Gordon Davidson excerpt: 'Opening Night at the Taper'
Gordon Davidson in rehearsal for "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine." Photo: CTG.
Editor's note: Gordon Davidson, the founding artistic director of Center Theatre Group and a major force behind the Music Center in Los Angeles for 38 years, died on Sunday during a holiday meal with family and friends. He was 83. There are obituaries in the LA Times and the New York Times, and a tribute on the CTG website. Los Angeles author Ron Rapoport worked with Davidson on an autobiography. Here is one chapter from that unpublished work, about the big night in 1967 when the Mark Taper Forum debuted.
Rapoport tells LA Observed: "The fact that Gordon Davidson died the same day Vin Scully retired proves that fate has a sense of humor. I have long believed that Gordon and Vin were really the same guy--New Yorkers who came to Los Angeles to show us how things were supposed to be. In Gordon's case, it was world-class productions that took the region out of regional theater and turned it into a national treasure. In Vin's, it was word poems that conducted us into baseball's promised land.
"Twenty years ago, I spent many hours working with Davidson on a memoir that, alas, we never finished. Here is his rollicking tale of the grand opening of the Mark Taper Forum. I miss him already. Vin, too."
By Gordon Davidson with Ron Rapoport
April 9, 1967, was Opening Night at the Mark Taper Forum. It was a black-tie celebration not only of the completion of the Los Angeles Music Center but also of the city's cultural coming of age. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which is the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had opened three years earlier at the south end of the Music Center plaza and the 2,100-seat Ahmanson Theatre was about to be inaugurated with "Man Of La Mancha" at the north end. But now it was the turn of our 750-seat theater in a striking circular building between the two larger structures on the Music Center plaza.
The guest list included Governor Ronald Reagan along with some of the wealthy Californians who made up his kitchen cabinet, Mayor Sam Yorty, dozens of city and state politicians, and hundreds of people from Los Angeles' business, social, political and movie elite. After a buffet and cocktail party attended by 300 people, we moved into the theater itself.
Gregory Peck, who had been a big supporter, gave a brief welcome as did several others, including Reagan, who called the Forum "a beautiful temple of our art and profession." As the ceremonies progressed, however, I had to wonder what this distinguished audience might be thinking about the body hanging from a noose on our curtainless stage. Everyone who had read the subscription brochures and news accounts knew the Taper was committed to presenting a different kind of drama--bold, experimental, challenging works--but I'm not sure anyone was prepared for "The Devils."
The speakers had barely sat down when the play began with a brief crowd scene and then Frank Langella walked out onto the stage as Father Grandier, wearing the full purple robes of a vicar of the Catholic church. He said a few lines and then the audience became aware of someone standing in a hole on the stage below him. It was Ed Flanders playing a wonderful character called the Sewer Man.
Ed came up out of his hole, threw a bucket of slop without watching where it was going and some of it hit Langella's robes. He tried to apologize and, when the vicar said it didn't matter, the Sewer Man, in some of the first words spoken on the Taper stage, said, "It's wrong, though. Shit on the holy purple."
For a lot of people, it was all downhill from there. Before the end of the evening, the Reagans were up the aisle never to return and many others were out of the theater with him. By the end of the play, there were a lot of people who wouldn't have minded seeing ME hanging from that noose on the stage.
All this heavy drama turned into farce about an hour later when Judi and I went home. I had been downtown working all day and she had come to the theater late in the afternoon so I drove our Volvo while she took the second-hand Dodge station wagon we had just bought.
With two infants at home, Judi hadn't been to the Music Center often and she wasn't quite sure how to get to the Santa Monica Freeway. I told her to follow me and drove out onto the Harbor Freeway. There was quite a bit of fog and a light rain, and as I turned into the long lane connecting the two freeways I couldn't see that an accident had stopped traffic up ahead. The next thing I knew I had rear-ended the car in front of me. I glanced up into the rear-view mirror and suddenly there was Judi about to run into me. All I could do was sit there helplessly as she rammed the rear end of the Volvo, sending me once again into the car ahead of me. Luckily, nobody was hurt and when the police arrived they thought it was hilarious.
"You mean YOU'RE married to HIM?!" one of them told Judi as we sat there in our evening clothes. "Hey, guys, come here. Look at this."
Soon, we were surrounded by policemen who couldn't stop laughing while I sat there thinking it was a classic California situation. Where else would you have a husband and wife driving from the same place TO the same place in different cars?
When we got home, I told Judi it reminded me of an old Library of Congress recording I once heard on which Jelly Roll Morton described a New Orleans funeral where everyone marches out to the cemetery to the solemn beat of a band, the body is buried, the musicians strike up a joyous song and they all dance home.
"And that," Jelly Roll said, "was the end of a perfect death."
I never made a conscious choice to be controversial in those days and in fact I had thought it might be appropriate to open the Taper with Shakespeare. But when I started to think about a specific play and what I could bring to it, I decided against it.
Despite the classical plays my early jobs had exposed me to, I had to admit I didn't feel totally equipped for them because I had come into the field somewhat late after studying electrical engineering at Cornell. I didn't feel schooled in the classics or that my training was rigorous enough from an interpretive point of view to handle the acting demands, especially when it came to speaking verse. What did intrigue me, though, was the fact that many new plays, those with some social or political content, seemed to be classical in form and structure and that they used the stage as a larger-than-life canvas.
What I did instinctively was try to combine those classical elements with my impulse to tell contemporary stories. "The Deputy" and "Candide," which I had done at while I was working at UCLA, and certainly "The Devils" are contemporary versions of classical themes and stories. They are concerned with man and the world he lives in, and man and his God. There was something about that particular moment in time, the opening of a new theater, that made me want to do a play that had all breadth and scope of a classical play but was contemporary in the writing, such as "A Man for All Seasons."
If I were going to have trouble with a play, I thought it would be "The Deputy" at UCLA. Its criticism of Pope Pius XII for not speaking out about the extermination of the Jews had raised a storm of protest when it was produced on Broadway. But we were on a college campus where academic freedom was taken seriously and where a remarkable man, Dr. Franklin Murphy, was the chancellor. It was a measure of Franklin's power, and the respect in which he was held, that he was able very quietly to forestall any controversy by letting it be known that we were doing the play and there would be nothing said about it. And there wasn't.
"You know, Gordon," he said to me later when I asked him about what he had done, "this is a university and if you allow it to happen once, where would it end?"
But then, two years later, I picked "The Devils" to open the Taper and the shit hit the fan before it hit the stage.
The play is based on Aldous Huxley's book, The Devils of Loudon, which relates a true story from the 18th century about a libertine priest and nun with sexual fantasies. John Whiting, an English playwright, adapted the book for the stage and it was originally performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. There had been a Broadway production with Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft and there had been no complaints from Cardinal Spellman in New York that I knew of or from Cardinal Cushing during the pre-Broadway tryouts in Boston.
When I think about it now, I realize how wonderfully innocent and naïve I was. People ascribed all kinds of motives to the choice, but I just thought it was a good play. I liked it because the writing and the passions are so large. I thought it was a good way to show off our new stage and that American actors could handle the material well. Compared to "The Deputy," I didn't think it was a controversial choice at all. The first indication of how wrong I was came just as we were going into rehearsals when I got a call from Lew Wasserman.
"What is this play you're opening with?" asked Lew, who was head of the MCA entertainment empire and president of the newly formed board of the Center Theatre Group.
"It's 'The Devils,' Mr. Wasserman," I said. "I've told you a little about it." Which was true because although I had been given complete artistic freedom, I had kept the CTG board informed about what we were doing in our inaugural season.
"Well, you'd better come see me," he said, "because we seem to have a problem."
As I drove over to Lew's house in Beverly Hills a few days later, the gravity of the situation had begun to sink in. Lew and I had only met at formal board meetings and had never had any real conversations. All I really knew was that he was the most powerful man in Hollywood and I was causing him trouble.
"Holy God," I thought as I made the turn at the bottom of the hill leading up to Lew's house, "what have I gotten myself into?"
There were security guards--I am fairly certain they were from Universal Studios--in a guardhouse down below and after I identified myself, I drove up a long driveway that curved around to a sheltered area under a sumptuous low-slung modern house decorated with marble.
I was taken over to an adjoining house that served as Lew's screening room and contained a lot of movie memorabilia, including an old-fashioned stereopticon and a nickelodeon. There were also dozens of pictures of Lew and his wife Edie in famous company: Lew and Edie with Lyndon Johnson, Lew and Edie with John F. Kennedy, Lew and Edie with Frank Sinatra, Lew and Edie with Cary Grant, and on and on.
Waiting with Lew was Paul Ziffren, one of the most powerful lawyers in town, a mover and shaker in the Democratic party and the man who later would be most responsible for bringing the 1984 Olympics to Los Angeles. I was incredibly ignorant about the Los Angeles power structure, yet from that very first meeting with them I felt I had allies rather than adversaries.
After the usual, "Can I get you anything?...coffee?" Lew said, "So tell me. What is this play, `The Devils?'"
"It's really about mass hysteria," I said as I described the plot to him, "about how a town can be incited to a form of hysteria especially when something is moving counter to the culture. The priest is finally tortured and burned at the stake by the community. Look, what's the problem?"
"Well, I got a call from the Cardinal's office," Lew said. "They're very upset. And then there's the Board of Supervisors. We're on county property, you know."
Los Angeles County is run by five Supervisors and at that time they were all men, all quite conservative both politically and socially, and two or three of them were Catholic. None of them had read the play, of course, but whoever described it to them had emphasized the sexual aspects and made it seem as if it were denigrating the church. We talked a little more and then Lew cut me off.
"You have to do this, don't you?"
"Yeah," I said. "I think we have to do it. We've said we're going to do it and there's no reason not to do it unless you tell me something persuasive."
"Do you have to do it FIRST?" he said.
"Well, no, I guess not," I said, "but I AM in rehearsal. We ARE doing it first. Listen, I'm sorry to be causing problems, but I don't see any way out of it. I think it would be a disaster, especially if you're suggesting we should cancel it."
"I agree with you," Lew said, and I could see that he had made up his mind. "OK, I'll take care of it."
What Lew didn't tell me until years later was that part of the problem stemmed from the fact that a Polish filmmaker had made a movie called "Sister Jean and the Angels," which was based on the same story as the play. That made James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, the very conservative head of the Catholic Church in Los Angeles, think the film, which he had confused with the play, was some kind of Communist propaganda, and therefore anti-God and anti-church.
When Lew finally told me the whole story, I couldn't help thinking how it was an echo of the subject matter of the play, how hysteria could be produced in a community through ignorance. I also couldn't help thinking what might have happened if I had been accused of being a Communist. McIntyre wanted to see the film, which hadn't been released in this country, and when Lew was able to get him a print by just snapping his fingers he earned some brownie points. The fact that Lew was able to handle the controversy and that the play was performed as scheduled is something I have always been grateful for.
But many people in the Catholic community were still upset and the Supervisors were so frustrated they couldn't stop the play that they slapped a tax on the Music Center. This was very hurtful because it meant not only the Taper but the Ahmanson, the Philharmonic and every other event at the Music Center had to choose between raising ticket prices or seeing their revenue reduced if they held the line. There was no doubt the tax was meant to be punitive and luckily it ended after a few years.
The Supervisors also approved the appointment of a 16-member Citizen Standards Committee to screen future productions. This could have presented real problems if Franklin Murphy hadn't been named the chairman.
"Franklin, if there's a committee, there will be censorship," I told him, "either because the committee will act or I'll face the pressure of self-censorship."
"The committee will never meet," he said.
What Franklin meant was that as far as he was concerned the committee was set up as a buffer, something to take the heat off the Supervisors rather than to censor anything at the Music Center. If someone complained, they could say, "Well, there's nothing we can do about this. That's for the standards committee to decide."
So while the existence of the committee could have been worrisome, the fact that Franklin Murphy was in charge meant nobody from the outside ever screened plays at the Taper. And after a while, the committee quietly disappeared.
In the end, something lasting and positive came out of opening the Taper with "The Devils." I hadn't chosen the play to throw down any gauntlet. I had chosen it because I thought it was the best play for us to do at the time. But the choice DID throw down the gauntlet. It told the community that we were going to stand for something, that we were going to use an art form to talk about the world we live in, warts and all.
The attempts to stop "The Devils" ultimately were not important, but the support from the CTG board and the people in the community who cared about the theater was. They had something to rally around, a forum to express their support for artistic freedom. And I think the fact we had not set out to accomplish that made the fact that we DID accomplish it more significant.
Another effect of the storm over "The Devils" was that I became a marked man and that helped the theater develop in ways I hadn't considered. For the next few years, everybody was waiting to see what the Taper would do next and this made me feel almost obligated to follow through. It was important that our first play not be seen as a one-time event. Just as we hadn't caved in on "The Devils," we couldn't retreat afterwards. We had to feel free to do what we wanted and that, as much as anything else, gave the Taper its identity. The very name, the Forum, was appropriate. We wanted to be a place where people came together and discussed volatile issues.
In our second season, I directed "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer," and in 1970 I followed up with "Murderous Angels," Conor Cruise O'Brien's play about Dag Hammerskjold and Patrice Lumumba. A year later, I directed "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" and, as we went from one of these plays to another, I began to see how my own ideas about the theater had begun to change almost without my realizing it.
I remember sitting and watching "Oppenheimer," which is about how one of the inventors of the atom bomb lost his security clearance. As the physicist Hans Bethe and other witnesses wrestled with the moral dilemma of the necessity to end the war, the excitement and challenge of scientific discovery and the dangers inherent in the development of the bomb, I could literally feel the ideas moving across the stage. I could sense the audience becoming a part of the action. It was like an electric current somehow becoming visible and it was very exciting.
It was then that I realized how ideas can have a dramatic power of their own. One tends to think of drama as action, but in fact there is another kind of drama--one that is typified more by Shaw than by Shakespeare--in which ideas become action. What I was learning was that ideas moving in space create their own drama.
I discovered something else that stayed with me when I directed "Catonsville," which was one of the first plays to focus on the Vietnam war and the effects it was having on American society. The war had caused tremendous controversy all over the country, of course, but nobody had yet focused the debate in purely personal terms. Now, suddenly "Catonsville" came along and here were these nine radical Catholics who were still at large and laying it all on the line.
Producing "Catonsville" was like nothing else I had ever attempted. Just meeting with Daniel Berrigan, the fugitive radical priest who wrote it, was more than a little challenging.
"Take this train, change to this bus, walk past this address and come back through the alley," his directions to me said. If you pulled my fingernails out today, I could not tell you where I finally ended up. All I know is that I was somewhere in the suburbs of Boston, I was certain the FBI was following me and only when I reached my destination was I finally able to talk to him.
"I'm used to having the playwright with me when I start a new production," I told
Berrigan. "Could you at least tape a message I can play for the cast when we start rehearsals?"
"This is Father Daniel Berrigan speaking to you from the underground," the message began and when I decided to use it at the beginning of the play itself, several people in the opening-night audience at the Taper leaped out of their seats, thinking Berrigan was actually in the theater. Later, we found out they were FBI agents.
We did some post-performance discussions from the stage afterwards and I said, "By God, I feel that if I wanted to ask this audience to do something as a result of having been put in touch with people who risked their safety and were willing to go to jail in order to protest this war, that I could get these 750 people to get up out of their seats and walk down to the Federal Building and burn more draft cards--or something."
What I realized is you CAN move a crowd--and sometimes an audience becomes a crowd--and that led me to the conclusion that in a way my critics were right. I had taken the initial posture that it's only theater, it's only make-believe and we're all listeners together. But that isn't always true. The theater can be and should be dangerous, the way "Catonsville" was dangerous in 1971. The theater is not just entertainment, not just pap. It can be and should be life-changing.
As the controversy that began with "The Devils" grew into a larger one over the direction the Taper was moving, there was always one crucial question: What did Mrs. Chandler think?
Dorothy Buffum Chandler was the wife of one publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Norman Chandler, and the mother of another, Otis Chandler. This made her not only a part of the history of the city but also of its ultra-conservative power structure. And no one ever entertained the slightest doubt that the Music Center was hers and hers alone. Everything about the complex bore Mrs. Chandler's imprint: its location, its size, its scope, its design--even its very existence. She raised the money. She brought in the city's political and business leaders as well as the highly influential pages of the Times. She chose the architects and hired the artistic directors.
I always thought she had the instincts of an artist herself the way she used her power to create and build. She studied a situation from every angle and then she let her intuition be her guide. And once she developed a passion for an idea, she was not afraid to make the leap of faith that would allow that idea to be fulfilled.
I occasionally joke that one of the reasons Mrs. Chandler chose me to run the Taper is that she is a Taurus and so am I. Carroll Righter, the well-known astrologer, was a good friend of hers and a number of the people in her social circle. Every year at Sylvia Kaye's birthday party, Righter would do the horoscope for the months of the coming year and Mrs. Chandler and her friends took it quite seriously. Zubin Mehta, whom she had chosen to be the first conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Music Center, is also a Taurus and the fact the three of us had that in common made everything seem right to her somehow.
But I think there was a more serious reason that led Mrs. Chandler to choose me to run the Taper and then to support me so strongly whenever there was controversy. Just as I was the boy from Brooklyn crashing this high-society party far from home, she was an outsider in many ways, too. Mrs. Chandler came from the wealthy Buffum family that founded a string of department stores, but she was raised in Long Beach, away from the seat of social and political power in Southern California. And when she married Norman Chandler, she found the world she was expected to join--a world of bridge clubs and garden parties--stifling and depressing.
This could have been disastrous, but Mrs. Chandler's inner resources were extraordinary. So was the forthrightness she displayed many years later when she frankly told how she had become so emotionally distressed that at the age of 31 she checked herself into a psychiatric clinic in Pasadena run by Dr. Josephine Jackson.
"I just couldn't cope," she told an interviewer. "I began thinking I was the one who was wrong, that because I couldn't conform, there was something wrong with me. Dr. Jackson helped me to see that Norman's family was not going to change or destroy me, nor was I going to change or destroy them. They're the way they are and I'm the way I am. The answer is to just go your way and be yourself. Norman, the children and the community needed me if I could be myself. I wouldn't have done anything I've done if I hadn't had that experience."
What she did was turn a corner of downtown Los Angeles into one of America's great cultural centers. When the Music Center was dedicated in 1964, Time magazine put her on the cover and called it "perhaps the most impressive display of virtuoso money-raising and civic citizenship in the history of U.S. womanhood." I don't know what womanhood had to do with it because in every important way Mrs. Chandler was a real mensch.
Since she was so inseparably tied to everything that went on at the Music Center--and since she had entrusted the Taper to me--every time I did something that was questioned she was questioned, too.
There were many times when people tried to bully her into getting rid of me, when someone asked her, "What are you going to do about that man?" It couldn't have been easy for her because these were her friends, the people with whom she ruled Los Angeles society. They were also the people who had been the earliest and most generous contributors to building the Music Center. Politically, they were extremely conservative and they simply couldn't figure out what this Jewish kid, this Commie pinko dupe, was doing. Some of them were so offended they told her they would not only stop making donations to the Taper, they would also refuse to support the Philharmonic. The symphony was her real favorite so this could have been a very effective kind of cultural blackmail.
But through it all, Mrs. Chandler was simply remarkable. There was something in her, some instinct, that made her feel that what she was doing was right. Even when she didn't totally approve of some of our productions, she knew she was creating something important. And somehow she even found a way to use the dispute to the Music Center's advantage.
What she saw intuitively was that for every person she lost because of what we were doing, there were others she could bring in for the first time. It was the old money from Pasadena and Orange County versus the Jews from the West Side who were attracted to what was new and exciting at the Taper. The theater gave Mrs. Chandler the opportunity to welcome these newcomers--making Lew Wasserman president of the CTG board had gone a long way toward opening that door--but rather than closing the other door she worked in a way that kept both sides in the arena.
She was almost like a kindergarten teacher the way she said to one faction, "Why don't you play over here in the Philharmonic?" while she was telling the other side, "And you play over here in the Taper." In time, the two sides mixed more and more and the Music Center became democratized. I'm sure we drove away some of the old guard, but there was never any public campaign to withdraw support and, as the complex became more established, donations continued to grow.
From time to time, I would meet with Mrs. Chandler at what she called The Pub, a pool house behind her mansion in Hancock Park that she had turned into an office when she first began work on building the Music Center. This was often late in the afternoon and we would talk about what was going on at the Taper, my plans for future productions and anything else that interested her. Sometime between 5 and 6 p.m., Norman Chandler, a very handsome man with a full head of white hair, would come home from the Times with the paper under his arm. The routine seldom varied.
"Martini, dear?" he would ask after fixing himself one at the bar in the pool house. "And you, young man?"
I would ask for a gin and tonic, Mr. Chandler would go off some place and Mrs. Chandler and I would sip our drinks and go back to work. Often, she wanted to hear from me whether she should go to a certain play. Early on, she realized that if she didn't see a play then she didn't have to have an opinion about it. If someone said, "Have you seen that terrible thing they're doing now?" she could honestly say, "No, I haven't seen it so I don't have an opinion."
There were times when I would tell her that if she didn't go to a particular play, it would be OK. Or I would say, "I think you should see this one," and she usually would. She didn't like everything we did, but not once did she say, "Why are you doing that?" And if anybody else criticized the Taper in her presence, she always defended us.
The greatest test of Mrs. Chandler's devotion came when we staged "Ice" by Michael Cristofer during the 1976-77 season. The previous year, we had done "The Shadow Box," Michael's beautifully lyrical play about how people respond to the impending death of those they love. It became our first play to win the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony, and Mrs. Chandler was so proud of it that she went to New York to see the production that carried the Taper's banner on Broadway. She also became very supportive of Michael and was determined to see his new play, too.
But "Ice" was a difficult, disturbing and disturbed play. It was triggered by the fact that Michael was turning 30, coping with a certain kind of success and feeling his life was in transition. This led him to explore a very dark side of himself and of human nature. The play is set in a cabin in Alaska that is inhabited by two men and a woman, it uses every dirty word in the language and is filled with the kind of explicit sex where everybody does everything to everybody.
"Ice" contains so much despair and self-contempt that at one point one of the characters says, "You only have two choices. Either you cut yourself off so you don't feel anything or you open up and let it all in till it hurts so bad you go crazy or it kills you or you kill somebody else. There's no in-between. It's one or the other. Everything else is a lie." This made for a very powerful play, but not a popular one. Many people in the audience streamed up the aisles in disgust as if they couldn't get away fast enough.
"This may not be your cup of tea, Mrs. Chandler," I told her a little apprehensively. "You might want to skip this one."
"No," she said in the special way she spoke when she was about to do something dangerous. "I want to see it. I've heard about it. I know what it is. But I want to go."
So she and her friend Olive Behrendt plunked themselves down in their usual seats, which were in the first row of the second section of the theater just behind the cross aisle and in full view of the entire house. And God bless her, she sat there through the whole play even while people were walking out right in front of her.
It was as if she were making an announcement or perhaps even putting on a performance of her own. She was saying she didn't want to be protected, she wanted to be counted in favor of what the Taper stood for. And afterwards, she asked to be taken backstage to talk to the cast: Ron Rifkin, Cliff DeYoung and Britt Swanson as well as Michael Cristofer. I just loved her for that; I thought it was so gutsy.
As one controversial play followed another in those early years, I think Mrs. Chandler and Lew Wasserman actually began to get a kick out of the Taper's notoriety. Lew in particular would occasionally say something like, "Are you going to do this to us again?" But it was always with a certain kind of smile that let me know there was really no problem. I think they both felt the Taper was doing something worthwhile and that I was doing what I believed in. And they realized that if you do what you believe in with a certain level of passion, you're bound to cause trouble.
Another thing I came to appreciate was the fact they never pulled rank on me. They never acted in an authoritative or arbitrary way. Lew in particular didn't treat me as an employee, although I always believed that if I HAD been working for him at Universal Studios I would not have enjoyed so much freedom.
As regional theaters sprung up around the country in the late 60s and 70s, it was not unusual to see artistic directors lose their jobs when they displeased important civic and social elements. But I never felt that was an issue for me. Lew was a powerful man and a lot of people were afraid of him, but when he was on your side you felt you could do anything. What Lew showed me was how power can be used in a way that benefits people individually and society as a whole.
As for Mrs. Chandler, I will always cherish something Mickie Ziffren, Paul Ziffren's widow, once told me. They were standing together on the second floor of the pavilion that bears Mrs. Chandler's name and one of them spotted me walking on the plaza below.
"I really feel as if he were my own son," Mrs. Chandler said.
As far as my professional life was concerned, so did I.