Santa Barbara’s beautiful Lobero Theatre has long operated as Hollywood’s go-to location for theatrical tryouts and performances since its opening in 1924. California’s oldest continuous operating theatre, the Lobero was founded in 1873 by Jose Lobero, before being completely renovated and remodeled in 1924 following George Washington Smith’s grand design. The elegant showcase has functioned as Hollywood’s theatrical home away from home, close enough for family and friends to attend, celebrities to appear, and for society scions to visit. It offered a safe haven for those trying their wings on the stage or those coming back after a long break.
From its reopening as a Spanish Revival jewel, the theatre has offered high class entertainment in an intimate setting. A few years after opening, management hired actor/producer Irving Pichel away from his own Pichel Playhouse in Oakland to serve as artistic director and star. Under his influence, the theatre hosted such actors as Tallulah Bankhead, Lionel Barrymore, and a young Bela Lugosi on its stage.
The Lobero continued serving as a tryout town throughout the 1930s, with such performers as Mary Astor, Walter Huston, Pauline Frederick, Anna Q. Nielsen, Francis Lederer, Alan Dinehart, Regis Toomey, Reginald Denny, Richard Cromwell, Helen Hayes, Herbert Marshall, Vincent Price, Mischa Auer, Joan Blondell, and Lee Tracy all starred in productions on the Lobero stage.
In early spring 1941, famed film producer David O. Selznick was seeking out new challenges after the great success of his films “Gone With the Wind” and “Rebecca.” He thought about creating a West Coast version of East Coast summer repertory in which to groom new stars, introduce them to the public, and strengthen their acting chops. At the same time, it would allow veteran stars an opportunity to work close to home without traveling all the way to New York.
Only the best would suffice for Selznick and his new David O. Selznick Productions. He hired John Houseman, Orson Welles’ producing partner in the Mercury Theatre, as his production assistant in March, to carry out his wishes of creating new and important works for both film and theatre.
On June 16, 1941, Selznick announced that Houseman would serve as artistic director for a season of summer stock at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre, in which Selznick Company players, supplemented by recognized stage/film actors, would perform onstage. Broadway’s Alfred de Liagre Jr. was hired as co-director. The Selznick Company’s aim was “…making the Lobero the birthplace of important contributions to the American theatre.” They hoped to encourage and support theatre and create “a renaissance of the drama in Southern California.”
Houseman and de Liagre revealed to Art and Architecture magazine in the summer of 1941 that their aim was to create productions making important contributions to the American stage, either through the presentation of new plays that would garner the public’s interest, or revivals of important works with strong stories and messages.
From the beginning, quality was job one for the Selznick Company. Several Selznick staff members contributed ideas developing the season. Stars such as Ingrid Bergman, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Dame May Whitty, Janet Gaynor, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke would star in the productions. Young Mary Barthelmess, the daughter of veteran silent star Richard Barthelmess, served as assistant to the production staff herself.
For its first production that summer, the Selznick Company presented Ingrid Bergman in Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie.” This was an attempt to broaden Bergman’s range as well as to widen her popularity, before taking the show further on the road. Young actor Damian O’Flynn was hired, with hopes that the play would springboard his career. Production designer William Cameron Menzies provided sketch ideas from which production designer Kate Drain Lawson worked. These sketches were exhibited in the lobby during the show’s run from July 30 through August 2, 1941. John Houseman himself directed the production, with tickets costing fifty cents to three dollars.
As the July 31 Los Angeles Times reported after the premiere of “Anna Christie,” “The opening was typically Hollywood, down to the late curtain, roped-off gawkers, half a dozen photographers, and foyer interviews with celebrities over Tom Storke’s radio station.”
Both Bergman and the production received fine notices. Variety stated that it was class turnout for a classy production; “in all staging over the years, it remained for Selznick, with the expert aid of John Houseman, who directed, and Alfred de Liagre, Jr. to outdo all previous efforts in pro ducting this robust drama of the waterfront…Miss Bergman gives a finely etched performance.” Edwin Shallert’s Los Angeles Times review noted, “The third act climax in which Miss Bergman limned the past of Anna had notable inspiration…It took its place as one of the most memorable scenes ever done on the stage of Southern California. Florence Lawrence wrote in the Los Angeles Examiner that it was “…Miss Bergman’s volatile art which holds outstanding place in the performance.” Bergman would go on to perform the show in San Francisco and New Jersey.
Selznick’s attention to detail spread beyond fine actors and beautifully designed sets. The New York Times stated that the production and season fulfilled Selznick’s dream of providing Southern California its own summer theatre with his same quality and attention to detail. August 6 Variety noted that the Selznick Company program was “…the most elaborate program ever passed out for a legit attraction.” The high class program featured twelve pages describing the Selznick Company’s intent and listing cast and crew background.
For its second show, the Selznick Company mounted the world premiere of Enid Bagnold’s “Lottie Dundass,” the story of a troubled and neurotic heroine starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, supported by Dame May Whitty. The production was delayed until August 21-24 due to problems in constructing the set. Fitzgerald received outstanding reviews for the play, with Variety stating that she dominated a strong cast, and the Los Angeles Times noting she “took the audience by storm” with her tour de force performance. Several months later, Fitzgerald opened on Broadway with the production.
For its grand finale in September, the Selznick Company presented two productions for the price of one: a one-act curtain raiser by William Saroyan called “Hello Out There,” and George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple” to play August 9-13. Saroyan’s playlet had been written in early August, with Houseman snatching it up after meeting Saroyan. A bittersweet story set in a Texas jail, the one act starred young Henry Bratsburg (soon to become Harry Morgan) and beautiful Phyllis Walker, soon to become famous as Jennifer Jones, after they read it for Selznick in his office on August 28.
The nervous Jones stood in the wings wearing her wedding ring the night of the play’s opening. As Houseman recounted to David Thomson in “Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick,” he told her to give him her wedding ring, which she forgot once the play concluded and took days to recover. She also refused to attend the opening night party when she realized that press would be there to take photographs. Jones had failed to mention to Selznick that she had performed in some shorts and Republic serials, and feared she would be found out at the party, though the studio knew the information all along. The September 12 Los Angeles Times called it powerful, stating, “Henry Bratsburg and Phyllis Walker enacted it with rare feeling at once realistic and ‘out of this world.’” Bratsburg was soon signed by Twentieth Century Fox, with his name changed to Henry Morgan.
Sir Cedric Hardwicke both starred in and directed George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple,” which he had pitched to Selznick that summer. Set in Colonial America during the Revolutionary War, the play told the story of local outcast and gadfly Richard Dudgeon, who decides to sacrifice himself to help others. Janet Gaynor came out of retirement to make her stage debut in the challenging role, drawing huge advance sales for the production. The play received excellent reviews, though several reviewers preferred the melodramatic “Hello Out There” over “The Devil’s Disciple.”
Phillip Scheuer in the September 12 Los Angeles Times called Janet Gaynor “a Dresden doll” in Adrian-designed costumes, prim but proper in the role. He found June Lockhart “flawless” and Alan Marshal a real swashbuckler, but felt that Hardwicke’s performance let the piece down. “The Devil’s Disciple” did well enough to go on for a week’s presentation at San Francisco’s Geary Theatre following its Santa Barbara run.
Though Selznick’s Lobero Theatre season was successful, with Scheuer calling it a great and successful test for performing summer plays in Southern California and serving as a training ground for talented young performers, he ended his attempts at theatrical production, perhaps due to costs. The three productions cost $25,000, losing $10,000-$15,000 between them.
The theatre continued serving as an encouraging home for theatrical tryouts and short revivals by film stars over the next several decades, as well as continuing as Santa Barbara’s elite theatrical space. The Lobero Theatre still successfully operates as a world class production facility in Santa Barbara, showcasing actors, musicians, and dancers in its intimate setting.