July 03, 2015

Photo Essay: Backstage at Pasadena Playhouse

I've had the magical opportunity to tour a few historic movie theaters since I moved to LA, but my heart truly lies with what was once called "legit" theaters – that is, playhouses.

People – even Angelenos – think that LA doesn't have a theater scene, but it most certainly does. You can see some theatrical production pretty much any night of the week, be it at the Geffen, somewhere along Theatre Row, or in the basement or back room of a bar.

Sometimes plays even come here before they get to the Great White Way.

And theater – specifically, the play – is woven into the historic fabric of LA, particularly in Pasadena.

The Pasadena Playhouse was founded in 1917, and still runs new productions in what is now known as the "Playhouse District" of Old Town Pasadena.

The current home for the Pasadena Playhouse was built in 1925 in Spanish Colonial Revival style...

....and by 1937, it had become such a star factory – training and churning out so much talent that would go onto greater stardom – that California proclaimed it to be its official State Theatre.

As it continues to mount popular and critically acclaimed productions, the Playhouse and its volunteers are increasingly aware of preserving its history. They've started commemorating each production with its own planter signed by each respective cast, creating a kind of "Garden of Fame" by the stage entrance.

I actually feel more comfortable backstage at a theater like this – or even on stage – than I do with the audience in the auditorium. I spent so much time in theaters in high school and college.

One of the reasons why Pasadena Playhouse has withstood the test of time – not only creatively, but architecturally – is because of its poured concrete structure. Down in the basement, it feels like you're in a bunker.

Down there, amidst the dressing rooms and the crews taking a lunch break... can peek into the orchestra pit...

...and visit the wardrobe department...

...where spools of multi-colored thread are hand-sewn into costumes...

...strong enough to last the run...

...but weak enough to be removed, if it's a rental.

There's such a wide range of productions at the Playhouse – from musical comedies to traditional dramas – that the wardrobe department has accrued about every accessory you can imagine.

Just in case.

Like many theaters, the backstage of Pasadena Playhouse also serves as a set shop...

...where power tools, woods, and paints are employed to build the environments of the script...

...whether it's a courtroom, or a smoky rock and roll joint.

The smell of freshly-sawed wood brings back a flood of memories for any thespian or setbuilder, staring in awe at the doorways built tall enough for those set pieces to be walked through.

This theater has been state-of-the-art for a long time: the vintage lightboard has so many levers, its operator would have to switch them with both hands and a foot in order to hit all their cues.

Fortunately, they've upgraded since.

But despite modernization, they still keep some old friends around.

I visited while stagehands were setting up for the next production, an exciting time at any theater...

...and when you can really focus on the playhouse itself, rather than on the play.

For years, the Pasadena Playhouse was also a kind of actors' academy, and cranked out many Hollywood movie stars such as Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman.

Shockingly on the forefront of technology for a legit playhouse, it was responsible for launching and operating one of the first TV stations in Southern California, KTTV. Playhouse staff also trained technicians that went on to work at other TV stations and the Air Force.

There's also a secret passageway that leads from a hidden library to the stage.

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