I Remember . . .
Seventeen Years of JayRob
By Phil Bettens
Who’s going to be reading this? That’s one of the things any writer must consider. Since there are fewer and fewer left of those who worked at JayRob, I’m going to assume that many of you have only a limited knowledge of the subject.
The title tells you how this narrative will go; it will be a collection of my memories of events in the 17-season life of the playhouse. And there’ll be a few stories from the years before JayRob, plus some musings about the Wyman family. I’ll be adding to it from time to time so you’ll have to check in occasionally for updates.
This memoir has been reviewed by Diana Lions Wyman and Dick Baldwin – two names that will come up a lot in what follows – but errors of any kind are my responsibility. And I’m always open to corrections, so please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you find anything that ain’t quite right. Or if you’d just like to chat about JayRob or the Wymans or theatre in general.
Dedicated to those like myself who love theatre, where . . .
In is down, down is front,
out is up, up is back,
off is out, on is in,
and of course –
right is left, and left is right.
A drop shouldn’t and a
block and fall does neither.
A prop doesn’t and
a cove has no water.
Tripping is O.K.
A running crew rarely gets anywhere.
A purchase line will buy you nothing.
A trap will not catch anything.
A gridiron has nothing to do with football.
A Strike is work
(in fact a lot of work).
And a green room, thank God, usually isn’t.
Now that you are fully versed in theatrical terms,
Break a leg…
but not really!
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACT I: THE BEGINNINGS
I Join the Party
A Very Nervous Opening Night
Bob Wyman: Renaissance Man
ACT II: MOVIN’ ON UP
“We’ve Found a Real Theatre”
Flipping Flapped Flats
“The Boy Friend” Comes to Town
Justus Wyman: The Bear That Wasn’t (INCOMPLETE)
Alice Wyman: She Just Loved Showbiz
ACT III: OUR VERY OWN PLAYHOUSE
An Intimate Theatre with a Roomy Stage
The Telephones Ring True
Jean Runyon, Queen of the Ants (TO BE WRITTEN)
Musicals, More Musicals: TO BE WRITTEN)
Stan Freberg Comes to the Playhouse
No Money in “Money”
A Fantasticks Show
All the Wymans (and One Ringer) Take the Stage (TO BE WRITTEN)
Kids on the Stage (TO BE WRITTEN)
Sundays in the Playhouse with Bob and Justus
Seventeen Successful Seasons
ACT I: THE BEGINNINGS
“Another op’ning, another show . . . “
-from “Kiss Me Kate,” Cole Porter
In Which I Join the Party
It was early October, 1956. I had completed my two years of involuntary servitude in the Army on the sixth. I was back home, relaxing in my easy chair, Scotch at the ready, when the phone rang.
(There are 365 days in a year, so I owed the Army 730 days of my life. But 1956 was a leap year, so my term of service was actually 731 days. I’m still waiting for the government to refund me that extra day.)
Regretfully leaving the comfort of my chair and my Scotch, I went across the room and picked up the phone.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hi there, this is Bob.” This was the first time Bob Wyman had called me since I had been home and I was delighted to hear his voice.
“Bob! How are you?”
“I’m fine, but you’re late.”
“Late? How can I be late? What are you talking about?”?
“We’ve started a new theatre company called JayRob, we open in two weeks, you’re the stage manager and you’re late for rehearsal. Get down here.”
I was dumfounded. Where was here?
“Bob, I just got out of the Army and I’m home relaxing. I can’t make it tonight.”
“That’s OK, tomorrow will do. Seven pm, Elissa’s theatre.”
Bob then went on to explain that he and his dad Justus had formed this new theatre group to produce Broadway comedies Saturday nights from October through June. “Elissa’s theatre” was the old winery building on 18th street in Midtown where Elissa Sharee and her husband Al operated a children’s theatre.
The former winery – it had also been a candy factory – was not only the Sharee’s theatre, it was their home. Al Sharee had built a complete house under the high roof of the second floor of the winery. It and the theatre were located on the second floor; I don’t remember what was on the first floor.
The theatre’s seating capacity was only about 90 seats so we hoped that we could occasionally sell out. Boy, were we wrong! From the first night of the first production until we left in 1958, the place was packed almost every night.
Bob, ever the innovator, had come up with a way to cut down on the cost of sets. Building traditional theatrical flats is an expensive proposition: muslin, the material used to cover the flats, is an expensive fabric. The wood, usually 1 x 4’, must be clear or at least free of knots; construction-grade lumber won’t hack it. So we built “picture frames” out of 1 by 4’s, seven or eight feet high and inserted in them “pictures”: cloth-covered frames that just fit inside the frames. There were swivel fasteners on the offstage side to keep the inner frames from falling out, and nails on the stage-side edges to do the same. Different-colored cloths were used on each side of the frame, so we could change the set by reversing the panels.
Well, the concept worked but the frames were unwieldy and tended to twist and fall apart after the first few performances. They required a lot of maintenance. But they were attractive and – more important – cheaper than flats.
And then we opened – and what a night that was!
A Very Nervous Opening Night
Opening night, November 17, 1956: I’ll never forget it. Everyone except Bob was really nervous, especially the leading lady. Diana Lions, a lovely and talented young actress, had come down with a severe case of the heebie jeebies (or so I thought at the time) and looked as though she was about to show us what she had for dinner.
One of the actors in the show, Bob Fischell, was a chiropractor. He ran down to his car, got out his portable treatment table, flipped it open, put Diana on the table and gave her a massage which he said would calm her.
“I had the flu!” Diana told me recently. “The last thing I needed was to be thrown onto a table and massaged.” But she and the cast made it through all three acts, and the reviews were glowing; you can read excerpts from them in Dick Baldwin’s JayRob history on this site. That history, by the way, has been an invaluable source for me in helping remember who did what when.
Many of the Broadway comedies successfully produced at JayRob had been flops on Broadway. This show was an exception; it had an 11-month run and a movie version had been released in 1957.
There were many technical challenges, for Bob had not selected anything easy as JayRob’s opener. Each of the three acts had a different set: an office, the leading lady’s apartment, and the living room of a suite aboard a ship. As a result there was a ton of props and lots of furniture to move on and off the stage; thankfully, there was a lot of offstage space behind the set and we had two intermissions in which to make the set changes.
Diana Lions, the nervous leading lady, went on to star in many future JayRob shows. Her finest performance, though, was in her role as a bride with Bob Wyman as the husband and me as best man – for real. But that came later.
Bob got his sister Shirley to handle props, and Justus and Alice handled the front of the house. Most of the actors in the show went on to become JayRob regulars: Diana, Bill Furnell, J. Franklin Davis, Jean and Mercer Runyon, and me.
(The reviewers failed to note my onstage debut with JayRob: I had several lines, none of which I muffed, as a steward on a cruise ship.)
And so we began what would become 17 seasons of plays and musicals.
Mercer Runyon was a more than competent actor with a great flair for comedy. But he sometimes forgot his lines and tried to ad-lib his way out of the situation. This was OK as long as the other actors stuck to the script and could help him get back on track.
The fourth production of that first season was “The Little Hut,” about three people, one woman and two men, stranded on a desert island by a shipwreck. Mercer first appeared onstage near the end of the second act as a native – he turned out to be the ship’s cook. Since his lines as a native were all gibberish, he could ad-lib whatever he chose. He appeared clad in a loincloth and holding a spear; his first line was “Umdagawa.”
He had the rest of his lines as the cook down pretty well; it wasn’t a big part. But unknown to me, we had two closet ad-libbers in the show, John Ickes and Bill Furnell, the two men of the stranded trio. (One was her husband, the other her lover. Hey, anything’s possible in a play!)
The opening night of the script went well: no ad libs. But on one of the subsequent nights, one of the two ad-libbed a line and the other one responded.
The unfortunate thing was that Joanne Blomberg, the third of the stranded passengers and an excellent actress, was onstage also and was desperately waiting for some clue as to how to get back on script.
It got worse. At the next performance their ad libs got them so far off track that one of them came close to where I was standing in the wings and gestured for me to throw him a line. I did it but I wasn’t happy about it and after the show warned them to stay on book. They repeated their ad-libbing the next night and I spoke to them again.
I might as well have been talking to myself; they continued to ad lib and frequently come to me to throw them a cue line. Each night I got madder and madder about the situation. Finally I was fed up with their antics.
The next performance the two of them were merrily ad-libbing and had lost their place. Again, one of them – I think it was Bill – came over to the wings for a cue. When he did, I carefully put my open script face down on the floor, crossed my arms and just glared at him. He and John ad-libbed something more, and then both looked at me pleadingly. I then picked up the script and threw them a line.
That was the last night of wild ad-libbing in that show.
“A Friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Bob Wyman: Renaissance Man
JayRob never had an official motto. But it could well have been:
We can do it. What is it?
And that was because Bob Wyman was there.
There are a lot of talented people in this world. Only a few of them can do anything they put their minds to, and who also have the talent and intelligence to succeed at it. Bob was one of those.
At various times in his life he was an actor, a director, a union stagehand, a painter, a designer, a TV producer, a teacher, an administrator, a communications consultant, a businessman running his own firm, and even briefly a dancer. I don’t think he played a musical instrument, but he could have if he’d wanted to: He was that talented.
I don’t remember when I first met Bob, but it was before 1948 when I was still in high school. My buddy Ed Sweetman, another theatre junkie who ended up making a living at it, had worked with Bob and his father on shows they produced and I know I helped him on at least one of them.
We became better acquainted during our time at Sacramento City College, then called Sacramento Junior College and part of the city’s school district. He was in his second and final year and I was a freshman. He continued on to Sacramento State which in its first years was based on the SJC campus while its new home on outer J Street was under construction. I worked on some of the State College shows because they didn’t have many tech people.
The new SJC drama teacher, Russell Azarra, decreed that serious drama students – especially the men – needed dance lessons to improve their stage movement. So Bob and four of his male drama classmates enrolled at my mother’s dance academy, the Leila Maple Studio of Dance.
He wasn’t very tall but fortunately one of the girls in the advanced class was even shorter. I and the five guys appeared in the Studio’s annual program doing a fine job of partnering. He also appeared as Aladdin in the younger children’s section of the program.
After I left SJC for University of Oregon I saw Bob only briefly in summer and on holidays. He left for the Army in 1951 or 1952 while I was still at Oregon, only to reappear in my life to draft me for JayRob when I returned from my own Army service.
Neither of us had particularly rough life as draftees. I ended up in the Signal Corps at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, where I got a bug-out job editing the post newspaper. But Bob really had it made. He was in Army Information Services stationed at Governor’s Island, New York, only a ferry-boat ride away from Broadway.
Bob was the one who pushed his parents to get JayRob started – actually, I don’t think he had to push too hard. It was formed as a profit-making corporation and I was one of the original stockholders. The enterprise eventually was reincorporated as a non-profit for business reasons: we were never going to make any serious money and the non-profit status helped with taxes.
In addition to directing most of the shows at JayRob, Bob also designed all the sets. And it was at JayRob that he found out he really liked to paint. He eventually became a serious painter, but one of his first efforts came about by accident.
We needed a big picture to hang on one of the sets. I was looking at the ground cloth we used to cover the stage while we painted flats; it was covered with smears and droplets of paint and I said “This looks almost like a Jackson Pollock.” (His random splashes of color were all the rage at the time.) Bob took a look, agreed, and we cut up a strip of the drop cloth. I went off to make a frame for it.
But Bob wasn’t completely satisfied with the result and added some splashes of his own. We hung it on the set and it looked great. The topper is that someone in the audience came backstage after the show and wanted to buy it! After that, Bob frequently did paintings to use on our sets. He made sure that the colors in his painting complemented the colors in the set.
The only thing he enjoyed more than his theatre was his family: his wife Diana and his daughters Kerri and Wendi. The grandchildren that came later were the icing on the cake. (One of them is seriously pursuing a tech career in theatre.)
Nothing ever fazed him – or at least he never showed it. I often couldn’t see how we could fix some serious problem but he always found a way. And I never saw him lose his temper or let a particular situation get him down.
As a director he was a dictator but a considerate one. He knew his actors were good and they knew he was a good director. So on most shows there was none of the conflict between actor and director that you hear about in plays or on the screen.
But there was one actress who was a pain in the butt.
When someone’s putting on airs or misbehaving on stage – like ad-libbing – I get mad. There was one actress who was really a pain in the butt. Come dress rehearsals, I was about ready to launch.
Millie Sullivan was a local TV host and celebrity. Bob cast her as the lead in “Desk Set”. Madame Sullivan told Bob at the first dress rehearsal that she had to have her own private dressing room. This posed a problem for the rest of the cast because there were only two dressing rooms: the cast would have to dress and put on makeup in shifts. But there was no way to replace her so Bob worked it all out, got the rest of the cast – and me – calmed down, and the show went on.
I was still mad that anyone – especially an actress with such limited talents – should expect to be treated differently than the others in the show. As Aunt Eller sings in “Oklahoma!”
“I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else,
But I’ll be damned if I ain’t jist as good!”
Bob was a great friend in and out of the theatre. I spent many weekends with him at Lake Tahoe when he was teaching college summer session drama classes in an elementary school cafeteria there and I was working at Aerojet. He had one of the first T-Birds – the two-seater model, – and I guess we looked like two rich playboys but we were neither rich nor playboys.
His model came with a detachable hardtop. Since it wouldn’t fit in the trunk, you had to decide what the weather would be before you left home. But we discovered that, if you are driving fast enough and hunch down, the rain goes right over you and you don’t get wet. “Driving fast enough” usually means “Breaking the speed limit;” it’s especially exhilarating on two-lane mountain roads, even in such a nimble car as the T-Bird. Later, we each bought standard convertibles, both of them Fords.
We had a nickname – the same one – for each other and I don’t know who started it. He called me “Boobee,” usually in private when we were kidding around, and I did the same for him.
Bob always saw the bright side of life; for him, the cup was always half full. Even in his final illness he tried to remain cheerful.
As the old saw goes, “After they made him, they broke the mold.” I miss him a lot.
ACT II: MOVIN’ ON UP
Dream more than others think practical
”We’ve Found a Real Theatre”
During the second season at the old winery-cum-candy-factory-cum-theatre, I began to get the feeling that we weren’t really welcome any more as tenants. Al Sharee was increasingly concerned about our use of his power tools and I’m sure Elissa was tired of all the noisy activity in what actually was the back yard of her home.
“We’ve found a real theatre,” Bob said to me one night. “It’s the Little Theatre of the Memorial Auditorium.
I went with them to look it over. This theatre was one of the least used in town, even though there were very few places for small-group performances. At first glance it seemed ideal. The theatre seated 272; there was a lobby and box office, a balcony, lovely if dated décor, and a stage with a full curtain set. Why wasn’t it used more? That became apparent when we took a closer look.
The proscenium opening was 18 feet deep and 22 feet wide. But two huge plaster pillars – at least 3 feet in diameter and partially inside the proscenium– cut the proscenium opening down to about 17 or 18 feet. And those pillars prevented the audience in side seats from seeing the whole stage.
There was very little offstage space, no more than 6 or 7 feet stage right and even less stage left: A stairway to the two dressing rooms under the stage took up most of that space. There was no way to get from the dressing rooms to stage right except by crossing the stage.
The lighting board, installed when the theatre was built in the 1920’s and never updated, had old-style resistance dimmers with very little capacity. There was no dimmer on the houselights.
There was no place to store scenery; we’d have to haul the sets outside, then back into the auditorium itself and down to the basement. With no place to build sets, we had to work on the stage or upstairs in the lobby of the balcony. The main lobby had a tile floor which would have been damaged by hammering and nailing flats; the balcony lobby was concrete.
Justus had arranged for some of the problems to be fixed. The city would remove the two plaster pillars and also allow stage right access to the dressing rooms by installing a trap door and ship’s ladder stage right; there was no room for a stairway.
JayRob had also acquired its own switchboard. An ingenious device, it consisted of one large autotransformer with six taps connected to six individual slide controls on a horizontal and slanted surface. The whole thing was less than a foot wide and about 2½ feet tall with input plugs on the back. It was fed from a 220-volt connection and could handle about 60 amps, enough for at least 12 500-watt spotlights.
And so on September 6, 1959, we opened in our new digs with “Champagne Complex.”
(For those of you interested in theatrical trivia, I offer the following which has nothing to do with this memoir.)
Large theatres such as the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium have two lobbies: the outer lobby, where you enter from the street, and the inner lobby, which you enter by showing your ticket. But, like everything else in the theatre, there’s a special name for that outer lobby: The Vomitory or, more properly, The Vomitorium.
This name comes from Latin word vomitteo which means exactly what you think it does. But the Romans used it to describe the large areas at the top of the aisles and beyond the lobby that allowed the audience to “spew” into the streets.
Isn’t that fascinating?
Flipping Flapped Flats
You’d think that Bob and Justus would want to open a new show in a new theatre with an uncomplicated set. But no.
Most of the plays we did had one set, or maybe two. The show they picked to open the new theatre with, “Champagne Complex,” had one main set, a big living room of an apartment, with inset scenes taking place in the bedroom and the kitchen.
(How these insets worked is hard to describe without using my hands, but I’ll try.)
As I’ve noted before, there was practically no offstage space. The main set was a living room. Bob devised an ingenious system of two-sided flats hinged to the downstage sides of the side walls. These flats could be turned 90 degrees and, with a corresponding flat on the opposite wall, ‘would make a set-within-a-set. A third flat attached to one of the walls could be unfolded to make a third set in the same area. Bob rehearsed the crew – which was the two of us plus the Baldwin brothers, Dave and Dick – in flipping and flapping the various flats in the dark to change the scenery. It worked well, and the reviews were great.
(And here I must take issue with my confrere Dick Baldwin. In his history he tells how Mercer Runyon got tangled up in the set during a scene change in this show. My memory is that this incident occurred during the run of “Who Was That Lady I Saw You With.” But Dick is probably right since he was writing his college paper at a time much nearer the event itself.)
The New York reviews of the play – it closed after 23 performances – were tepid at best. But Bob and Justus also believed it would be popular in Sacramento. And as usual, they were right.
The play was about a young woman who has the urge to take off her clothes whenever she drinks champagne. Her fiancé asks his uncle, a psychiatrist, to cure her of this embarrassing habit. That was a pretty racy story line to produce in 1959 Sacramento. Needless to say, the on-stage disrobing never got down to any serious exposure of female flesh.
Why was the show successful here when it had bombed on Broadway? At that time, Sacramento audiences weren’t very sophisticated. Not many touring shows played here, mainly because there was no place to stage them other than the local high schools or (shudder) the 5,000-seat Memorial Auditorium. The local theatergoers of the 50’s and 60’s liked plays with improbable plots, lots of laughs, and a touch of hokum. And that’s what JayRob gave them.
The critics liked the show and we were off to a great start. But this wasn’t enough of a challenge for Bob. For the second show he picked “Cloud Seven.”
The show only lasted for 11 performances on Broadway. “A sweet and spotless domestic comedy,” wrote the New York Daily News critic, “Which should do very well in the thousands of community theatres across the land.”
For me, this show was a production nightmare: it was even more complicated than “Champagne Complex”. There were three acts in 16 scenes which took place in five sets, with four set changes in blackouts and lots of lights cues. Using our limited lighting equipment to divide the stage into area for the insets was a challenge.
But despite my fears, the production went smoothly and again we had some great reviews.
What was the play about? The protagonist was a man whose job for most of his adult life was to find ways to take the flavor out of frozen foods. He quits his job because he wants to spend more time with his wife. His other favorite activity was making furniture. Nutty, huh? Well, Sacramento loved it.
The distributors of the play had a few suggested changes that might be necessary so as not to offend audiences in the hinterlands. Here are some examples they included in the book for this play:
– Change ‘”bosom” to “figure” on pp. 66 and 72
– Change Mary’s drink from whiskey to coffee on pp. 68 and 69
– Don’t have Fiona reappear in anything resembling nightwear on p. 69; instead, she should wear “a smart outfit,” whatever that is.
– When Mary awakens in Act III, don’t play Mary’s confusion as alcohol-based; instead, play her merely half-awake.
– Change “damned” to “darned” in several places
– Finally, change the line “Just because I excite you physically” to “Just because I find you attractive.”
“The Boy Friend” Comes to Town
Bob and Justus had always wanted to put on a Broadway musical but there were a lot of problems. First, the stage was too small for the usual large-cast musical. Second, there weren’t any choreographers in Sacramento with musical-comedy experience. Third, there was no room – or budget – for even a small orchestra.
There were plenty of good singers available, however, and of course there was the JayRob attitude of “We can do anything. What is it?”
Bob and Justus were always on the lookout for a musical we could stage. And they finally found one: “The Boy Friend.”
There were three sets but we could do all of them with a basic interior and insets to set the locale. So that took care of that problem.
(I had seen the show in New York in 1953 during my Army service. It was Julie Andrews’ first New York show and she was wonderful in the part: a charming British accent, excellent dancer and actress. The second lead, Anne Wakefield, was equally good. I met her at the USO and even took her on a date one night. But I had no money – a private’s pay of $90 a month didn’t stretch very far, even in 1953 – so our date was limited to dinner at Howard Johnson’s and a movie afterwards.)
And there was a new choreographer in town. Mark Hertsens had appeared professionally with major ballet companies, had danced on Broadway and on television, and had also choreographed musicals for regional theatres. He had just arrived in Sacramento and was choreographing a ballet for the Sacramento Ballet Company. He wanted to work with us on the show, so that solved the dance director problem.
Jean Kopf, a friend of the Wyman family, was an excellent pianist and an experienced accompanist and. She agreed to be the musical director. Along with another excellent local pianist and teacher, Dorothy Noonan, she created a two-piano arrangement of the score from the solo piano version furnished by the producers.
Bob rounded up a stellar cast. The Julie Andrews part went to Eileen Fishbach,
(This show also made Alice Wyman’s year: she was cast in a supporting role as the French maid, Hortense, a supporting role in the show. She had wanted to play one of the leads, but that would have cast her opposite her son Bob who was playing the boy’s father and that obviously wasn’t going to work. Anyway, she got to act, sing and even dance a bit.)
I didn’t work The Boy Friend. Running the regular show on Fridays and Saturdays was enough for me; Dave Baldwin, Dick’s brother, took on the job of stage manager.
(AFTER SHOW PARTIES WITH CAST)
The show was a hit. It ran for fourteen weeks, closing primarily because Eileen was pregnant. But there’s a down side to every success. The show played on Sunday evenings and we were running our regular plays on Friday and Saturday nights. There was no room to store two sets on that stage. Each Saturday night my crew had to disassemble our set, haul it down to the basement, and bring up the Sunday set. In return, the Sunday crew took down their set, hauled it to the basement, and brought up our Friday/Saturday set.
It was shortly after this run that I stumbled on a concrete step outside the stage door and broke a small bone in my foot. Our old family doctor had me in a walking cast – which I kept breaking – for months. When he finally took it off, he said, “You know, this bone often heels on its own without a cast and anyway it doesn’t play an important role in your foot.” I could have strangled him.
Enjoy life. This is not a dress rehearsal.
Justus Wyman, The Bear That Wasn’t
He often seemed like a bear that had come out of hibernation too early, but underneath he was a pussycat. His was the voice of practicality in a theatre full of dreamers.
(You’ll find his biography by Dick Baldwin in the File Cabinet on this site.)
He found lots to complain about but, if you thought about what he had just said, there was always some merit in his comments.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
Alice Wyman, Mrs. Showbiz
Wife. Mother. Actress. Three of the roles Alice Wyman played in her life. She was a success at all three, but I think that, deep down, the role she liked best was acting, especially in a musical. She and her sister Grace, a pianist, had played in vaudeville in San Francisco and she went on tour with the Orpheum Circuit as a dancer.
(You’ll find her biography by Dick Baldwin in the File Cabinet on this site.)
I think she was the one who really imbued Bob with a love of theatre. She was vivacious, could talk a mile a minute, funny, talented – a perfect balance to her more conservative husband. Alice took parts in many JayRob shows, but her main role was that of business manager: she kept the books and managed the funds.
She loved playing the piano, although she had limited experience at the keyboard: I’m not sure that she ever had any formal lessons. But anytime the two of us found a piano, we’d sit down and play four-hand duets by ear. She would take the treble and handle the melody while I improvised a base line. We
When The Boy Friend was being cast, Alice wanted to play one of the principal supporting roles – the mother of the leading man – who had a couple of great songs. But that would have cast her opposite her son Bob who was playing the father and that wasn’t going to work. She ended up in the supporting role of the French maid Hortense. She got to put on a French accent and uniform; she also sang and even danced a bit.
Now that I think back on it, she and Bob’s wife Diana had to put up with a lot. Both Bob and Justus spent long hours at the theatre, and of course one of them always came home very late many nights while directing a play that was in rehearsal. Both of them had duties that took them hours to do at the theatre. Diana had an even harder row to hoe for she was also appearing on stage in leading roles in addition to her other JayRob chores – and also caring for two small daughters.
But nothing seemed to faze Alice. I loved her outlook on life. She was always bubbly and ready for fun; her presence at a party was enough to get the whole room buzzing.
Her optimism, enthusiasm, and talent contributed at lot to the success of JayRob. She and Justus both left us too soon.
ACT III: OUR VERY OWN PLAYHOUSE
We can do anything we want to do if we stick to it long enough.
An Intimate Theatre with a Roomy Stage
In the late summer of 1961 we moved into our new playhouse at the Sacramento Inn. Finally, we had a home of our very own.
For once we had more than enough room; the stage area was as big as the audience. If we could ever afford to build enough flats, we could start work on a new set while the current show was running. If the show required two sets, we could put both sets on wagons and wheel them into place as needed.
Although there were still only two dressing rooms, they were spacious and had well-lit mirrors for makeup. The roof of the dressing rooms became our storage area for costumes and props.
The building is gone now. If you’ve ever been to the Martinique Room, the main ballroom of the Sacramento Inn, then you know what the theatre looked like. The big ceiling arches were tipped slightly stage left to provide extra headroom for the dressing rooms stage right.
The stage was huge, the same size as the audience area. We positioned nine ellipsoidal spots along the beam closest to the stage. This gave me plenty of coverage for area lighting; if necessary, I could drop one or two out for specials. We had to use a big A-frame ladder with an extension ladder in the middle to reach the lights.
Onstage we mounted PAR’s – the outdoor spotlight bulbs – on two battens. They were wired to four different circuits, two on each batten. This provided the onstage lighting. Although they could not be directed as well as regular spotlights – keeping the light off the set walls was a problem – they worked well. And they were cheap.
For sound, I built two speaker boxes, each housing a 10-inch speaker, and mounted them over the doors on each side of the proscenium that led to the backstage area. I also hung two naked speakers from the spotlight battens for onstage sound effects
Our 6-channel board now had a big brother: six autotransformers which I mounted in a standard portable stage switchboard. The board had dimmer handles that could be linked to a master handle. The board already had resistance dimmers mounted in them: I took them out and installed the new autotransformers in their place.
The main curtain opened in the middle. Initially we had a lot of trouble with the track because it was designed for light use in homes. We eventually replaced it with a more durable track.
The audience had comfortable metal chairs with lightly padded plastic seats. Between every pair of seats was a small metal table. In the lobby patrons could buy wine and cheese to sample during the show. Soft drinks were also available.
The lobby was small but with the same high ceiling as the rest of the building. The owners later lowered the ceiling height over the lobby to build second-floor offices, accessible by an outside stairway.
So the building was ready, the set was built – the first and only time we had the time to construct one in a leisurely manner – and we were ready to open. And the first show to hit the boards – on September 1, 1961 was “Getting Gertie’s Garter.”
The Telephone Rings True
One of the things that had always bothered me at plays was the ringing telephone. The ring never sounded real and never came from the phone itself. That’s because you can’t use regular (110 volt) household current to make it ring: the phone requires a different voltage and frequency.
At Aerojet I had become acquainted with one of the AT&T phone installers because it seemed our office was always moving from one location to another. I asked him how I could make the actual phone ring on our stage; he told me it required a device called, strangely enough, a “Ringer.” I ask him where I could buy one, but he said they weren’t for sale. This was in the days before Ma Bell was broken up by the U.S. Justice Department; you couldn’t buy you own telephone either, ATT&T – its west coast branch, Pacific Telephone – rented it to you.
One day I came into my office and found a heavy metal box on my desk along with a note from my AT&T friend explaining that this was a telephone ringer he had “acquired” for me. He also included instructions for wiring it to a telephone. From that day on, phones on the JayRob stage rang true to life.
Sundays in the Playhouse with Bob
Except for JayRob’s first four seasons when productions were generally limited to Saturday nights, the shows eventually ran for 7 weeks on both Friday and Saturday nights. On the next Friday night we opened a new show, so the end-of-run Sunday was our strike-and build day.
The stage took up an area as large as the 250-seat house so we had a lot of room to work. We could do some of the new-set painting and construction while the current show was still running, and as time went on we built more flats to where we had enough for two complete sets. But in the beginning, the old set had all the flats that would be used in the new set.
Bob and I and Justus would start out early by disassembling the old set. Justus was the de-nailer: he took the old bracing material and pounded out the nails into a large garbage can. Bob and I took care of any nails in the flats as we took the set apart.
(Justus was always complaining about the number of nailsI used on the braces. “You use too many damn nails, Phil!” he’d complain. “But,” I would reply, “Nothing fell down, did it?” That was our perpetual dialog on Sundays.)
Next step was to paint the flats whatever the new set color would be. Now, traditional scene paint – it has a calcimine base, I believe – comes in powder form and is very expensive. Bob and Justus had decided that regular latex house paint would be a lot cheaper and would work as well. But house paint, unlike scene paint, is thick; after a few repaints, the surface would start to crack and the muslin would begin to sag from the weight. So often we had to remove the old paint before applying a new coat.
How did we do this? Well, if the Environmental Protection Agency had been around in those days, we would have been in deep doo-doo.
The parking lot outside the theater was dirt. There was a garden hose connection on that side of the building. We hooked up a hose and attached a spray nozzle. Working from the back side, we blasted the old paint off the flats. The debris was then muddled into the parking lot surface.
The paint came from Lumberjack, a forerunner of the Home Depot type of store. Justus knew the local owners – seem like there wasn’t a businessman in Sacramento that he didn’t know – and they gave us a discount on the paint. Sometimes they’d have custom-mixed paint that had been returned or hadn’t been picked up, and that became our color for the next set.
Using house paint on flats was quite an innovation. One of the local critics – he rarely like anything – said that knowing we were using it instead of scene paint bothered him to the point where he couldn’t enjoy the show.
After a few hours we would have the old set taken apart and repainted. At this point Diana or Alice – or both – would usually arrive with lunch and we’d take a short break. Then we’d go about erecting the new set.
Since we didn’t have many – if any – regular stage braces to hold up the set, we built triangular braces out of 1 x 4’s. Doors were particularly hard to brace so as not to have the set wall tremble when an actor closed a door.
The hard-to-please critic mentioned in several of his reviews that our wiggling walls showed we didn’t know how to build sets. Bob often tried to minimize this effect by putting the door next to an ell in the set wall.
But still the critic complained and I got mad. (As I’ve noted before, I had a short fuse in those days.) So for our next set I built the door as a separate unit; it was only lightly attached by a dutchman to the adjacent walls. I nailed triangular braces to both the inside and the outside of the frame on both edges, and I also toenailed 1 x 4’s from the top of the frame to the stage floor parallel to the frame.
That sucker wouldn’t wiggle unless you slammed it really hard; because it was attached to the adjacent walls only by the Dutchman, even that motion didn’t get transferred to the set. For once, the annoying critic didn’t say anything about our doors.
I reset the lights as needed at rehearsals during the week and made up whatever sound cues were needed. Then after dress rehearsal on Thursday I’d fix any last-minute problems and we were ready to open the new show.
That was the routine at the Playhouse for 12 years. It was a lot of work but also a lot of fun.
”Speak the speech, I pray you, trippingly on the tongue . . .”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2”,
Seventeen Successful Seasons
“Why was JayRob such an immediate success?” That’s what a friend, too young to have ever seen a JayRob production, recently asked me after reading this memoir and browsing through some of the scrapbooks.
That’s a question I hadn’t considered. The Wymans, I’m sure, were confident that they would be successful, although I don’t think they had any idea how popular the shows would be received in the first few years. The first season’s shows played to sell-out crowds from the opening night of the first show, “Oh Men! Oh Women!” and several subsequent productions had their runs extended due to the demand for tickets.
During those first seasons at the theatre in the old candy factory, 1956-1957, JayRob built a core audience. Live theatre had always been popular in Sacramento; it was known in the theatre trade as a good place to play.
Sacramento had a growing number of new residents, many of them university graduates who knew about theatre and liked that form of entertainment. Aerojet had come to the area to design and build the Titan Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, a second-generation ICBM that could be launched at a moment’s notice. By the mid-1960’s, the plant had 25,000 employees. Two air force bases, McClellan and Mather, were hiring. One was a major base for the Air Force Materiel Command, the other housed squadrons of B-52 bombers able to carry nuclear weapons.
The times were made for our comedies; Sacramentans wanted to escape for an evening, to enjoy a funny play. These were the years of a Cold War that wouldn’t end until 1990 when the USSR fell apart. Children were taught to “Duck and Cover” – fall to the floor and get under their desks when an atomic bomb fell.
A few people built underground bomb shelters and stocked them with food and guns. Some joined the growing ranks of so-called Peaceniks; they were for peace at any price. And others, lead by people like Timothy Leary, just “Tuned in and dropped out” into a world of hallucinogenic drugs. The era of Hippies had begun. They took over an entire district in San Francisco, and the phrase “Haight-Ashbury” – the major street intersection in the area – was known throughout the land.
Also, JayRob had no competition. Other local drama groups1 were at a disadvantage:
1. There were very few small auditoriums that they could use to stage their shows.
2. None of these groups had a permanent home; they had no place in which to build and store sets.
3. None of these groups had the staff and actors needed to put on an entire season of shows performed at least once a week.
4. They didn’t have the showbiz know-how of the Wymans – most importantly, they didn’t have Bob Wyman.
From the first performance, JayRob was wildly successful. The audiences loved us; the local critics were equally enthusiastic.
We first added a second weekend performance and still sold out the 90-seat theatre. Then we moved to a 250-seat theatre and also sold out many performances two nights a week, plus running a musical, “The Boy Friend,” on Sundays. The Sacramento Inn theatre, also 250 seats, was often sold out and runs were extended for many shows.
Musicals were included in several seasons at the new theatre, along with a children’s theatre workshop during the summer. Finally, we opened a second theatre is a shopping center across from the Executive Airport on Freeport Boulevard and it too was a success.2
1The Eaglet, of course, had all these things but its management ran a much shorter season which didn’t include many modern comedies. It mostly played serious drama: Ibsen, Shakespeare, Shaw and the like.
2The only unsuccessful venture was an attempt to present avant-garde theatre on Wednesday nights. (See the chapter, “Jean Runyon, Queen of the Ants.”)
But all good things must come to an end, and so it was with JayRob. Justus was retired and could spend a lot of time at the theatre each day taking care of things. But he died in 1971 and there was no one to take his place: Bob, Diana, and I all had full-time jobs and Alice couldn’t handle his tasks and hers by herself. So we finished that season, ran for one more year, and then shut down.
Another group took over the theatre and ran for several years as the Stagedoor Comedy Playhouse. They too had to give up when the demands of the theatre proved more than they could handle since the operators also had full-time jobs. One more group tried to make a go of it as the Arden Playhouse but eventually failed.
For a while the theatre was used by a church but eventually it was vacant. The Inn finally tore it down a few years ago.
I don’t think a group like JayRob could succeed today. People are too focused on home entertainment: TV, DVD’s, the Internet. A few small amateur theatres are still active in the area but they play in small theatres and only put on a few shows a year. The Sacramento Civic Theatre (the Eaglet) survives with the help of government grants and donations, neither of which were available to or sought by JayRob: we lived on what came in through the box office.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was always
Hard work but for seventeen years I had a ball.