Lobero Theatre

Santa Barbara, California

My parents moved to Santa Barbara in 1953, and I visited them there many times. (See my short play “Fast Forward.”) My mother often took me to plays and concerts at the beautiful Lobero Theatre, built in 1924, which helped to define Santa Barbara’s graceful Spanish Colonial Revival style. I saw Judith Anderson act there, a production of “Der Rosenkavalier” by Lotte Lehmann, piano recitals by Reginald Stewart and Jerome Lowenthal. It is one of my favorite theatres.

I moved to Santa Barbara in 1992, and in 1995 I became aware that the Lobero was in trouble. State-mandated seismic retrofitting was going to cost upwards of $2 million, and the fund-raising campaign had run out of steam. I asked Nancy Moore, the executive director, how I could help, and she suggested that I join the board of directors of the Lobero Theatre Foundation, which ran the theatre. (The county owned it at that point.) I liked the idea: my mother and, less often, my father had served on various charitable boards in Kansas City and Santa Barbara, and I had never expected to find myself in that position. I had the idea of asking Jerry Lowenthal, a friend of my mother’s and longtime piano teacher at the Music Academy of the West, to play a piano recital to benefit the theatre, which he graciously and gladly agreed to do. He had a great many friends and admirers in Santa Barbara, and the concert raised something like $35,000. The capital campaign got rolling again, and we succeeded in raising the money we needed to fix the building.

Jerry played again the next year; and I also presented his student Vassily Primakov, who had wowed Music Academy audiences the previous summer, in a sold-out recital. I later presented Gilles Apap, a wonderful violinist, then concert master of the Santa Barbara Symphony. I also juried and co-produced a dance concert, “Choreosplash!,” for the Santa Barbara Dance Alliance. All this not only helped the theatre but served as a producing apprenticeship for me. My Santa Barbara theatre company, Genesis West, produced two plays at the Lobero; but it was too big (650 seats) for the kind of off-beat theatre we wanted to do.

When Anne Smith was elected president of the board, she asked me to be her vice president. At that point, unfortunately, the Lobero embarked on the ill-conceived project of starting a theatre company of its own. Anne and Nancy had gone east together and hooked up with one Peter Hunt, a director, and his business associate Bill Stewart, who were leaving the Williamstown Playhouse. With the financial support of Anne’s husband, Bob Smith, and board member Elaine Kendall’s husband Herb, the board was persuaded to hire them to create the Lobero Stage Company. I was all for it—I am always in favor of doing theatre—although I regretted that we were bringing in outsiders instead of doing it ourselves. Indeed, they arrived with the offensive big-city arrogance and overscale ambitions, cast and rehearsed in Los Angeles, alienating the entire Santa Barbara theatre community, presented warmed-over work, and ignominiously crashed and burned halfway through the inaugural season, leaving us $1 million in the hole. I had seen this coming when subscription sales lagged and tried to stop the project before it was too late, but Bob and Herb threw in another $50,000 each, as I recall, and that pushed us over the cliff.

The board was demoralized. I wound up serving on a bunch of committees, the chairman of several, which was educational. Most of the other board members were richer and more socially ambitious than me, and I was glad to find I could more or less hold my own. My main job was running the Attractions Committee, but over several seasons of presenting it gradually became clear to me that the kinds of things I wanted to see were not sufficiently mainstream to fill the seats. Eventually the money people made new rules to prevent us from doing anything that was in danger of losing any money, and that took most of the fun out of it for me. I was also on the Facilities Committee—the only member, in fact, with any technical knowledge of theatre; with the guidance of our excellent technical director, Todd Jared, we oversaw the rebuilding of the stage house, with a new grid and fly system and a state-of-the-art lighting setup. My theatre company and my own sensibility were more at home at Center Stage Theater, a smaller black-box theatre; so I moved over to the board of Center Stage—helped upgrade the lighting system there, too.