Another stalwart organization of El Dorado County is the Olde Coloma Theatre located in Coloma, where gold was discovered in 1848. That theatre company doesn’t date back to the Gold Rush days, but it takes on a 19th Century persona by presenting melodramas of the “boo-hiss” variety, even though most of the material is written by locals and very little historical accuracy is given to presenting the plays as folks might have seen them on the river show boats or the little playhouses of early California. Who knows exactly what the style really was anymore? What we can glean from movies about the era is a ballooned, cartoony presentation of simplistic plots about the heroin not being able to pay the villain his rent money. She will be forced to marry the villain in order to survive, that is until her handsome young hero in the white hat comes along to save the day. “Curses! Foiled again!” says the villain as the curtain comes down.
In the mid-1990s, CSUS tried a summer theatre season of authentic melodramas staged at the Old Eagle Theatre in Old Sacramento. Poor publicity, bad organization and less than adequate talent made this noble attempt a flop, though the productions were designed beautifully as all CSUS productions were in those days. However, seeing those actual 19th Century melodramas make you realize how serious the stories were. They couldn’t be played with a wink and a nudge––nothing was remotely tongue in cheek. There were clear heroes and villains and olio songs performed between scenes, but the playwrights weren’t out to string together a bunch of puns and gags the way I originally came to know melodrama from Coloma. No, the playwrights really did have something to say about their world. That wasn’t Coloma’s concern. For Coloma a melodrama had two titles, a villain in black with a maniacal laugh and a handlebar mustache he could twirl and a lot of hoary jokes strung together over an age old plot, usually set in old California. In between scenes there were songs accompanied by an upright piano at the side of the apron and if all this lasted two hours with intermission you had yourself a show.
Many of these period-esque entertainments were a good time and made better by a trip afterwards to the nearby Sierra Nevada House for a chocolate soda. After a while, the sameness of the productions began to wear you down and the company went through alternate periods of quality and baffoonery depending on who was helming the productions. Some of the Theatre El Dorado people like Richard Harrison, Scott Sherrill and Mark Anderson would go down to put on a better than average production, bringing with them a cast of talents that wouldn’t usually participate in Coloma’s productions. There could have been more of that collaboration, but it wasn’t always fostered.
I was in two productions that I would define as Theatre El Dorado plays Coloma. The first was the annual 4th of July revue, Firecrackers, which was assigned to various directors through the years. This particular year it was helmed by Scott Sherrill (with Jerry Moorman and Katie Miller) who had just finished his very successful production of Mame at Theatre El Dorado. Although he held an open audition, which was how my brother and I were cast, the end result was that most of the cast of Mame made up the talent in Firecrackers ‘82. The other show was The Bride of Frankenstein, which was hardly a melodrama, but there were villains you could boo and hiss. Directed by Mark Anderson and Joan Prinz, that production broke the “nothing set after 1900” rule as it was a beach party take on the classic horror movie. Again, there were open auditions, but a lot of the people working on that production had all just finished a production of Anything Goes at Theatre El Dorado together (see post “Bob Hope Summer”).
Firecrackers ‘82 had an interesting variety of acts. I was fascinated by an elderly performer, Maggie Bridgham, who had become a kind of Coloma celebrity. She was definitely form another era and was billed as “The Nightingale of Coloma.” She was dressed in a kind of glamorous music hall finery, her fingers full of costume jewelry (“Like my rocks?” she used to say as she wiggled her fingers). She sat quietly in a chair during the entire show and then rose when it was time for her turn before the footlights, leaving her cane behind. She sang sentimental old songs, wiping invisible tears from her eyes, which caused the audience to “awwwh” on cue. Maggie Bridgham was a pro and knew just how to work a crowd. I was 13 years old, but I went around to the back of the house to watch her act every night and to study her. There was something extraordinary about her as a performer, though of course this is all a distant memory and who knows what I would think about her performance now. But back then, I recognized it as something elevated from the other acts. She certainly commanded the audience in a way that other acts did not.
June Scott and Bette Schmidt had a cute “sister” act to the number “Dearie,” which was one of those good old summer days of yore type of numbers. June Scott also did “Grandma’s Feather Bed” with her daughter Jan and grand children and then returned for a third turn with Bette Schmidt for “All of Me.” There was a belly dancer who went by “Kahlila” and a wonderful classical guitarist, Chico Sebastian. In-between all the musical numbers were comedy sketches of the burlesque variety and then there was my brother and me in our pantomime about the guy who poisoned his wife at the party and had to remove the corpse without anyone noticing.
The theater building itself has an interesting history. The main auditorium is a log cabin built as part of an exhibit from the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair. In 1941 the building was moved to Mount Danaher to serve as a barracks for California forestry rangers. Eventually the building was used as a warehouse and finally was to be raised, when June Scott campaigned in the late 1960s to have the building moved to Coloma with the idea that it could be turned into a theatre for her group of thespians putting on melodramas. A lobby, bathrooms, stage and dressing room area were added to the cabin to form what became the Olde Coloma Theatre to house the “Coloma Crescent Players,” at 380 Monument Road. For years, June Scott was the life-force of the group and was even late into the 1980s.
In the middle of my college career I had decided to focus on directing and was looking for ways to get projects under my belt. Since I was going to be back in Placerville the summer of 1988 I looked at Coloma as a possible venue for a directing project. I was focussed on musicals and didn’t want to do a melodrama, but since The Bride of Frankenstein had been such a big hit, I figured I could get somewhere with a 1927 musical, Good News. It was the kind of gag-filled, tuneful old musical that I could imagine working at Coloma. I campaigned to June Scott, Vickie Moreno (another June Scott daughter) and board of directors to convince them that Good News would live up to its title. However, Coloma wasn’t interested in crossing that rule about 1900––they wanted me, but they wanted me to do a melodrama. I looked around for something, but with my limited time I couldn’t come up with a suitable replacement idea and so I picked up a book of turn-of-the-century songs and wrote a melodrama type of story around them. After I finished the script in about two weeks, I sent it over to June Scott for a read and she approved it. Nowhere else in the world would that script have been approved over Good News, but Just Plain Mary was going on the boards that summer.
At the time I believed in what I was doing and I was smart about how I wrote the thing so that I wouldn’t get in over my head. Still, my youth made me ignorant of all the creative challenges that would soon be before me. However, this was the point of doing the show: to have the experience of helming a production. As a production company, the staff of Coloma didn’t really help me do anything, except that I had Vickie Moreno as a liaison and to handle publicity––something she was doing very well at that time. In seasons just prior to 1988, the theatre was playing to very poor houses and in danger of dissolving. Vickie came in and decided to make it her mission to rejuvenate the group and a big publicity campaign was were she threw her energies. The board left me alone and naively assumed that I would deliver said production by opening night. Lucky for them I had gained enough experience to know what I needed to do to make it all come together, but I still don’t know why they had such blind faith in me. Coloma didn’t provide me with any staff. I was expected to collect the people I needed to make the magic happen on my own. I was hard up for a pianist, but finally found a Ponderosa High School senior named John Ferguson when I went to a band concert and saw him playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on the piano. I hired him for $300 to play all the rehearsals and the month long run of the show. After that he was off to University of the Pacific. That’s actually how I put together most of the cast––by going to all the area high school spring plays and concerts. When we had a generally poor showing at the open auditions, I got out those programs and started tracking down people I imagined being able to do a good job and cast them over the phone.
The prior semester I was taking a few classes at Cosumness River College and met Pat Russell, who was going back to college in her 40s to become a social worker. We had two general education music classes together and it turns out she was a big theatre fan. I talked her into becoming the company manager for my production and she embraced the job wholeheartedly. Because of the other production running before mine, Coloma could only offer us limited rehearsal time on the stage and they didn’t have another space for us. What did other directors do I wondered? They made due I was told. Not for me; I needed a solid six weeks of rehearsal five nights a week with a piano. Pat got on the phone and talked the Veterans Hall and the El Dorado City community hall into letting us use their spaces for free.
I had worked in a scene shop for my entire first semester with the Western Stage Theatre Company in Salinas and so I felt adept enough to create the scenery I needed, which I did in a kind of illustration style using lots of color. It definitely looked more like early Broadway musical comedy than 19th Century melodrama, but the most important thing was that it was all unified. High School friend Jossette Childress coordinated the costumes and was able to pull together a complimentary design that worked well with my set just from the large selection of things Coloma had in storage. John Ehlman, who had been working on lighting design with Theatre El Dorado, designed the lights and even ran the board. Barbara Hilton, another high school chum, had grown up in choirs and not only served as vocal director, but understudied the show and had to go on once. She was amazingly prepared and gave a good performance with John transposing the songs into her key by sight.
After we opened, I kept getting new ideas about how to improve the show and put in a few extra songs, so the show wasn’t really frozen until about half way through the run. This was a new show after all and no one was stopping me, so I just implemented whatever I felt I should to improve the production. Everyone I ever knew came out to see the production and we received an enthusiastic review from the Mountain Democrat, so business was brisk at the box office.
I left Just Plain Mary and the Old Coloma Theatre forever after closing night. I’ve never been back. Somehow the group keeps going on. Ed Mikula, who was seen back in ‘82 singing “Broadway Melody” in Firecrackers is still involved today and serves as president of the board. From all reports the group continues to function more or less as they always have, though they have a year round program rather than just serving a summer audience of white water rafters and campers. Coloma gave me my first full directing project and can claim me as one of its children. That’s part of what a small town theatre group can do––get you started so you can fly the coupe.
|The villain is captured in "Just Plain Mary" at the Olde Coloma Theatre, 1988|