I was loading groceries into my car when Sian Bianco stopped to tell me that the Davis Comic Opera Company was calling it quits.
DCOC, which was founded the year we moved to Davis, had been a part of our lives for more than 30 years. I had been its publicist for many years. My husband has been the technical director for more than twenty years. Our daughter was the set designer for one show. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, I learned that the company was about to be dissolved.
“It was probably time,” said Jim Hutchinson, a founding member, who performed up to 2003. “We had a good run, but even good things have to end.”
“I feel very sad about it,” said Martha Dickman, founding member, and producer for more than 25 years, “but we are losing people who understand and know what comic opera is.”
“I have to accept that there is no longer an audience for something that I love so much,” added Craig Morphis, who made his debut in 1986 as the Pirate King in “Pirates of Penzance.” “I love Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s incredibly clever and funny. It kills me that there just aren’t enough people who enjoy it to make a go of it any more.”
“It is a specialized type of theater,” agrees actor/musical director Roy Spicer. “It’s not comic, as in ‘ha-ha funny.’ Most younger people say ‘Gilbert and Sullivan--who?’ The world’s view of humor has changed.”
Bianco noted lower ticket sales, rising production costs, and increasing competition from newer theater companies. “It’s all about money and time and competing against iPods, DVDs, playstations and other theaters,” he said.
It wasn’t like that in 1972, when the late Dr. Robert Cello, head of the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital met with cast members from a Davis Art Center production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and proposed forming a company to perform the works of Gilbert & Sullivan.
“We were almost the only game in town and it was fun” said Dickman. “We had the backing of the community then,” she added.
The City of Davis provided $500 in seed money. (The company returned the money a year later as its contribution toward improving lighting at the Veterans Memorial Theater.)
Performer, director, writer and founding member Stephen Peithman noted that there weren’t many musical theater groups in the greater Sacramento area in 1972. “We pulled in audiences not only from Davis but from Sacramento as well. We had a huge audience and a huge number of people involved.”
Many members lived in Davis and worked at the university, so could arrange their schedules to do community outreach, give free performances in the parks, participate at events like Picnic Day, visit schools, etc.
There was also a continuity of contact. DCOC produced two shows a year. Subscribers could set their calendars by that schedule. A newsletter (“The Basingstoke Bugle”) was published regularly, informing company and audience alike of upcoming events, performer news, and behind the scenes stories. The champagne gala, with hors d’oeuvres made by company members, was the highlight of the theater season for many people.
Behind the scenes there were the little traditions that bonded the company.
There was Krade’s barn, out on Road 95, where sets were built and stored. It became the company “place,” which ceased to exist when Harry and Margaret Krade sold their farm and moved into town.
Cast parties, lasted long into the night, with people gathered around a piano to sing. Groups went Christmas caroling each December.
The tech crew held its own private party on stage, the second week of performance, when the pressure was off.
“(Costumer) Marinka Phaff would have all of the costume ladies to her house after a show,” recalls performer, director, choreographer and costumer Charlotte French. “She’d make borscht and bread in the shape of our initials.”
Cappy Stewart, who, with husband Doan, did props for all DCOC shows, became the “M&M lady,” with her bowl of candies backstage at all performances.
The company saw its share of romances and marriages, witnessed the birth of DCOC babies, and said goodbye to beloved members like Amy Patten, Carolyn Wyatt, Harry Krade, Susan Wershing, and Cello himself, among too many others.
Children of DCOC members grew up in the company. LuAnn Gruebele (now Higgs), daughter of keyboardist Pat Lange, joined the chorus for the first show as a young teen, and moved into leading roles. The MacKenzie children all appeared in productions, as did Leslie Walters (daughter of Richard and Shipley). Jeri Sykes designed the set for “Tintypes,” Colin Gordon and Don Matteson joined the tech crew. Greg, Diane and Cindy Wershing worked with mother Susan on lighting. Lee Riggs, who grew up ushering at shows that his parents, Ralph and Judy were in, joined the chorus and now serves on the board.
This sense of “family” was exactly what founder, Bob Cello had in mind. In a 1973 interview, he stated, “You have to have a family feeling in a theater company, with everybody needed, everybody important, from the actor to the publicity people to the ticket-taker.”
Many state that most of their close friendships today grew out of involvement with DCOC. “People became a family and are still there for each other as long term friends,” said Lee Riggs.
“DCOC has been not only a major part of my life but it’s why I’m in Davis,” added Stephen Peithman, who noted that without DCOC, “Stage Directions,” the national magazine for community theater, started by Susan Wershing, would never have been a reality.
Nancianne Pfister, who joined in 1976 as director’s assistant (“I didn’t even know what a director’s assistant was!”), a position she held for more than 25 years says, “There is no way that I could even begin to calculate how this company has enriched my life. I met all these incredibly talented, warm, wonderful, eccentric, crazy people. My kind of crowd.”
But change was inevitable. As the company’s reputation grew, actors came in from Sacramento, wanting to get on-stage experience. Most weren’t interested in becoming involved with the company beyond the show itself, and after a production or two, they moved on. DCOC began to lose that family feeling.
Finding a volunteer orchestra was easier in the early years, but when more opportunities arose for musicians to be paid by other venues, the company bit the bullet and began paying musicians. Bianco, who has been musical director as well as performer, notes that costs for the orchestra alone went from zero to $7,000 per show, at a time when audience attendance was beginning to decline. River City Bank stepped in with orchestral sponsorship, but it wasn’t enough.
There were still big money makers, HalWright, vice president, insists. He recalls the 2002 “Mikado,” directed by Gil Sebastian, which was a sellout.
“When Gil brought in Musical Director Kern Holoman and his university orchestra, that was the epitome of what true community theater was about,” said Lenore Sebastian. (“That’s also what led to DCOC being involved with ‘HMS Pinafore’ at the Mondavi Center,” she added.)
Morphis admitted that the “Pirates of Penzance” he directed in 2003 made more money than any show in the previous 10 years.
“This was a hard decision for the board, and not a happy one,” said Riggs. “but I think in the long run, it was the right decision.”
There is talk of a final show, or a potpourri, or perhaps just a party, but there is no set plan. “We don’t want to see DCOC go out with a whimper,” stated Sebastian, emphatically.
There are hints of another company rising out of the ashes, but nothing definite. The one certainty is that the Davis Comic Opera Company will cease to exist on June 1, 2006.
“I have no regrets,” says Peithman. “There is a lifespan for everything. We had a good run. We did high quality work and created a family that still exists, but nothing is forever. There is sadness in something ending, but we keep the good memory of what we were able to accomplish.”