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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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International City Theatre announces 2022 season in-person theater

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Courtesy of International City Theatre, Long Beach, California

LONG BEACH –International City Theatre is back in full force with a complete season of five in-person plays scheduled for 2022.

“We need the arts, now more than ever as we move beyond Covid-19, to provide hope and healing for our community,” says International City Theatre’s artistic director. “Each of the five plays we’ve chosen to celebrate our return to live theater continues our vision: to entertain, inspire and educate.”

The season kicks off in February with Marry Me A Little. Conceived and developed by Craig Lucas and Norman René, this charming, bittersweet musical two-hander weaves 17 lesser-known songs by Stephen Sondheim into a tale of love and loneliness that The New York Times calls “a disarming experience.” The story of two single strangers who unknowingly live one floor apart is told entirely through songs written early in Sondheim’s career or cut from his groundbreaking Broadway musicals. (Feb. 11 through Feb 27; previews begin Feb. 9.)

Next up, in April, is A Dolls House: Part 2 by Obie award-winning playwright Lucas Hnath. It was shocking for audiences to watch Nora leave her husband and children in A Doll’s House, the 1879 play by Henrik Ibsen. How shocking will it be for us, in 2022, to dive deeper into the reasons behind that fateful choice in Hnath’s bitingly funny, Tony-nominated stand-alone sequel to Ibsen’s revolutionary masterpiece? (April 15 through May 1; previews begin April 13.)

Production number three puts Jamie Torcellini at the helm of The Legend of Georgia McBride, aheartfelt, feel-good, music-filled comedy by Matthew Lopez. Casey is young and broke. He has a baby on the way, and the landlord is knocking on his door. Now, the owner of the bar where he works as an Elvis impersonator has replaced his act with a B-level drag show, and Casey’s about to learn a lot about show biz — and himself. (June 10 through June 26; previews begin June 8.)

The season will go out on a high note (pun intended) in October with Ken Ludwig’s two-time Tony-nominated screwball comedy Lend Me A Tenor. When world-famous tenor Tito Morelli arrives for a fundraiser at the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, a chain-reaction of mistaken identity and mixed signals spirals out of control, leading to mayhem, high-jinx and hilarity —and leaving audiences giddy and teary-eyed with laughter. (Oct. 21 through Nov. 6; previews begin Oct. 19.)

A fifth play, set to run Aug. 26 through Sept. 11, will be announced at a later date.

Two of the plays in the season, The Legend of Georgia McBride and Lend Me A Tenor, were previously announced to open in 2020 but put on hold due to the pandemic.

“We are so grateful to be able to put these two plays back on the schedule,” desai says. “We are back to doing what we are meant to do — tell stories that help us better understand our world and our shared humanity.”

Recognized by Long Beach as the City’s resident professional theater company, International City Theatre is the recipient of over 400 awards, including the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle’s prestigious Margaret Harford Award for “Sustained Excellence” and the LADCC’s 2016 Polly Warfield Award for an “Excellent Season.” In addition to its professional theater productions, ICT offers six community and educational outreach programs each year. The company’s commitment to the community also includes ongoing collaborations with Long Beach’s African American community and other groups and organizations. Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe called ICT “a cultural treasure.”

All performances take place Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For more information about ICT’s 2022 season and to purchase subscriptions or single tickets, call (562) 436-4610 or visit www.internationalcitytheatre.org

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LA LGBTQ Theatre fires artistic director over sexual misconduct allegations

There are no additional details we are able to share. […] We will have no further comment on this investigation

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The Lex Theatre at Lexington Ave & McCadden Place, home to Celebration Theatre (Google Earth)

HOLLYWOOD – The Board of Directors of Celebration Theatre, one of the oldest and the largest LGBTQ community theatres in the Los Angeles area fired Michael A. Shepperd, its artistic director Tuesday, after allegations of sexual misconduct were raised in a Facebook post by an actor who had a role in one of Shepperd’s productions.

In a terse announcement released Tuesday, the Celebration Board addressed the allegations against Shepperd, a prominent figure in L.A.’s theater scene, which included groping and propositioning.

“Michael A. Shepperd’s decades-long contributions to Celebration Theatre and the Los Angeles theatre community are significant. We value and respect his artistry both as a director and as an actor,” the Celebration Board wrote.

“However, based on the findings and recommendations of an independent investigation initiated April 14th by our Board of Directors, prompted by allegations of a pattern of misconduct raised by Andrew Diego in his April 14th Facebook post, Celebration Theatre terminated Shepperd’s role as Artistic Director on May 24th.

The final investigative report was delivered to the Board of Directors on May 22nd and included other credible accounts of misconduct, as determined by the independent counsel. His termination was effective immediately,” the Board added.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published Tuesday, Shepperd denied the claims. In the article Shepperd labeled Celebration a “queer safe space” where flirtation and bawdy innuendo were common, and he said any behavior of a sexual nature was done in the context of a consensual relationship. His attorney, Jordan Susman told the paper, “Michael categorially denies any and all allegations of misconduct and laments the absence of process that led to Celebration Theatre’s decision.”

The investigation by the Board of the theatre also concluded that others who were made aware of the allegations did not respond inappropriately to Diego’s allegations based on the information that they had at that time.

The report also included several recommendations to implement additional policies and procedures to enhance artist safety, increase accountability, and clarify standards of conduct, including but not limited to additions to the theatre’s recently adopted anti-harassment/anti-discrimination policy, periodic staff and artist trainings, and the ongoing availability of an independent artist relations liaison—which the Board adopted at its May 23rd meeting.

“There are no additional details we are able to share. While our commitment to cultural changes will be ongoing, we will have no further comment on this investigation,” the Board added.

Celebration was founded in 1982 by gay rights pioneer and co-founder of the Mattachine Society, Chuck Rowland, when he leased a storefront in Silver lake to start a community theatre dedicated to producing gay-themed material.  Its current home is at the Lex Theatre at Lexington Ave & McCadden Place, located in Hollywood’s Theatre Row.

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Theater

LA’s hidden gem- Fountain Theatre premieres its Outdoor Stage June 18

Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood is a hidden gem, one of the Los Angeles region’s premiere regional live theatres

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The Fountain Theatre Photo Credit: Google Earth screenshot

EAST HOLLYWOOD – Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood on Fountain Avenue just off Normandie Avenue is a hidden gem, one of the Los Angeles region’s premiere regional live theatres. Founded in in 1990 by co-artistic directors Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs the theatre has garnered an impressive resume and reputation in the theatre world for reflecting a unique cultural voice and serving the distinctive ethnic communities that make up the LA metroplex.

Over the past thirty-one years of its existence the theatre has staged over 35 world premieres; and also 31 U.S., West Coast, Southern California or Los Angeles premieres. On its website the Fountain points out that Fountain Theatre projects have been seen in  New York City, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Seattle, Chicago, Massachusetts, Florida, New Jersey, Minneapolis, London and Edinburgh UK, among other cities and countries.

Like most of the region and certainly the entertainment world in LA, the House lights went dark at the Fountain as the coronavirus pandemic tore through Los Angeles and California. Undeterred, the artistic directors forged ahead and in January the theatre received approval from the City of Los Angeles to install a temporary outdoor stage for the purpose of presenting live performances and other events during the pandemic.

“Pandemic permitting, we hope to open our first outdoor production by late spring or early summer,” says Fountain artistic director Stephen Sachs. “We’re planning an exciting Los Angeles premiere that dramatizes urgent social issues using the Fountain’s signature bold and theatrical approach.”

For the past several months work has progressed in installing a stage in what is now the theater parking lot. The new performance area will be able to accommodate 50 to 84 audience members. It will feature seven rows of chairs, each six feet apart, as well as 12 high-top tables positioned six feet apart for use by patrons from the same “bubble” households. Every aspect of the outdoor performance area will meet COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Fountain Theatre Outdoor Stage Photo Credit: Lucy Pollak

The wait is now nearly over as the stage is complete and the final touches on the performance areas are being finalized. This past week the Fountain announced that casting is complete and rehearsals begin this week for the Los Angeles premiere of a radical, incendiary and subversively funny Obie award-winning play by MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” recipient, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a playwright who identifies as a Black queer but whose plays aren’t chiefly about LGBTQ life.

Performances of  ‘An Octoroon’ will inaugurate the new outdoor stage at The Fountain Theatre on June 18.  Performances run June 18 through Sept.19, with performances on Fridays, Saturdays,  Sundays and Mondays at 7 p.m., except Saturday, June 19, which will be at 5 p.m. and will be followed by a special Juneteenth event, and July 30 through Aug. 2 and Aug. 27 through  Aug. 30 which will be dark.

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Photo courtesy
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Four preview performances will take place on June 11, June 12,  June 13 and June 16 at 7 p.m. There will be one press preview on Thursday, June 17 at 7  p.m. Tickets range from $25–$45; Pay-What-You-Want seating is available every Monday night  in addition to regular seating (subject to availability).

The Fountain tells the Blade that it is proud to count L.A. City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, and Mayor Eric Garcetti as supporters, reflecting the company’s successful history of partnering with the City’s government.

Artist’s conception of finished and fully dressed out performance area of the Fountain Theatre

In addition to being a Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs grant recipient for decades, the Fountain launched a groundbreaking program that brings celebrity actors to L.A. City Hall to perform one-night free public readings in the City Council chambers.

The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060  Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. For reservations and information, call (323)  663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com.

Construction of the Stage in a Time Lapsed video:

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