In early 1947 Mel Ferrer was
languishing in Hollywood, under contract as actor / producer / director
to "Gone with the Wind" dynamo David O. Selznick, who didn't seem to
know how to use his latest acquisition. Never content with inactivity, the ever energetic Ferrer returned to his theatrical
roots, directing and producing
while on location in Mexico with "The Fugitive" and also directing "Heartsong"
in Philadelphia, a play for Selznick's wife, Irene. Still, he remained
unfulfilled and ached to start some sort of theatrical venue for actors
in the Los Angeles area. When he first arrived in Hollywood he'd
explained to Selznick that he didn't want to abandon his theatrical
career completely and he now began to badger his new boss for
support. In exasperation, Selznick sent Ferrer to talk to
another actor who's "as crazy about the theater as you are" - name
player Gregory Peck.
Mel was directed to the RKO set of "The Paradine Case" to
ferret the famous actor out and Greg
immediately caught Mel's fervor. They enthusiastically
launched into tentative plans
for some sort of playhouse that would use the large pool of legitimately
currently in Hollywood. Unlike a mere decade later, movie actors in
the 1940s and early 1950s were mostly drawn from the theater and openly
yearned for that stimulating audience interaction that had been so much
a part of their earlier stage careers. One of those wishful actors was Dorothy McGuire, who was
also under contract to Selznick and about to co-star opposite Greg in "Gentleman's Agreement." She had worked with Mel
on stage in New York in 1940, and she and her husband -
"Life" photographer John Swope - were part of Mel's closest
inner circle of friends. Both Swopes would become an integral part of the playhouse's eventual success,
Dorothy herself was adamant - assist, plan and co-star she would
wholeheartedly do, but she had no talent for nor inclination to become
involved in the actual management of the project. Two other Selznick players
initially climbed aboard as well - Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones.
Their administrative board in place, the two men began looking for a home to
house their planned theater, and two facts became immediately clear: first,
that a year round plan was too ambitious and secondly, that a Los Angeles
venue would not be easy to secure. They opted to organize around Summer
seasons and after several abortive attempts in the L.A. area, Gregory Peck
suggested his hometown of La Jolla - an affluent beach community just North of
San Diego. A quick trip South brought about some positive results. Thanks to
Gregory Peck's salesmanship, star power and sheer chutzpah, the city not
only agreed to back their efforts but offered them the high school auditorium for their stage.
And another stroke of unexpected good fortune, the Kiwanis Club of La Jolla
offered to sponsor them. They were now ready to move forward.
Greg and Mel worked out a budget and concluded that $15,000.00 was
needed to get their 9-week Summer Season underway. They went to their boss -
David Selznick - who required surprisingly little persuasion to finance the
project, even though he had no expectation of getting his money back. With
check in hand, the trio at the top began some serious planning with an
initial brainstorming session that took place in a NYC hotel room in April
1947. For their first season they opted for comedies and mysteries along
with a classic or two, but they decided what they really needed for success was stars, and over time that proved to be
accurate. Once a big star was attached to a project, everything else seemed
to fall into place. With that in mind they talked Dame May Whitty into
starring in their very first production, "Night Must Fall," which
opened in July of 1947. It was an instant and resounding success in every
way, assuaging all doubts they might have had and assuring that quality
would forever dictate their future choices.
Although the first season was extremely successful artistically and
attracted healthy audiences from the beginning, it ended in the red. This
had been somewhat expected, since even though the five big names at the top
were altruistically involved without pay, they always acknowledged that
other actors and all crew should expect salaries. Realistically, however,
they needed ready cash if a second season was to happen. It was Gregory
Peck's idea to take their most successful play of the season - "Angel
Street" - on tour using the original cast consisting of himself and Laraine
Day. The result translated into
instant monetary liquidity, which not only helped toward the next Summer's productions but
even helped to repay a bit on their loan from Selznick. Touring productions
an integral part of their overall strategic plan.
Over the next six years
La Jolla became a serious venue for theater, the place to go and
the thing to do during the long hot Southern California summers. It offered Hollywood actors the
opportunity to work in legitimate stage productions alongside their more lucrative
movie and television careers, and presented starry theater productions at
reasonable prices for both the Los Angeles and San Diego areas along with
tours to Northern California and neighboring states. The 2-hour drive south
became a common trek for Hollywood stars, who both filled the stage and the
audiences. Still, it was two
seasons before the La Jolla Playhouse was able to end with a profit and it
took four years to repay David Selznick his generous advance. By then only Mel,
Greg and Dorothy remained on the board along with Dorothy's husband John,
who frequently took up the administrative chores when Mel's acting career
prevented his presence.
For the first four seasons, Greg and Mel ran the playhouse jointly and
called themselves co-producers. Dorothy McGuire and John Swope helped out
enormously, but the day-to-day business was handled by Greg and Mel. Because Gregory Peck was by far
the more successful of the two and was at the apex of his career in 1947,
the majority of those administrative duties fell to Mel, but the two worked
in close and comfortable collaboration with Greg supplying the star power to
get things noticed and Mel's diligence seeing them through. Mel's movie career
became far more complicated in 1949 after the surprising success of "Lost Boundaries,"
but his film career would always remain in the shadow of his famous co-producer.
Neither of them missed a La Jolla season, however, until 1951 when an exhausted Greg
decided not to star in any of the playhouse productions that year. He
helped with the planning and attended all 1951 first nights, but both the
1951 and 1952 seasons were administered solely by "Lankybones" - Greg's nickname
for Mel. By the end of the 1951 season, Greg decided to reluctantly step
down. His heart was totally behind the project, but his time and commitments
precluded that his physical participation come to an end.
involvement continued loosely throughout the 1960s, but his direct job as
head administrator ended in 1954. He'd taken a leave of absence
in January of 1953 to do two movies abroad - "Saadia" in Africa and "Knights of the
Round Table" in England, leaving John Swope in charge until his return.
While in England, however, he met Audrey Hepburn and after their
marriage in 1954 he relocated to Europe and was never directly involved
with the playhouse's management again. John Swope took over and had to
cope with the severe cutbacks of the 1960s and the playhouse's eventual
closure in 1964.
The importance of The La Jolla Playhouse for Mel Ferrer can hardly be overstated. It occupied his mind and energy for all
six seasons he was in charge and garnered him tremendous respect within
the acting community. He brought dozens of his
friends in to star, direct or otherwise help out and it's apparent from all
his interviews that what he, Greg and Dorothy accomplished in La Jolla
was of profound and continuing pride.
A group called The Actors Company allied itself
to The La Jolla Players early on, and the two became inseparable in many ways. This
organization was, however, more interested in theater in Los Angeles itself and although
all three actors were intimately involved in both efforts, that particular endeavor
will be chronicled separately here.
Some La Jolla memorable moments:
One of the friends Mel brought from Broadway to work at
the Playhouse was Vivian Vance. He actually coaxed her and her husband
Philip Ober into coming to Hollywood for "The Secret Fury," a movie he was directing, but once there he
talked her into traveling down to La Jolla to co-star with himself and Diana Lynn in "The Voice of the
Turtle." Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were In the audience one
night and decided she'd be perfect for the role of Lucy's side kick in
their upcoming television show. The show was called "I Love Lucy."
The playhouse was lucky to survive the casting of
David Selznick's soon-to-be wife Jennifer Jones in "Serena Blandish"
during the second season. Her benefactor insisted she be surrounded by
co-stars they couldn't afford, doubling the cost of that one production,
and he also insisted her wardrobe be designed by top flight courtiers,
including Christian Dior.
Actors Joanne Dru and John Ireland met and married as
La Jolla actors. Their wedding in La Jolla during rehearsals of their
play "Arms and the Man" took place on August 8, 1949 with John Ford's
daughter Barbara serving as maid of honor and either Gregory Peck or Mel
Ferrer as best man - it all depended on which one of them was free at
the time. It was Peck who actually stood up for Ireland, but Ferrer
managed to arrive just in time to witness their vows.
Mel's one directing assignment during the third
season was the all-male "Command Decision," done largely as a tribute to
Greg's performance in "Twelve O'Clock High." At the last performance of
the somber play, he and Greg took over the roles of two flyers who walk
on at the very end of the final act. It was Greg's idea to don
costumes slightly different than the intended Air Corps uniforms. Ferrer
was dressed as a polar bear and Peck as a gorilla. In a later interview
Ferrer remembered that "Everybody broke up and forgot their lines. The
audience became hysterical."
During what was to be Mel's last season with the
playhouse, he managed to coax the irrepressible Groucho Marx down to do
"Time for Elizabeth," a play specially written for him by Norman Krasna.
Groucho helped to re-write it and also star, grumbling most the time but
actually having the time of his life. Ferrer provided lunch each day at
the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club, where 20 to 30 people gathered daily
to listen to Groucho's stories.
When Mel Ferrer left Hollywood in 1953 he hooked up
with best friend Gregory Peck, who was in Paris making a film and in the process of
separating from his wife. Their European bachelor trip
was short lived while each man undertook different acting duties, but they hooked
up again later in London, where Greg introduced Mel to his Roman Holiday
co-star - a young gamin named Audrey Hepburn.
During the Summer of 1960, Mel's 17-year-old daughter Mela was
apprenticed to the La Jolla Playhouse as an actress. Mel was in Switzerland at
the time, awaiting the birth of Sean, his son by Audrey Hepburn, so it's
doubtful he ever saw her onstage. Mela
ultimately decided against a career in acting, but she remains the only
one of his five children to dabble with the dream.
Although the playhouse disbanded in the 1960s, it
rose like a phoenix in 1983 under the steady vision of Des McAnuff and
continues to this day.
On May 17, 1997 the La Jolla Playhouse celebrated its
50th anniversary. Both Gregory Peck and Mel Ferrer were in the audience.