"My mission," says Marshall, sounding very much like a man obsessed, "is to bring theater to the people who love it--and also to the people who've never been. That's the thing: to find people who need live theater. Like my mother always said, 'Live is better. Anything can happen!' " If you never thought you'd hear words like this from the man who's lived and breathed film and TV since the early 1960s, think again. Yes, the fellow behind such television hits as Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, who has also directed more than his share of highly successful films (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, etc.) and has appeared in front of the camera as well (that was Marshall as the megalomaniac network head on Murphy Brown), is a stage hound.
He blames it all on the influence of his mother, who carted him to Wednesday matinees in New York when he was still a kid. And Marshall's professional past does contain a couple of plays, including Wrong Turn at Lungfish. Co-written with Lowell Ganz, and directed by Marshall, the play premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf in 1990, moved to L.A.'s Coronet Theatre, and opened in New York in 1993 starring George C. Scott.
Such activity might be considered a diversion, but now Marshall has gone past the point of no return. It somehow makes sense that this industry-savvy gentleman has opened his shiny new playhouse in Toluca Lake, with NBC, Disney and Warner Bros. Studios as next-door neighbors. Still, the first two years of the Falcon's life have been a learning experience. "I don't know anything about running a theater," Marshall admits. "But I do know something about entertaining people, and I'm trying to use that knowledge."
He decided that he would make the Falcon a first class venue--"a large theatre inside a small theatre...comfortable, cozy, clean, and a nice place to work"--that would be very attractive to both artists and audience members. With the help of his children, he built a lovely complex that houses the Falcon as well as offices for Marshall's production company, and fits right into the neighborhood he calls home. First lesson? "Some [people] don't know how to drive here, how to cross the Great Wall of China that separates the Valley and Westwood," says Marshall. "They come over the hill and think they're in a foreign land! But they have been coming. That's very rewarding."
The Falcon first reared its head in late 1997 and, from the very start, the theater was thrust into the spotlight. "Because of Garry, we probably get a lot of more media attention that we would if he weren't involved," says the Falcon's executive director, Meryl Friedman, who joined the theater staff only a year ago. "That gives us an extra nudge." The theater also benefits from the efforts of Marshall's well-known friends and family. "Penny's been a great help in talking it up," he says of his sister, actress-director-producer Penny Marshall. " 'You got a play, talk to my brother,' she says." In 1998, Marshall's pal Jack Klugman lent a hand by starring in the Falcon's first major production, Death of a Salesman. That sold a few tickets!
But Marshall also reaches beyond his Hollywood familiars. Early on, the Falcon made a commitment to new playwrights by connecting with established venues such as the Mark Taper Forum, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and the younger Blank Theatre Company for new works festivals and readings. "You gotta vary it a bit," says Marshall, who describes feeling his way around the theater before he brought Friedman on board: "This young intern says, 'I have an insight! People like the reading series. They love it, and they come. Do you know why that is?' I say to him, 'Because it's free! Free always gets 'em!' "
In the first year, the Falcon found something else that worked: children's theater and family-friendly productions. "The community likes them, and the Valley seems to supply a lot of kids," Marshall notes. "One of the keys to the [success of the] children's shows here is that the casts come out to the lobby and mingle. I don't think Uta Hagen ever went out and shook hands with the people."
The Falcon is now in the midst of its first full season, an accomplishment Marshall shares with partner Meryl Friedman. "Meryl knows a lot," he says. "She's worked in small theaters for 16 years." A native New Yorker, Friedman came to L.A. by way of Chicago, where she founded and acted as producing director of the Lifeline Theatre Company. "Of course, Chicago's a little different," says Marshall. Still, he trusts Friedman's theatrical expertise on all fronts: "She even knows what kind of cookie sells in the lobby!"
Friedman laughs as she admits that she sometimes feels out of place surrounded by film and TV industry folk who just don't "get" live theater. "People seem surprised when they come through the Falcon and see me working in different capacities," she relates. "They say, 'Wow, you're changing a light bulb!' But just because I have this title doesn't mean I want to live in a box. I need to know what's going on."
The Falcon's inaugural season is progressing nicely. Friedman's own Anastasia Krupnik, from Lois Lowry's popular children's book, got things rolling back in October on the kids' front. Pudd'nhead Wilson--her vibrant adaptation of Mark Twain's story, set to a score of Negro Spirituals--opened in February, and was recently extended through April 16. The big season opener last fall was Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart, directed by Marshall and starring Faith Ford (Murphy Brown), Crystal Bernard (Wings), and Morgan Fairchild (Flamingo Road).
Needless to say, the drawing power of big names on the marquee is no surprise to Garry Marshall. But he sees "star vehicles" as having an extra bonus when it comes to theater, at least in the projects he chooses: "If we get two cast members who are stars, we can introduce you to [new] actors." In other words: Audiences may have come to Crimes as fans of the three TV actors, but they also got to enjoy the performance of Stephanie Nizik, whom Marshall had previously cast in Lungfish. "So that works," Marshall says. "But in Pudd'nhead Wilson, there are no stars, and that's gotten the best reviews we've ever had. So we're trying to do both: to bring in new people and new works, and also stay alive."
The theater has just committed to a co-produce the world premiere of Credo by Richard Camp, in June. "It's a play that will take us different places," says Friedman. And though the Falcon has made what Friedman calls "an obvious and ongoing commitment" in a number of areas, including plays for young audiences, she feels that "The theater is, in some ways, too young for us to have figured out what we do best, or the audience response to it."
Marshall agrees, saying: "I guess there's a lot more to learn. We are in our infancy." Who knows what the future might hold for this little theater in this big film-and-TV town. "They could turn us into 'The Falcon Blockbuster,' " Marshall quips. But that's not very likely, because Garry Marshall knows that L.A. is full of actors who are hardened theater addicts, just like him. "A true actor wants to do theater," he says. "Nothing beats it."
And then he tells a tale from his previous day's work, as an actor on the set of Hollywood Sign--the first American feature by acclaimed German director Sönke Wortman, starring Burt Reynolds and Tom Berenger. "In the middle of this picture," Marshall relates, "Burt said to me, 'You know what play I'd like to do? That Championship Season!"
[For more information on the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive in Burbank, call 818-955-8101. Or visit the theater's website, www.falcontheatre.org.]