Filichia discovers why the California Musical Theatre in Sacramento is still going strong after 54 years
He's a second generation theater person; his daddy, Russell Lewis, was a Broadway producer from 1942 to 1950, mounting revivals of Lady Windermere's Fan and Tonight at 8:30 plus five new plays, none of which lasted a month. But the final one was John Patrick's The Curious Savage, which became a staple on the summer stock circuit.
So did Russell Lewis. In 1951, he pitched a tent and co-founded the Music Circus, with 1,800 seats to serve Sacramento's musical theater needs. Russell felt he'd be lucky if the Music Circus lasted five years, but it's still here 54 years later. "Until he died in 1992," recalls Richard, "dad was always saying, 'If it lasts five more years, I'll be happy' -- no matter what year we were in." Russell kept trying to talk his son from going into the business, but Richard just wouldn't listen. While he was growing up in the 1950s and '60s, dad put him to work hawking programs in the lobby. "He just didn't have me sell them," Richard says, " he had me dress in a costume that was relevant to the show we were doing." That wasn't so bad when he was a River City kid or an Oliver! orphan, but Richard still recalls that week when the theater was doing Song of Norway and he had to don lederhosen. Luckily, the Lewises lived in Santa Monica most of the year, so none of Richard's schoolmates saw him dressed in that dorky way.
The 1,800 seat theater was replaced by a larger one in 1969, and one of the reasons was -- in a word -- Liberace. The sequined star did such great business year after year that Russell decided to build a 2,400-seat venue to accommodate him and other single-entertainer acts. But Russell Lewis never abandoned genuine musical theater, which is more than we can say for most other tents around the country.
Richard admits that back then, on most summer nights, sitting in the un-air-conditioned tent did affect the fun-quotient. "There would be this lovely breeze that would come through the doors of the tent -- about four nights a summer," he concedes. "The rest of the time could be pretty rough." Yet Sacramentans kept coming to see musicals. There was a time when Van Johnson could be counted on to show up to do Harold Hill in The Music Man one year and Applegate in Damn Yankees the next. (His trademark red socks worked well in the latter role.)
Many years later, when then-artistic director Leland Ball had the idea to cast a female Applegate, Richard agreed that it was worth trying. Mary Gordon Murray got the part, and -- nothing against that talented performer -- the Sacramentans decided they preferred their musical theater to be more traditional. Richard also tried a few new musicals, but they didn't stoke the interest he'd hoped for, so he returned to the tried-and-true. Over the years, he discovered something else: If his audience has seen a show in the round, they don't like to see it again -- not even years later -- in a proscenium house as part of the Broadway series. "However, they'll see a big show on a proscenium stage and then like seeing it in the round some time later," he says.
Richard surveyed his customers and was surprised by two consistent responses: First, his audience doesn't care about seeing "stars," be they former stage luminaries or current TV performers. "They seem to prefer genuine Broadway talent," Richard notes, with a smile that suggests he's proud of his audience for recognizing quality. Second, he wondered about the time-honored in-the-round practice where techies are positioned at the top of the aisles holding pieces of scenery until they see a blackout; then they sprint down the aisle and, in a nonce, set up the scenery on stage. Richard asked his customers if they'd like to see that quaint custom retired and was met by many a definite "no." Patrons actually consider that part of the experience, something they can't get at home or at the movies.
In 2003, the Music Circus got a new tent, a hard top, air conditioning, and what some patrons will tell you was the best improvement of all: more rest rooms for women. Lewis makes a good point when celebrating theater-in-the-round: "If you sit in one of these big road theaters with two balconies, the lower-priced seats are very far from the stage, but even the worst seat in a theater-in-the-round is comparatively close." True, you won't get a particular performer looking at you at all times; but, miking being what it is, you will be able to hear what everyone has to say, and someone in the cast is always looking in your direction.
That's when Richard mentioned those canvas chairs I sat on as a teen in the early '60s at such Massachusetts venues as the Carousel Theatre in Framingham, the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, and the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly. You'd see row after row after row of wrought iron holding two pieces of canvas -- one for the back of the chair, one for the seat. They were so torturous that I'm not surprised I've repressed the thought of them; but the moment Richard brought them up, I remembered them. "Those are gone now in favor of real plush theater seats," he says. Though his customers still want the crew running down the aisles with set pieces, they sure don't hanker for those old canvas chairs as part of the in-the-round experience.