The Advent Theatre at the was once the oldest continuously operating community theater in the Valley. Casts of the twice-yearly shows boasted professional film and television stars, as well as those lauded by the company as “some of the finest and bravest amateur talents around.”
But after a one-night-only performance of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in September 2009, the Advent’s stage went dark.
The congregation wanted the theater “to take time to breathe,” said Kenneth Campbell, Advent’s current director, and to revitalize its mission.
“I’m so excited that Ken and Barbara Campbell have taken on the leadership,” said First Christian’s Senior Pastor Robert Bock, citing Ken’s experience as an actor and Barbara’s as a vocalist. “It looks like they’ve drawn some talented people. It’s going to be a fun theater. Their vision is to have two main productions a year and maybe one children’s program.”
The troupe is back for its thirtieth anniversary season with the West Coast premiere of Vaudeville: A Play with Music by Laurence Carr, and a new mission statement expressing the company’s intention to inspire and support “others to seek out and strengthen their own journey with God” and “to present themes and values that exemplify a deepening relationship with God.”
Campbell thought Vaudeville was a perfect fit for the theater’s reopening.
“We have so many people in the church that I knew of that I thought I could cast largely within the church and also utilizing some of the churches and temples that are involved in the [North Hollywood] Interfaith Food Pantry,” said Campbell. The pantry will be a beneficiary of Vaudeville’s proceeds.
I found Campbell and some Advent board members in the Youth Hut at First Christian on Saturday afternoon. They were auditioning a dozen or so actors for the 11 roles available. It was the tail end of the tryouts, which had gotten underway earlier in the week.
The comedy is set in 1919, in a theatrical boarding house in Philadelphia. Remnants of the last generation of comics, hoofers and novelty acts who expected to end up on Easy Street find themselves instead on “Bubkes Boulevard,” still waiting to hit the big time. (I love to hear Gentiles speak Yiddish.)
The show includes familiar period songs like “Hello Ma Baby,” “By the Beautiful Sea,” and “Shine on Harvest Moon,” as well as some lesser known tunes like “I’m a Yiddisher Cowboy,” and “O’Brien is Tryin’ to Learn to Talk Hawaiian.”
“This is an important ministry of the church,” said Glenda Morgan Brown, a theater professional and longtime artistic director of the company. “People come to a show who wouldn’t come to church.”
That observation was echoed by Dean Scofield, a professional actor with a blazingly white smile. Scofield produced, directed and starred in Advent’s 2006 production of Johnny Guitar, and was the managing producer on several earlier shows.
“When someone comes to the theater and realizes you can experience things that go beyond and outside the ordinary church experience they say, ‘I want to know what else is going on here,’” said Scofield.
The Advent Theatre was founded by cast members from the original 1971 Broadway production of Godspell, who’d come out to Hollywood to do a film of the show.
“We’re probably the lowest key evangelists there are,” joked Reverend Bock. “We don’t call on people, we don‘t knock on their doors. We just do our thing and hope that people like us.”
Many of the original cast found themselves members of First Christian Church of North Hollywood. Inspired by Reverend Bock, “they decided they wanted to have a theater outreach mission with the church,” Campbell told me. “[A] non-profit ministry which supports the work of First Christian Church through the arts,” is how the theater company was described then.
Their debut production was a tenth anniversary performance of their famous Stephen Schwartz musical, starring members of the New York cast. The show was scheduled to run for three weeks but became such a runaway hit that the all-volunteer theater company ended up entertaining audiences for six months.
Since then, the company has staged such classics as Blithe Spirit, Later Life, The Fantastiks, A Christmas Carol, The Gospel According to Mark, and Mass Appeal.
“It’s been a vital part of the community for so many years and has a rich history,” said Barbara Campbell. “This is an arts community. This church has many mission outreaches. It’s nice to know that beyond the many humanitarian efforts that there are also these things that benefit the community culturally,” she said. The Campbells’ daughter Molly Briggs is the managing producer of this show.
“About 60 percent of our church members make their living in some kind of entertainment,” Reverend Bock said. “We are just taking advantage of the natural talent that God has given us in this community and building a theater that can reach out into the community and offer good family entertainment at a reasonable price.”
The pastor, who has been preaching at First Christian for more than 40 years, is also a former schoolteacher to whom encouraging children to pursue arts and culture is a priority.
“I think a lot of times children have an enormous amount of talent and people try to discourage that talent and try to get them to do something ‘more practical,’” the Reverend told me. “What I want to happen is for us to be able to say to young people, ‘You can make a living as an artist, you can make a living as a musician. Use the talents that God has given you and develop them so that you are passionate about the gifts that you have.’”
To that end First Christian runs a slate of arts and culture summer camps every year that specialize in dance, theater arts, music, art and writing, the latter two still to come in August. (I've added that info in comments to last week's about east Valley church camps.)
Back at the audition space, I was getting ready to pack up my disposable camera and audio recorder–which I’d had to run out an buy after discovering I’d driven the 25 miles to Studio City and left my camcorder at home on the kitchen counter–when a silver haired cowboy in tooled leather boots and a ten-gallon hat sauntered into the audition space, preceded by his impressive girth which was decorated with a well-worn brass belt buckle the size of a pancake.
A long ago guest star on such TV western classics as Wagon Train, The Virginian and Gunsmoke, Jon Locke came in to read for “Mack,” but before he could study his sides, he and Campbell shared a walk down memory lane. Both were acquainted with late actor Lee Marvin, Campbell having met the star on a Peckinpah film and Locke in a more personal way.
“Lee Marvin hit me with a karate chop and broke my banjo,” the venerable actor recalled of a night he was playing at the China Trader in Toluca Lake. “He didn’t know what he was doing.”
The old cowpoke then got up to read in a German accent the role of Mack Maxwell, a vaudeville comic from the old country struggling to come to terms with the death of his partner, Maxie … a dog.
Vaudeville: A Play with Music is scheduled to open Sept. 23, 2011, and run Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matiness at 1:30 p.m. through Oct. 9, unless extended by popular demand.