The Santa Monica Playhouse is approaching its 46th anniversary with impressive numbers: The nonprofit 99-Seat theatre has seen more than 500 classic, contemporary, and original productions; hosted approximately 5,000 performers, new playwrights, and artists; and entertained more than 5 million people. But the Playhouse almost became a casualty of another set of high numbers: those denoting Santa Monica's skyrocketing real estate rates.
Playhouse co-Artistic Director Chris DeCarlo found it hard to encapsulate the 44 years he's spent there. "It's my life," he said. "We went from being a showcase theatre to a professional repertory theatre. I think that has really given real depth, meaning, and scope to what we do and why we do it."
This month, the theatre will celebrate with a run of the show most requested by its audiences: Author! Author! An Evening With Sholom Aleichem, a biographical musical comedy first written and performed by DeCarlo in 1976. He conceived the play as a tribute to the Playhouse's founder, Ted Roter, who died in 2000. Roter, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, introduced DeCarlo to Aleichem's writing and other Jewish playwrights. DeCarlo deeply connected with the author's colorful stories about daily life in Yiddish Eastern Europe that inspired Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof.
"A lot of people called him the Yiddish Mark Twain. I would make the comparison that actually Mark Twain is the American Sholom Aleichem," DeCarlo noted. Original work such as Author! has been the hallmark of the Playhouse, which has given more than 400 plays their world or American premiere. However, there's always been a place at the Playhouse for classic material, from Molière to Genet. "We try to find a conduit to our audience, something that's accessible to them," DeCarlo explained. "But we always try to bring a unique voice to it and confront contemporary issues with it directly or indirectly."
Members of the Playhouse are particularly proud to have reached Year 46. According to DeCarlo, the theatre administrators have been "living hand-to-mouth" for many years. Like so many theatres across Southern California, the company faced eviction from its home at Fourth Street and Wilshire Boulevard three years ago. After an 18-month "Save the Theatre" fundraising campaign, the staff netted $200,000 in donations to use as part of a down payment to purchase the property. The city of Santa Monica also contributed a $75,000 grant. DeCarlo said the company still doesn't own the building but intends to buy it from the theatre's owner, Jules Kievits, who bought and remodeled the theatre in the late 1970s.
"We've just gotten stalled in negotiations," DeCarlo said. "We believe that it's still happening. Movement is beginning to occur, and it's only a question of time. We've just had to hold our breath and think good thoughts and continue to do the work."
John Waroff added that the situation is still touch-and-go. "I just show up every day and hope we're still here," he said, laughing. Waroff, who has been with the Playhouse as an actor and, later, associate director since 1970 and plays several roles in Author!, said they were saved by the generosity of the theatre's audience, which comes from all over L.A. and the San Fernando Valley. He pointed out that although the Playhouse has been a staple of the Santa Monica community for almost half a century, many Westsiders are still discovering them. "We have longtime residents who will walk by, pop their heads in, and say, 'Oh, I never knew you were here.'"
"Author! Author! An Evening With Sholom Aleichem" will run May 6–28, with a gala anniversary performance May 7, Sat. 6:30 p.m. and Sun. 5:30 p.m. The Santa Monica Playhouse is located at 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. Tickets for regular performances are $25.50. Call (310) 394-9779, ext. 1, or visit www.santamonicaplayhouse.com for reservations.