS a familiar tale, one which spawned an entire religion in the Ancient Mediterranean world and has gone on to inspire countless artists – for reasons which are perhaps obvious, it’s a story with particular significance to artists, of all kinds – to express it through works of their own over all the centuries since. Why, then, does it need to be told again?

“Hadestown,” now arrived at LA’s Ahmanson Theater, endeavors to answer that question – but it also stands, in all its infectious and transfigurative excellence, as answer enough in itself.

Reimagining the story from its classical origins into something more resembling a rustic American folk tale, Mitchell’s musical transplants it into a New Orleans-esque setting somewhere on the Road to Hell, where Hermes may still be messenger of the gods, but is here a master-of-ceremonies, too.

It’s a place where the times are definitely hard, but Hermes’ ward Orpheus claims to be writing a song to set the world right again. Eurydice is a hungry drifter who falls for the youthful bard even though he’s clearly a simple-minded dreamer with nothing to offer her but his love; the Underworld is a factory, where workers labor eternally under the promise of freedom which never comes, and Hades is its powerful owner; his wife Persephone (per agreement) lives half the year with him down below and counts the hours until she’s free to live the other half having fun and spreading sunshine in the world above.

With the principal characters recast in this way, the show is free to weave their tale through a rich and imaginative blues-and-jazz infused musical score and the simple-but-ingenious theatrical trickery of its scenic design – and the result is two-and-a-half hours of high-spirited, irresistible enjoyment that’s guaranteed to deliver a deeply satisfying emotional catharsis but never once feels like just another version of a stodgy old myth.

There is not much a review can convey about the experience of “Hadestown” that comes close to capturing it. The best one can do is say you will certainly laugh, probably cry, and unquestionably be humming the songs for weeks to come. Beyond that, we can only encourage our readers – enthusiastically –to go and see it, and assure them it will be a rollicking, rousing good time. It is, and we do.

That said, there are a lot of things about it to appreciate – the sense of magic that pervades the entire show, for instance, bringing us into a realm where reality and metaphor blend, and the literal and the poetic become one and the same.

In this “world of gods and men”, summer can be both a season of the year and a feeling of being in love, Hell can be a dead-end job or a troubled marriage, and a wealthy industrialist with Fascist leanings can be the Devil himself. Reading those statements alone is enough to recognize the truth of them; living them through “Hadestown” is enough to stamp that truth indelibly into your memory.

A great deal of the magic that makes that happen comes from the show’s score, performed with relish by an onstage show band that is as much of a character as any of the other people on stage. It disarms us with its feel-good sound, a classic blend of elements from gospel to Dixieland to zydeco, and artfully deploys harmonics and melody with scientific precision to transport us into the esoteric mindset where all myths take place.

In other words, the power of “Hadestown” comes from its music – which, perhaps not coincidentally, is about as true to the spirit of Orpheus himself as you can get.

That spirit clearly inhabits the show’s cast, as well. Tony-winner (for “Million Dollar Quartet”) Levi Kreis steps into the unenviable task of filling the shoes of the regal Andre De Shields – Broadway’s Hermes – and makes the role his own, bringing a crooner’s voice and a “good-time Charlie” flair that lend a poignant edge to the hard-won wisdom it is his assignation to dispense.

As Orpheus, youthful Nicholas Barasch endears himself with a comedic red-headed “mooncalf” persona, while contrasting it with a voice that sounds as if it really was a gift from the gods; Morgan Siobhan Green’s Eurydice is a perfect yin to his yang, as grounded in practical reality as he is adrift in the clouds of his imagination and his art, but with a soulful voice of her own.

Keyvn Morrow brings imposing presence, a powerful deep bass voice, and just enough empathy to Hades, while Kimberly Marable’s Persephone, equally compelling as sun-drenched summer goddess and day-drinking neglected wife, is the natural center of attention whenever she appears onstage.

Capping the main ensemble off are Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne as The Fates, who taunt the characters – and the audience – throughout with tight harmonies and choreography that practically stop the show every time they take the spotlight. And as praiseworthy as all the leading players are, their talents are matched by the entire ensemble.

Add an ever-metamorphosizing scenic design by Rachel Hauck and electrifying choreography by David Neumann, and “Hadestown” becomes an unforgettable trip to the Underworld and back that will leave you wanting more for a long time to come. And if all that is not enough to convince you that it’s the biggest must-see musical of the year so far, then just remember what we said about words not being able to capture the experience – and go to see it anyway.

“Hadestown” continues through May 29 at the Ahmanson, but if you can’t make it by then you can catch the same production when it takes the stage at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from August 9 to 21.

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Theater

Barrier-breaking lesbian does a ‘Death-Defying Escape’ in her new play

Carter was the first woman to ever play the Close-Up Gallery at the Magic Castle, LA’s famed club frequented by celebrity magic lovers

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Judy Carter (Photo by Jenny Graham)

HOLLYWOOD – Quick, name a famous female magician. Don’t worry, we already know you probably can’t – not even if you use Google. That’s because, as Judy Carter puts it, “There aren’t any. They’re all men. The idea that a woman can manipulate reality is really terrifying – I mean, we used to get burned at the stake for it, right?”

Judy herself, however, is proof that her statement is not entirely true. Though hardly a household name (not in most households, anyway), she broke gender barriers by performing magic on TV on the likes of The Merv Griffin Show” and “The Mike Douglas Show,” before an impromptu performance necessitated by missing equipment launched her into a second career as a stand-up comedian, public speaker, and author (“I wrote the BOOK on being gay!”, she jokes, in reference to her Lambda Literary Award-winning humor book, “The Homo Handbook”). She’s since appeared on over 100 TV shows and four comedy cable specials, as well as opening for Prince and playing in Las Vegas.

Now she’s playing the Hudson Guild Theatre in Hollywood, with her play “A Death-Defying Escape.” Presented by Comedy Workshop Productions, it’s described as “a darkly funny, inspiring new comedy about one woman’s miraculous escape from the secrets of her past.” In it, Carter weaves together stories from her life with “jaw-dropping, audience-interactive on-stage magic”, and takes audiences through a unique narrative that features something for everyone: Jewish humor, lesbian romance, a disability awareness — and world-class, never-before-seen illusions designed by Vegas pro Craig Dickens.

“He did it because he loved the script so much,” Carter tells us.

Speaking with the Blade during a break from the rigors of last-minute rehearsals, the verteran performer shared some of the experiences – not all of them wonderful – that culminated in her decision to tell her life story in a play, starting with a not-so-obvious explanation about the connection she feels between magic and being a lesbian.

“I think there’s a big correlation between us gays and magicians,” she told us. “Especially those of us who came out in the eighties – and that’s keeping secrets. 

This play is about revealing secrets. We had so of them many growing up in the Fairfax district of LA – we weren’t the fancy Beverly Hills Jews, you know, we were the low-end Jews who still had our original noses. My older sister was disabled, and she was given away to an institution, that was a secret. And then I turned out to be gay, and that was a secret. And then guess what? Grandma’s having electro-shock treatment, and that was another secret!”

During those early years, Carter found refuge and release in comedy, overcoming a speech impediment so she could do funny magic shows for birthday parties. She even ended up being written up for it in the Los Angeles Times, launching her on a career that would ultimately take her across barriers no woman had passed before – though it wasn’t always an easy passage.

“I was the first woman to ever play the Close-Up Gallery, in the card room at the Magic Castle,” she remembers, meaning Los Angeles’ famed private club frequented by celebrity magic lovers ranging from Orson Welles to Neil Patrick Harris since its founding in 1963.

“Anyway, what happened was, I was physically picked up by this real ‘macho’ magician, and he threw me over his shoulder, and carried me out of the Castle, and he threw me down into the parking lot. And he said to me, ‘Women don’t belong here, honey, stick to bunnies and rabbits, cards are for men.’ And I thought, ‘Why? Because they’re so heavy?’

And so, in my play, I have that scene, and I think it will open up some things… I think it will really resonate.”

Still, her show is not just dedicated to the professional hurdles that she had to leap.

“I wrote this play because it also surrounds something that happened to me later in life, and that is that I fell deeply in love,” she explains. “It was almost like the first time. I was married to another woman for sixteen years, and we got divorced, and even though I had given up on finding love – I mean, I know getting older is not big turn on for a lot of people – suddenly I was falling in love with a woman that was considerably younger than me. Forty years younger! And it blew my mind.”

While the new love in her life might not seem related to the stories of her earlier trials, it’s more than just a convenient “happy ending” – there’s a point to be made.

“No matter what trauma has happened to us in our past, love is possible,” Carter says. “Escape is possible. It’s possible to leave behind these things that have happened to us and make ourselves vulnerable to love.”

As for the magic, she won’t reveal too much.

“I can’t give any spoilers, but I will tell you that I do a death-defying escape from heterosexuality, right in front of people’s eyes! It’s going to be amazing!”
Directed by Lee Costello,A Death-Defying Escape!” features Carter alongside actors Kevin Scott Allen and Lyndsi LaRose, and will “disappear weekly” at the Hudson Guild Theatre Saturdays and Sundays from April 2 through May 8. In addition, the production will be made available to streaming audiences worldwide beginning on April 9 – so even if you’re reading this from outside of Los Angeles, you’ll still get a chance to experience it.

Tickets to both are available via www.deathdefyingescape.com.

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Theater

Near-naked Ambition: ‘The Comics Strip’ is getting more exposure

Much of the material performed by both women draws from observations about what makes lesbian culture sex & sexuality idiosyncratic

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Kammie Burns & Kira Johnson (Photo by Kira Johnson)

NORTH HOLLYWOOD – Nervous people who find themselves on stage fumbling at a podium or clutching a microphone for dear life are often told to picture their audience without any clothes on—the idea being that if the crowd looks as vulnerable as the person on stage feels, the prosect of getting laughs or applause won’t see so daunting.

But wait: Not so fast, says veteran stand-up comedian Michael Grant, whose role reversal take on the old “picture them naked” advice is the cornerstone of what Grant believes could be the next big thing in elimination-based, reality entertainment.

“The Comics Strip” is a live stand-up show where the audience remains fully dressed, and gets to decide which comedian just told the better joke. The winner basks in the glow of their approval, while the loser must shed a piece of clothing.

This friendly competition continues until one of the performers is standing nearly naked in front of a room full of people who share an unbroken bond with their shoes, socks, shirts, skirts, and pants.

“This is the first show of its kind,” notes the likably enthusiastic Grant, who wouldn’t ask his hand-picked cast of comedic performers to do anything he wasn’t willing to do first. In fact, Grant is the founding father of Strip-Down Comedy, having improvised the concept in 1997. As an early career stand-up comedian who often found himself preceding or following a fellow up-and-comer, Grant recalls his stand-up experience back in the day was largely about “always trying to beat Gabriel Iglesias.”

One night, Grant found himself on stage, having taken off his jacket and tie “just to get comfortable.” But then he continued disrobing, and it got laughs. Soon enough, he recalls, “when the shirt came off, it was like static electricity. They [the audience] went wild… and if I didn’t get a laugh, I’d put a piece of clothing back on.”

Eventually, recalled Grant, “I dropped the gimmick and became a better writer—and now, I’m bringing that concept back,” says the man with skin in the game, who’s betting that comedy club audiences will be eager to embrace something different, after spending the last two-plus years locked in lockdown routine.

Early indications seem to bare him out, so to speak: A sample reel of “The Comics Strip” concept playing out in front of a raucous live audience garnered two million hits on Tik Tok “in like, nine days,” says Garner, who notes you won’t find it on that platform anymore. “They didn’t wanna pay,” he says, “so now we’re banned.”

Clips from the show are still to be found on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube shorts, however, in addition to a website where new content is being added all the time—and this Monday, March 21at 8pm (at the Comedy Chateau, North Hollywood), the concept gets a fully realized stage show presentation.

That show, and a handful of others in the coming months, will be taped. From that material, a pilot will be created and shopped around as a network, syndicated, or streaming series. Franchising the concept to comedy clubs is also a possibility, as are custom-made versions of the joke-telling/voting/stripping concept such as, say, a Pride Month edition with contestants from the LGBTQAI+ community.

With June just around the bend, a lavender-leaning special edition of “The Comics Strip” seems like a no-brainer (well at least a no-blazer). The diverse cast of distinct voices Grant is still in the process of assembling already has its share of rainbow shading—and confirmed talent for the March 21 gig includes the competitive pairing of Kira Johnson and Kammie Burns.

Both women are relative newcomers to stand-up comedy—and, for that matter, the cohabitation (three months and counting) that came about as part of their recently formed romantic relationship.

Much of the material to be performed by both women draws from observations about what makes lesbian culture, community, sex, and sexuality both universal and “inside baseball” idiosychratic. Exactly who will walk away from the stage with more clothes on that the other person cannot be predicted—but both Kira and Kammie see their pairing as yielding two positive outcomes, guaranteed. 

Noted Kammie of their mutually accelerated joke-writing process lately, “Our approach is, ‘This is my girlfriend I’m competing against, head to head, so I’d better get to work’ [and make both of us look good].”

“We’re both competitive,” says Kammy, “so this show gives us double the chances of winning. We are very excited to really challenge each other, to push each other to the next level.”

Kira says she feels “very competitive, and I’m pretty excited to win… I don’t think it will have any negative effect on our relationship.” (Although if one of them shows up wearing the other’s undergarment, the one that “went missing” at the laundromat a few weeks ago, all bets are off—the live-in gays know what I’m talking about.)

As for the selling point of the show itself, Grant puts forth a line of reasoning sure to appeal to the spendthrift and live entertainment consumer alike: “If you like nudity—and you like comedy,” he says, “then why are you spending money at two places?”

“The Comics Strip” is performed at 8pm on Monday, March 21, at the Comedy Chateau (4615 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood, CA 91602).

For tickets ($20 general admission), visit https://app.showslinger.com/ticket_payment/3858/checkout_ticket.

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