by Jack Viertel
When Edwin Lester's production of Blossom Time, starring John Charles Thomas, ushered in the era of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera in the summer of 1938, the producer was doing more than simply mounting a show and beginning a tradition: he was creating a manifesto for the musical theater in Southern California. There was virtually no competition - musical theater in Los Angeles was pretty much limited to supper club entertainment and locally mounted revues. A fairly steady diet of straight drama crossed the boards - New York or English plays with stars like the Lunts or Noel Coward - but musicals were expensive to move. Instead, Broadway producers usually leased the rights to local producers, and the results were far from guaranteed.
Had Lester been in that business, listening to the cash registers in New York, he might have chosen to mount any one of a number of recent Broadway hits -- On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, I'd Rather Be Right, or Hooray For What! among them. He might have opted for political musicals, since both Kurt Weill's Johnny Johnson and Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock had been causing loud and interesting arguments on the East Coast. Or he might have gone into competition with the ever-popular revue entertainment of the day and mounted a "Follies" a "Vanities'' or a "Scandals." Instead, he opted for a 17-year-old operetta about a classical composer, written by Sigmund Romberg and starring an opera and recital singer whom Lester had first admired in 1916, 22 years earlier. This was the musical theater - on the edge of extinction as far as the New York smart-set was concerned - that Lester himself wanted and loved. And it proved to be the right musical theater for Los Angeles.
For starters, Los Angeles was a movie town, and audiences here loved stars. John Charles Thomas was a real star, not a vaudeville comedian or a local New York celebrity, but a cultural icon of undeniable seriousness. The premiere American baritone of his day, he played recitals when he chose, at the astronomical fee of $2500 per appearance. When Lester procured his services for Blossom Time for a week at the Philharmonic Hall (now, unbelievably, under the wrecker's ball after a failed attempt at restoration) it was a bona fide event.
In fact, it was an all-important one, for Lester had been busy mounting CLO-type festivals since 1935 with a ''no-stars" policy and, as he told interviewer Don Richardson, "I wasn't very pleased with the result." Thomas gave Lester everything he needed to please him - serious artistic credentials, public acclaim, a hot ticket and a voice that could reduce the producer himself to tears. In his year-end wrap-up of the L.A. season, Times drama editor Edwin Schallert noted that the season's smashing success "was astonishing because it had no precedent in other attempts at the same sort of entertainment."
There was an unexpected benefit to Thomas' engagement, as well. He agreed to play only on the basis of a two-week engagement, and Lester was able to use this to his advantage, selling the Blossom Time package to his friend, San Francisco theater-owner and producer Homer Curran. The San Francisco Los Angeles link was established, and the sister Civic Light Operas came to represent an invaluable lure of extended playing time for New York shows setting out on tour. Suddenly, the lure of huge West Coast grosses made it worthwhile to extend the tours of big Broadway shows across the Rockies. When Lester found it appealing to expand his activities from home-based productions to include the New York hits, the two CLOs became the Western anchor of what Broadwayites refer to as "the road." And, as Oscar Hammerstein said, "there would be no road without Edwin Lester."
Conversely, there undoubtedly would be a musical theater tradition in L.A. without the CLO, but it would be a very different one, for the manifesto referred to above was Lester's motto, personified by Blossom Time: "Light Opera in the Grand Opera manner." This was not a futuristic or even forward-looking musical theater company. It was a company devoted to a tradition: the elegant, often European mise-en-scene and the sound of the human voice.
That tradition was beginning to die in the United States. By 1945, Oklahoma! had run two years and changed Broadway forever; composers like Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers and Harold Arlen had the pre-eminent Broadway successes. But not in L.A.
Lester was producing a season that consisted of revivals of The Desert Song (1926), The Red Mill (1906) and Rose Marie (1924). Yet, an interesting cross-pollination had begun to take place. Lester's fourth musical of the season was Hammerstein's black modernization of the Carmen story, Carmen Jones, which seemed an innovation at the time.
And Lester himself had begun making inroads on Broadway, proving that the things he personally loved need not be looked at as unfashionable. His first original musical, 1944's Song of Norway, boasted a score by Edvard Greig, adapted by Robert Wright and George Forrest. It was old-fashioned, concentrated on great music and great singers rather than the singing actors who were beginning to take over the "modern'' musical, and should, according to modern fashion, have been a fiasco. Instead, Lester's hand-wrought treatment of Greig's life took Broadway by storm. It may have even inspired Broadway to snap up Lester's revival of The Red Mill, which appeared on the main stem 14 months after Song of Norway. The Red Mill, Victor Herbert's turn-of-the-century idea of musical comedy, must have seemed terribly dated played on a Broadway that was also featuring Leonard Bernstein's On the Town and a jazz version of The Mikado. But it was a popular triumph, proving that two vastly different brands of musical theater could co-exist happily in New York.
Lester's practical side saw to it that they began to co-exist in L.A., too. The CLO was by now not the only game in town. Ken Murray and Earl Carroll were producing successful revues, and there were musicals at the Belasco and the Mayan on South Hill Street. But the CLO remained the main draw for touring versions of the most prestigious Broadway shows, and during the late '40s Lester managed to mix his favored operettas in with the latest Arlen or Berlin musicals.
In 1947, Lester mounted a revision of 1921's The Three Musketeers next to a smashing touring version of the 1940's Louisiana Purchase with the original stars, William Gaxton and Victor Moore. Nineteen forty-eight saw Naughty Marietta and Annie Get Your Gun side by side, along with Lester's second, and most ambitious original creation, Magdalena. This was Lester and the CLO taking a leap with no net. The ambitious score was by Heitor Villa-Lobos, and the production was wild and lush. The unlikely (and aggressively uncommercial) subject was Christianity as it affects the lives of the natives of a river town in Colombia. It was a long way from Song of Norway, but it was still vintage Lester: strong voices (John Raitt and Irra Petina starred), serious music, elaborate production values and the intention of making real art, not simply dressed up vaudeville entertainment. Its failure was a heartbreak for many, but an affordable one: the CLO had become a powerful organization of astonishing range with a seemingly boundless and loyal subscription audience.
The years passed; the balance shifted. Nineteen fifty-three saw the production of Kismet, another Lester-inspired operetta, this time with Borodin music adapted by Wright and Forrest and starring Alfred Drake. A healthy Broadway run followed. But the New York audience, if not the critics, were arguing about whether Kismet was a bit too antique for its vaunted reputation, and Lester was already making changes in his schedule.
(At about this time another Southern California impresario, James A. Doolittle, was beginning to make his mark with seasons at the Greek Theater and the Biltmore. He took a page from Lester, mixing the old with the new. He produced Giancarlo Menotti and Rodgers and Hart, but he also managed to find a spot for Victor Herbert. He understood L.A. taste as Lester had invented and nurtured it. Doolittle went on to produce at the Huntington Hartford until last year, when the theater was sold to UCLA and the Music Center's Center Theatre Group and renamed in his honor.)
The 1954 CLO season saw a revised approach: one rather innovative operetta, Porgy and Bess (not yet established as a legitimate opera) squeezed in between three "modern" musicals: The King and I, Brigadoon and, to many, the most beloved of all Lester's creations, Peter Pan starring Mary Martin. Interestingly, this was the CLO's first created work using what had come to be known as "show tunes." The composers were Jule Styne and Mark "Moose" Charlap. Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Carolyn Leigh supplied the lyrics, and the production was directed and choreographed by the musical theater's greatest innovator-to-be, Jerome Robbins. With those creative forces added to the CLO's roster of stars, modernization was apparently complete.
In the '60s, the schedules continued to reflect the growth of the musical theater, but Lester maintained his fondness for operetta, and so did his audiences. There can be no greater tribute to the man than the remarkable fact that in Los Angeles, as nowhere else, operetta continued to thrive well beyond its successful life elsewhere. Lester had taught his audiences the joys of a light opera in the grand opera manner, and as late as 1976, the year after Lester's formal retirement, when the season contained Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, The Wiz and A Chorus Line, the fourth musical was none other than a Lester-produced revival of Kismet, starring the operatic John Reardon and beloved by many who thought of it as Los Angeles' own treasure.
The Lester fondness for the wholesome and opulent had its amusing side, too. At one point, the late Ed Parkinson, manager of the Shubert Theater in Century City (which had come to represent the CLO's largest competitor in packaging Broadway shows), declared that he had been attacked by Lester-trained audience members at a performance of Sondheim's A Little Night Music.
"They collared me," Parkinson told an interviewer in 1976, "and told me that in all their theatergoing lives in Los Angeles they had never had to put up with such filth. (Night Music was based on the Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night.) This kind of scum simply didn't play at the Music Center. Then they got out a Bible, fell to the carpet in the lobby of the Shubert and began to pray for me."
Indeed, the city maintains its reputation of resistance to the newest, least traditional musical forms to this day. That, of course, cannot be blamed on the CLO or Edwin Lester. Lester was no conniver, trying cynically to outsmart his public with "family entertainment." He is, in a sense, a fortunate man – a man of taste and drive and determination whose ideas about musical entertainment happened to coincide with those of the people he was trying to serve.
Lester and L.A., back in 1938, made a fortuitous match. The public wanted desperately the very things he had to offer. He educated it, nurtured it and was generous with it. In the process, he created a market for others, from James Doolittle to the Shubert Organization to the Nederlanders, who now control the CLO and who have, knowingly or not, donned the mantle of a delicate, proud, bountiful tradition. It is more than a business; it's an unspoken trust.