The company of BABY IT'S YOU! Photo: Michael Lamont.
The Pasadena Playhouse has a rich and vibrant history dating back to 1917 when an itinerant acting troupe by the name of the Gilmor Brown Players settled in Pasadena - at the time a sleepy little town of farmers and wealthy vacationers. The town fell in love with the Players and before they had spent ten years here, locals donated the money to move the company out of the derelict old burlesque house they had been renting and into the newly constructed Pasadena Playhouse in 1924, originally known as the Pasadena Community Playhouse. At the time, The Playhouse was the largest and most technically advanced venue on this side of the Mississippi. Its community theatre beginnings and the tremendous amount of local support led George Bernard Shaw to dub Pasadena “the Athens of the West,” likening the enterprise to the ancient Festival Dionysia.
After having produced the entire canon of Shakespeare for the first time in America, California legislature voted to dedicate the Playhouse as official State Theatre in 1937. During this time, the theatre included a College of Theatre Arts (known as “The Star Factory”), which produced such notables as Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Raymond Burr and Sally Struthers. The theatre itself drew talent from across the country, premiering hundreds of new plays by writers like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Noel Coward and many more.
The Playhouse was constantly abuzz with activity, having as many as five independent stages in operation at any given time, making it the single most prolific theatrical producing organization in the world. These varied staging capabilities led The Playhouse to become one of the first companies in history to experiment with new theatrical forms, such as theatre-in-the-round. This experimentation took on a new dimension when The Playhouse built and operated one of the first television stations in Southern California – KTTV, whose call letters still exist today as the local Fox affiliate. In addition to training the Air Force to use television and radio equipment, The Playhouse supplied the majority of Southern California’s early TV stations with the first trained technicians in the business.
Upon the death of founding director Gilmor Brown, changes in Actors Equity Association laws and the opening of drama departments in many schools and universities across the country, the theatre went bankrupt and closed its doors in 1969. During this dark period in Playhouse history, The Pasadena Playhouse Alumni & Associates continued their activities in honor of the institution, a handful of them working tirelessly for several years to keep the building from the wrecking ball.
Thanks to a monumental partnership between the Pasadena government, local businesses and our dedicated patrons and philanthropists, the theater reopened its doors in 1985. In recent years, The Playhouse has become instrumental in launching new works and landmark revivals for the American Theatre, while displaying a commitment to cultural and theatrical diversity, which is reflected in seasons featuring Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning plays and musicals.
A new era began when Sheldon Epps became artistic director in 1997. Production highlights include the launch of the national tour of Purlie (with the Goodman Theatre); Sister Act: The Musical, which played in the West End at the London Palladium Theatre and on Broadway at the Broadway Theatre (Five 2011 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical) and is currently on a national tour; and Baby, It’s You!, which played at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre (2011 Tony Award nominee). Other Broadway shows developed at The Pasadena Playhouse include A Night With Janis Joplin (2014 Tony Award nominee), Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Story, Can Can: The Musical, and Ray Charles Live. Notable local productions include Fences starring Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett and directed by Sheldon Epps, The Heiress starring Richard Chamberlain, Citizen Twain starring Val Kilmer, Above the Fold starring Taraji P. Henson, Stoneface starring French Stewart and 2014-2015 Playhouse Season opener Kiss Me, Kate starring Wayne Brady and directed by Mr. Epps.
In 2005 the Theatrical Diversity Project was organized by Mr. Epps to empower young people from disenfranchised communities through free student performances and arts education programs; and to cultivate artists of all backgrounds through new play development and mainstage artistry. The Theatrical Diversity Project has supported productions of shows such as Fences, Stormy Weather, Uptown Downtown, Blue For An Alabama Sky, Intimate Apparel, 12 Angry Men (cast for the first time with six black and six white men), produced in response to race-related events in 2013, and Kiss Me, Kate (cast for the first time with a primarily black cast to showcase the trailblazing African-American actors and entertainers of the early 20th century). The project has supported access to free student matinees and arts education programs for thousands of children facing barriers to exposure to the arts. In 2013, the Theatrical Diversity Project supported pilot outreach initiatives to local Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander patrons and has expanded to further engage these communities.
The Playhouse Archives
A collection of history in the form of programs, photographs and written material from 1916 to the present is housed in The Pasadena Playhouse Archives, funded by The Pasadena Playhouse Alumni & Associates, and our generous donors.
Visitors are welcome. Come see the busy workshop where the “past is prologue.” For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.