Garry Marshall, the entertainment industry heavyweight, is really starting to get a name for himself in this town--as a theater junkie--with his own 99-seat Falcon Theatre in Burbank.
"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 chose to open a playhouse in Toluca Lake, with NBC, Disney and Warner Bros. Studios as next-door neighbors. Still, the first three 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."
Marshall is absolutely shameless about recruiting his own family members for work at the theater. He convinced his daughter Lori, a Bay Area writer, to pen some plays for children for the Falcon. His younger daughter, Kathleen, an actress who oversaw construction of the Falcon, produced Lori Marshall's adaptation of Hansel and Gretel (starring JoAnne Worley) there earlier this year. "Part of the joy I'm having with the theater is working with my kids," says Garry. (His son Scott, a film director, works in-house with Marshall's production company.)
The responsibility of running the Falcon is shared by Marshall with his 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."
Though the drawing power of big names on the Falcon marquee is no surprise to Marshall, he sees "star vehicles" as the means to an end. "If we get two cast members who are stars, we can introduce you to [new] actors," he says. In other words, audiences may have come to see Crimes of the Heart at the Falcon as fans of the three TV actresses who appeared in the show: Faith Ford (Murphy Brown), Crystal Bernard (Wings), and Morgan Fairchild (Flamingo Road). But they also got to enjoy the performance of Stephanie Nizik, whom Marshall had previously cast in Wrong Turn at Lungfish.
The Falcon has made what Friedman calls "an obvious and ongoing commitment" in a number of areas, including plays for young audiences (a production of Rumplestiltskin just ended its run there). Yet 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."
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."
[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.]