When Hollywood Stars Put on a Show

In chapter 19 of The Esmeralda Goodbye, the protagonist, patrolman Jake Stirling, and his girlfriend Millie, attend a performance of Bus Stop at La Jolla Playhouse. Millie works as a waitress in a local diner and one of her customers has given her a pair of complimentary tickets to the opening night show. The customer is one of the actors in the show—Lee Marvin. It was a fun way to work some real history into the novel.

Some of the cast from the 1956 production of Bus Stop at La Jolla Playhouse
From left to right Sally Forrest, Lee Marvin, Benay Venuta, Fred Clark and Sue Carson

La Jolla Playhouse is known today as a major regional theater, sending shows to Broadway and earning Tony Awards. But in it’s original incarnation it was a Summer Stock theater which presented shows in the gymnasium at La Jolla High School. Like most summer stock theaters, the production values were minimal and shows only lasted a couple of weeks. But the Playhouse had one attraction that other theaters didn’t—it was founded by Hollywood stars Gregory Peck, Mel Ferrer and Dorothy McGuire. That, and La Jolla’s proximity to Los Angeles, made it an attractive summer job for film actors looking to stretch their acting muscles while also taking a break from the stresses of the movie business. A busman’s holiday.

While doing research at the La Jolla Historical Society archives, I came across some programs from the early Playhouse shows. My classic movie fandom kicked into high gear as I read over the names on the programs—Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Marge Champion. Howard Duff, and Norman Lloyd. In the early 1980s I worked on a production of The Skin of Our Teeth at the Old Globe Theatre. I got to know the play pretty well and was intrigued by the cast from the Playhouse production back in the 1950s. Eartha Kitt as Sabina couldn’t be more perfect with James Whitmore as the everyman Mr. Antrobus a close second. And it was fun to imagine a young Dennis Hopper and Cloris Leachman as the Antrobus children, Henry and Gladys.

The production of Bus Stop took place in 1956, the same year the bulk of my novel takes place. The actors I mention (Marvin, Fred Clark and Benay Venuta) were all part of the show. That part is straight from the history books. I worked Lucy and Desi Arnaz and Zsa Zsa Gabor in as members of the audience. That part was fiction as far as I know, but it was certainly possible.

Another item I came across as I was going through the Historical Society’s files was this photograph from the Women’s section of the San Diego Union Tribune (I’m old enough to remember when newspapers had a women’s section). It’s a photo of local society folks joking around at a dinner before opening night of The Reluctant Debutante. The second figure from the right is Mrs. Barry Goldwater, wife of the longtime Arizona senator and one-time Presidential candidate. Even back in the 1950s the Zonies escaped the summer heat of their home state by heading to La Jolla.