COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: The Friendliest Family Theater in Glendale - An Interview with Producer/CEO Brenda Dietlein


The Glendale Centre Theatre has long held the reputation of a family-friendly showplace which caters to audiences who love good, old-fashioned, affordable, family-oriented programs. From colorful fun children’s productions to musical extravaganzas like My Fair Lady, the Glendale Centre Theatre never fails to delight audiences seeking affordable, family, fun entertainment. Owned and operated by the fourth generation great grandsons of the founders and their mother, Brenda Dietlein, this theater-in-the-round is truly a long-time jewel in Glendale’s crown. Currently facing the unique challenges posed by COVID-19, Brenda Dietlein agreed to interview in April 2020.


"Bright Star", A Glendale Centre Theatre Production - Photo by Ashley Caven

The Glendale Centre Theatre has been around since the 1940's. Tell us something about the background and history of the theater. 

Brenda Dietlein:  My sons’ great-grandparents, Grandpa Nate and Grandma Ruth, were born and raised in Utah, members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. When the acting bug bit them, they moved to Los Angeles hoping to get into the movies; but that wasn’t to be their fate. Instead, they settled on their own theater where they could write plays, act in them, and entertain audiences. The Glendale Centre Theater was born in 1947, and their first night they had about six paying customers. They didn’t have money for royalties, so Grandma Ruth wrote plays about what she knew – religion, ethics, and the Mormon Church. To help make ends meet, Grandpa Nate worked as a milkman. In the 1950s, they outgrew their little stage and opened a 230-seat theater that they again outgrew. In 1963, they got a loan, designed a theater, and moved to their current location at 324 North Orange Street in Glendale in 1965. The 230-seat theater space on Doran Street is now a Montessori School.

Grandma and Grandpa Hale lived above the theater to be available to constantly work on whatever needed to be done and save funds for productions. In the 1980s, the theater added musicals. Until the late 1990’s, the theater performed at least one of Grandma Ruth’s shows every year – but they became outdated. The Glendale Centre Theatre depends mainly on ticket sales for revenue. Since all the theaters have been closed, the boys and I have followed in Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Nate’s footsteps and have moved into the theater.

"Charlie's Aunt," A Production of Glendale Centre Theatre - Photo by Angela Kathryn

How has COVID-19 impacted the Glendale Centre Theatre?

BD:  In early March, prior to being mandated to keep gatherings at 250 people or less, I capped performance attendance at less than 150. We stopped all performances on March 14. I can’t wait to get the green light to open so that our patrons can see Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie. We were originally slated to open March 21. The acting, staging, and sound effects are truly a work of art! When we’re allowed to reopen, the number of seats we can sell will depend on social distancing rules. I truly hope royalty companies will work with smaller theaters and only charge royalties based on actual attendance.

I think we’ve had a big impact on Glendale. People look to this theater for social activities. Some people told me that Glendale Centre Theater is their one activity a week. Now people call on the phone to talk. This is family to them; it’s in their blood. Some patrons have been coming here for 30 or 40 years. Other patrons have even been coming here for 50 or 60 years.

COVID-19 has placed a huge burden on the Glendale Centre Theatre. For 74 years, patrons have depended on this theater for their social activities. Patrons call in and plead with us to reopen, stating, “I survived the Korean War and the bird flu…when are you going to open…I feel fine…the Glendale Centre Theatre is my one activity when I get to see my friends…we all meet at your theater.” The boys and I answer calls every day from patrons who just want someone to talk to. A large majority of our patrons consider this theater as part of their family. Parents of children also call and ask when we will be open because their children want “to go see a show at that little theater in Glendale…the mini Staples Center!"

The Glendale Centre Theatre is a for-profit organization and relies on ticket sales to survive. We have not heard any response on any stimulus packages that we have applied for. We will post any news on our social media platforms as soon as we hear anything. Obviously, there are financial challenges because we can’t sell tickets coupled with not knowing when we will be allowed to open or if we will receive government funds. We have heard that the Kennedy Center and NPR were funded, so we hope we will also be funded.

"Bright Star," A Production of Glendale Centre Theatre - Photo by Ashley Caven

So many of our patrons tell us they won’t go to other theater venues in Los Angeles because the Glendale Centre Theatre reminds them of a simple time. For 74 years, our mission has always been to allow patrons to be entertained to the extent that they’re comfortable. Our demographic doesn’t like change. It’s a “Leave it to Beaver” or Hallmark Channel crowd. Even when people move away, they come back here to reminisce about their childhood or the first theater experience they had here – or to remember time spent with their family. One woman flies in four times a year to see a show; it’s become a tradition in her family. We have another woman from New York who comes to see a show here whenever she visits Los Angeles. Out-of-town businessmen tell us they specifically stay at Hyatt Glendale when they are in Los Angeles because they love the family history and the vibe of this theater.

How do you see the future of the Glendale Centre Theatre? 

BD:  We survived the Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy Assassination, Iranian Hostage Crisis, U.S. Invasion of Grenada, Persian Gulf War, Los Angeles Riots, and a few recessions. However, during all of that, we were never mandated to close. We have no idea what the future holds. I’m hoping that, because we are a smaller theater, we’ll manage with the love of our patrons and government help and leadership. Right now, it’s a lot of “what if” and “when.” If the government could just give us an idea of when we can open. Our main concerns are about our staff – keeping their health insurance premiums paid – and, it goes without saying, the safety and well-being of our patrons.”

"Annie," A Production of Glendale Centre Theatre - Screenshot Courtesy of Glendale Centre Theatre

Do you have any final thoughts about this COVID-19 crisis? What can people do to help your theater? 

BD:  The Glendale Centre Theatre is going to need patience, understanding, and all the physical and financial help we can get. Rent our theater; volunteer to answer the phone; do bookkeeping or accounting or graphic arts. Help build or paint sets. Help us at the costume shop. Give us legal advice. Write a show! If some good can come from a crisis, maybe Los Angeles theaters could create an alliance of theaters which works together and which allows them to operate more efficiently.

This crisis may also cause people to have a simpler mindset and be more appreciative of little things. We may be mandated to travel less. I’ve seen some wonderful acts of kindness – strangers helping each other, sharing survival items, sewing face masks, allowing others to go to the head of the line – strangers sharing a hello and smiles. The boys and I sit on our balcony and say “Hi, Human,” when someone walks by. It makes people laugh! This may be a reset button for Americans as we realize our neighbor is someone we can rely on and not fear. We are taking pride in community and family and what is most important – not things. As bad as it is right now, I believe we’ll get through this if we all work together.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



Novel Entertainments – Part 3

This is a three part series.

To read Part 1 of this series, which discusses the recent production of The Picture of Dorian Gray that was performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, please go to Novel Entertainments – Part 1.

To read Part 2 of this series, which discusses the recent productions Creation (Pictures for Dorian Gray) by the Gob SquadThe Woman in Black at the The Pasadena Playhouse, and The Turn of the Screw, by noted playwright-screenwriter Jeffry Hatcher, please visit Novel Entertainments - Part 2.

Intriguingly, The Actors' Gang has brought us a new production of Johnny Got His Gun, the 1938 award-winning anti-war novel from legendary screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Roman Holiday (1953), Spartacus (1960), and Exodus (also 1960). Trumbo directed his own film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun in 1971, and has himself become widely known through the recent biopic starring Bryan Cranston (2016).

The novel is an excruciating tragedy, a dark, anti-war satire about a patriotic young American in WW1 (it was published two days after the declaration of war in Europe, more than two years before the United States joined World War II). It's the story of Joe Bonham, a duty-bound volunteer, who enters the war to the rousing hoopla of “Over There” which repeats and repeats the Civil War rallying cry:

“Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.
Johnny, show the Hun, you're a son-of-a-gun.
Hoist the flag and let her fly
Yankee Doodle, do or die.
Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.
Yankee to the ranks from the towns and the tanks
Make your Mother proud of you
And the old red-white-and-blue.
Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun…”

“Johnny get your gun” became a slogan encouraging enlistment in the army in 1917 as American entered the War to End all War. Most recently the lyric was used by the rock band Ladyjack, as an ironic protest. But Trumbo's past tense use of the cry says it all: Johnny got his gun and see what that got him?

Joe – the “Johnny” who got his gun in the novel was, by a horrific artillery shell attack, rendered blind, deaf, and mute, even losing his arms or legs. In the book, trapped in what's left of his now limbless body, unable to communicate with the world around him, he recalls his earlier life and attempts to overcome the tremendous obstacles that stand between him and contact with the rest of humanity. After learning he can pound out Morse code with his head against the bed rail, the outer world's indifference to his consciousness forces him, in desperation to find a way out, to end his life.

Trumbo's film version succeeds because his adaptation lets us see and hear the doctors and nurses, so we understand that they're only keeping Joe alive to study the effects of such mutilation on a mangled human body. The doctors are convinced he's a vegetable, unable to feel pain, without memory or hope. Trumbo's elegant, heart-wrenching narrative, puts the lie to that medical diagnosis. It presents the reality of Joe's situation in stark black and white and his memories in color.

The Actors' Gang production, directed by artistic director, Tim Robbins, from an adaptation by Brandley Rand Smith, is in effect a solo performance, with eight actors functioning like a Greek chorus. They echo words and voices in Joe's mind's ear. They move choreographically, sometimes in military formations, sometimes as leaves blown on the wind, generally as remembered characters, but sometimes as mere impulses in Joe's memories. But unlike the novel, The Gang's script/production is really narrative drama brought to life as agitprop theater. It mimics rather than dramatizes – at least until that magic moment when a nurse with her finger spells out “Merry Christmas” on Joe's chest. Suddenly, he has real communication, his first since his war wounds rendered him what was then insensitively called “a basket case,” and the script springs to life, beginning to achieve what the novel does so profoundly – let us experience the horror of war.

What is ultimately so devastating in the book and the film is the continued indifference to Joe's inner needs and the service to which the world around Joe puts what's left of his body – his life, even when the nurse and a soldier discover his ability to communicate. They deny his own best interest with the same arrogance as the politicians and general who sent him into their useless war.

That the Actors' Gang, with all reverent homage to Trumbo's novelistic efforts, fails so completely as a stage work, is unfortunately an opportunity missed. What is lost in the Brechtian approach Robbins uses in staging the piece is the real drama. When Jow, four to five years into his post-War experience is finally able to communicate with the outside world, he is thwarted at every turn. Using his Morse code technique, he tells his caregiver he wants to be displayed around the nation as an emblem of the reality of war. “It's against army policy” is the excuse, drawn on his limbless, torso. But in the Gang's production, we never really grasp the outside world's take on Joe. Where the Dorian production gives us mostly exterior, this Johnny locks us into the interior. That the essentially human tragedy of the novel is lost in the staged political message is a dramatic miscalculation!

***

Last but certainly not least, Kenneth Ludwig's adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express at the La Mirada Theatre. It's based on that most famous of Agatha Christie's novels (whose play, The Mousetrap, is the only show in London that's been running longer than The Woman In Black (since 1952, 65 years). The Hercule Poirot mystery was first published as a novel in 1934 (originally, in the US, as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post under the title Murder in the Calais Coach). The story, (one of 33 in which Hercule Poirot is a character) was inspired by the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case of 1932 – at the time considered “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”

On his way from Istanbul to London on the swanky Express in the Calais Coach and its adjoining dining car, an American gangster is found murdered in his locked compartment with nine telltale knife wounds and a broken watch. As Poirot, at the begging of the train's general manager, sets out to identify the killer, the train gets stuck in an avalanche of snow.

So he does what the detectives in Agatha Christie novels always do – interview everyone with even the slightest access to the dead man, comparing everyone's statement for inconsistencies, oddities, and lies. He follows the clues, looking for a motive. He reconsiders the clues again and again, with an open mind, and fearless in the face of truth. The script and the novel follow the tried and true Christie formula.

But perhaps unique in Christie's work is the unexpected drama of Poirot agonizing over a criminal dilemma. That he comes down on the side of the angels is, perhaps, a tragedy of ethics? Certainly, it shatters his devotion to legal absolutism, and after more than two dozen novels, it forces him to face his so easy convictions, painfully reducing his certainty about his role in life. Welcome to humanity, Hercule! The recent TV adaptation (with David Suchet) and the two films versions (one with Albert Finney – the most recent with, and by, Kenneth Brannagh) emphasize this internal issue.

The tone of the Ludwig's adaptation used in the La Mirada production is lighter, playing the story for its humor and theatricality, not for the emotional reality. It's a matter of style. Playwright, Kenneth Ludwig, is a popular American stage-crafter (Lend Me A Tenor, Crazy for You, Moon Over Buffalo, and many others), with a string of awards and successes. He created this script for a 2017 presentation at The Old Globe (reportedly, at the request of the Agatha Christie estate). It is both efficient in the telling and entertaining in performance. This Poirot is charmingly effective as the driving force, and all characters are drawn with a comic precision that is probably more what novelist Christie had in mind. The emphasis on Poirot's internal agony is the fortunate product of our culture's craving for “relevance” and “profundity.” A sort of political correctness required for art today which in this case is to the advantage of the novel.

As this survey hopes to demonstrate, a well-written novel is a compelling journey into and through a fully integrated world. It's either an extended, totally immersive read you can pick up and put down and contemplate at will, or it's a page turner you can't.

But the theater is a very different art form. Each viewing is a one-time experience in a single sitting. The dramatis personae are right there in the same room, living through the series of happenings before your eyes and sharing it with us, the patrons?

That's what makes live theater so special. You're there when and where the adventure – emotional and intellectual – takes place. It exists only, as Shakespeare tells us, “in the two hours' traffic of the stage.”

Laugh, cry, groan, leave! It's over. It's memory.

And each time, a very novel experience.