A host of marquee actors, singers, Hollywood execs, and Los Angeles dignitaries turned out to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Center Theatre Group on Saturday in downtown L.A. The event started with a cocktail hour in the Ahmanson courtyard and continued inside the theater where performers sang, related anecdotes, and even acted out bits from some of the plays that made their mark over the past half-century. The evening finished with a dinner and a song-and-light show at Grand Park.
While the first 50 years of the Ahmanson Theater, Mark Taper Forum, and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City were celebrated with tunes by Merle Dandridge, Christina Saffran, Lisa Vroman, Clint Holmes, and Anthony Crivillo and others, it was capped by a rousing number by Jennifer Hudson, directed by Robert Egan. The next 50 was foreshadowed by a stirring monologue from August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” by Shaila Essley that brought the house down.
Bob Greenblatt, dinner co-chair with Sue Tsao, told Variety his job was pretty easy. “I had to get people to come. I helped put on the show a little bit and got all the excitement going; it’s not a difficult task,” he said. “I did, however, ask Jennifer Hudson to perform at the show tonight.”
The NBC chairman is also participating in CTG’s effort to get more people interested in theater in L.A. “I hope more people in the film and TV business get involved in the theater,” he said. “It’s hard to get people to come to theater in L.A. because it’s so spread out. So I think they are smart to make a concerted effort to get more people in the business.”
Greenblatt added, “There is the whole second wave of the company. It’s great to step back and celebrate the 50 years and then look forward.”
Frank Langella led the looking back as he related opening night at the Mark Taper Forum in 1967 as a cast member of “The Devils.” The curtain went up at 9:30 p.m. after a couple of hours of speeches. But as the audience, including then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy, actors, and even the archbishop watched the controversial play about a nun fantasizing about a priest’s sex life, many started to walk out until toward the end. He noticed only Natalie Wood “in rapt attention, dressed in a bright gold lame” watching. “I’ve always loved her,”Langella added.
Annette Bening, Tyne Daly, Phylicia Rashad, and Alfred Molina were among standout speakers while Edward James Olmos performed the opening scene from Luis Valdez’s “Zoot Suit.” “People cheered for five minutes,” he recalled of that opening night. “I couldn’t move. It was the first play written, directed, and acted by Latinos.”
Other momentous plays that went on to Broadway and international acclaim were saluted, including “Angels in America” and Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” Matthew Broderick, Daly, and Bening enacted a scene from the latter while Paul Oakley Stovall, Charlie Hofheimer, Thomas Sadoski, and Bening did the honors for the former.
Culture Clash did a funny bit that included a Spanish version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First.” They introduced themselves as the “only Chicanos in L.A. who were not in ‘Zoot Suit.'”
The evening also paid tribute to theater companies that had their roots at CTG such as the East West Players and NTS. Molina recalled performing Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard,” while Louis Gossett Jr. and Jimmy Smits were among those paying tribute to the late Gordon Davidson, who led CTG for nearly four of its five decades.
Frances McDormand introduced current artistic director Michael Ritchie, who spoke about the future. The workshops, mentoring programs, and alumni programs are to encourage the next generation to the theater, he said. He relayed an email he received from an alum of one of the programs who was accepted into a prestigious program.
After the performance, guests traipsed over to Grand Park for a reception, with Ozomatli performing, and dinner followed by a sound-and-light show.
(Pictured: Michael Ritchie, left, NBC’s Bob Greenblatt, Jennifer Hudson and Craig Zadan)