Thursday, April 16, 2009

DMTC at 25

At 2 a.m. on March 2, 1984, Jan Isaacson woke husband Steve and told him it was time to start a family.

That's not exactly what she said, but after interviewing a number of people involved with the Davis Musical Theatre Company over the past 25 years, it's clear that this was what she meant ... whether or not she realized it at the time.

What she actually said was that they'd get up in the morning and start a musical theater company.

'It's going to involve kids, adults and senior citizens. We're only going to do musicals, and it's going to be called Davis Musical Theatre.'

Never one to argue, Steve said OK and went back to sleep. In the morning, they put the wheels in motion.

The seeds of this idea were planted back in 1973 at Miami Dade Junior College, where a painfully shy Steve was playing drum in a band. A clarinet player from Brooklyn introduced herself, stole his drum sticks and ran away.

'I thought, 'This must be flirting,' ' said Steve, who proposed to Jan three days later.

Steve was working on obtaining his master's degree in music, while teaching at Larry White Music School in Hialeah. Jan was an art major at Florida International University.

But they were miserable in Florida.

'I was sitting home one Saturday morning, just hating life and looking at the giant palmetto bugs - which are like dates with legs - and I said I gotta get outta here,' Steve remembered.

Then, by accident, he saw a news report about this little town in California that was 'doing something about air pollution.' Steve remembers being impressed by how young then-mayor Bob Black was.

Steve and Jan packed all their belongings into a VW squareback and headed for California. Jan had never been farther west than Pennsylvania. Their welcome to Davis was punctuated when the car's third gear went out, as they drove beneath the train bridge into the downtown area.

Steve soon joined a band playing at Central Park during the weekly Farmers' Market. Then he was called and asked to play drums for a production of 'Dames at Sea,' being mounted by West of Broadway. He agreed, and Jan helped back stage.

Just like that, they were set on a course that eventually would plunge them headlong into creating a Davis theater group dedicated to modern musicals.

1984 was, I vividly recall, a golden age of theater in Davis. My family was involved in the theater scene, and my husband Walt remembers an impressive nine to 10 shows performed during a 10-month span by the Davis Comic Opera Company, KMA Productions, the Davis Players, West of Broadway, and the Sunshine Children's Theater.

But Jan believed that Davis really needed 'a musical theater group that produces large-scale, family entertainment.' She also felt that ticket prices should be low: 'No more than $5. Why have ticket prices so high that nobody comes?'

'What we need,' she told Davis Enterprise entertainment editor Del McColm, 'is a musical that will have half the town acting on stage, and the other half applauding in the audience.'

People were invited to attend an organizational meeting.

'I said that if nobody shows up, we're not doing this,' Steve recalled.

But people did show up. Obviously, folks were interested in the new theater company.

They decided to start big, with a production of 'Peter Pan.' That debut show was directed by Bob Baxter, who had directed for Music Circus; music direction was handled by Jim Arnold, lead singer of The Four Lads.

My daughter, Jeri, was the stage manager; she remembers a lot of problems. The production had four large, heavy sets ... and almost no tech crew. For the most part, the cast members served as de facto tech crew, but that presented some difficulties during Act 3, while everyone was singing on stage. Behind the curtain, the set had to be changed from the bulky pirate ship back to the heavy pieces that made up the nursery ... in less than three minutes.

Jeri begged friends to come to the theater and help, because so few hands were available.

Walt also remembers that the opening night performance began while people still were building Act 3's pirate ship on the Veterans' Memorial Theater loading dock.

'You could hear Skilsaw noises in the theater,' he laughed.

The fledgling company was navigating some growing pains.


For its second show, DMTC chose 'The King and I.' Lady Thiang was played by Mary Young, whose most recent performance with DMTC was last year's 'The Sound of Music.'

Young had performed with Sacramento's Music Circus and, since she lived in Roseville, never expected to audition for a show in Davis. But she had worked with choreographer Ron Cisneros; when she learned he would be doing DMTC's 'The King and I,' she followed him.

Daughter Wendy was in the fourth grade at the time, and she literally grew up with DMTC.

'She was one of the children in 'King and I,' ' Young said, 'and I remember washing black hair dye out of her blond hair.'

Young also remembers when DMTC moved from the Veterans' Memorial Center into a small theater they built in the Davis Commerce Park on Second Street, near Sudwerk ... and being escorted out to the Port A Potties during evening rehearsals.

Walt still winces over the barber chair he designed for the first production of 'Sweeney Todd.'

'The chair had to collapse, so people could go down a slide after they were killed. I tested it with our son Tom, who was about 14 years old at the time, and it worked fine. But then we took it into the theater and put Vince DiCarlo in it. He was a big guy, and when we tried to collapse the chair, it didn't budge.

'I had to completely rebuild it.'

Rich and Julie Kulmann, who also still perform with DMTC, joined the company in 1988. Julie became part of the ensemble for 'Carousel,' and Rich came along with the next show, 'Fiddler on the Roof.' Both also have served on the company's board of directors.

Julie caught pneumonia during one production, and had to be taken to the hospital.

'Charlotte French saw me come off stage after the final number, and wouldn't let me go on for the curtain call,' she said. Julie recalls all the company members who visited her in the hospital, and being able to get into costume and make the final curtain call for the last performance.

'People were so caring,' Rich added.

Julie glows when she remembers the 70th birthday party Jan and Steve recently held for her, in the lobby of the Hoblit Performing Arts Center.

The landlord of the Second Street facility eventually raised the rent so high that DMTC had to think about finding a new place to perform. Bob Bowen, who met Jan and Steve while in the Davis Players, proved a valuable friend.

'When they built their first theater in rented space over on Second Street, I got involved. I also got involved when they approached the city for a loan.

'Since DMTC still owed money on that loan, we negotiated a deal for them to use the newly renovated Varsity Theater, beginning in January 1993, so they would remain viable. I acted as their Varsity landlord until the Davis City Council changed the Varsity back into an art film theater.'

Actress/lighting designer Dannette Vasser, a recent UC Davis graduate, came along in 1997, for a production of 'City of Angels.' She had auditioned for the previous show, but wasn't cast; even so, 'City of Angels' was one of her favorites, so she decided to give it another shot.

Second time lucky.

'I stuck around and never left,' Dannette said. 'The group is so warm and friendly; it really becomes a home for a lot of people. I met my husband here. Arthur and I had to schedule our marriage between shows, so that everybody could be there.'

In time, Steve Isaacson began teaching Dannette the intricacies of lighting design.

'He gave me the opportunities to learn lighting, and to design. It's a blast.'

Arthur was responsible for Ben Bruening joining the company in 1995. The two Davisites had been friends since they were 4 years old; when Vasser was cast for 'Brigadoon,' the shy Bruening thought, 'if Arthur can do it, maybe I can too.'

Bruening auditioned for 'Carousel' and wound up doing the next nine shows.

'Steve became one of my best friends over the course of a very short period of time,' Bruening said.

He also caught the eye of a young viola player during rehearsal for his eighth show.

'We sat together at Eppie's after opening night,' said Ben's wife, Noel. 'We rubbed elbows ... this was called flirting!'

'We're a DMTC love story,' Ben added.

'A lot of DMTC marriages have taken place over the years,' said Mary Young, underlying the sense of family felt by everyone involved with the company.


Young Kendyl Ito just performed Brigitta in the recent production of 'The Sound of Music.'

'It was her first experience at DMTC,' said her mother, Karen. 'Jan and Steve welcomed us with open arms.'

Kendyl, already a theater veteran, said, 'It's different here than other theaters. Even if you're new, it's very warm and fuzzy.

'I'm trying out for 'The Music Man.' '

Kennedy Wenning did her first DMTC Young People's Theatre show at age 13, and now regards DMTC as a second home.

'All my friends are here,' she said.

'It's like a family here; it's definitely strong,' said Adam Sartain, who played Cogsworth in the most recent production of 'Beauty and the Beast,' and also plays tuba in the orchestra.

Marc Valdez joined DMTC in 2000 for 'Evita,' and he stuck around to become the company treasurer in 2002.

'The challenges of the treasurer position, in this decade, have mostly revolved around trying to finance construction of the new theater. We're still in that position, and will remain so for years to come.'

Christine Totah's daughter, Camille, has performed with DMTC since she was very young. Son Adam, only 18 months younger, also wants to act, but he has autism. A collaboration among Dr. Blythe Corbett of UCD's Mind Institute, director Jenni Price, Totah and the Isaacsons has resulted in the SENSE program, which pairs 'typical kid' members of the Young Performers Theatre company with autistic counterparts.

The program is exploring the therapeutic effect of stage performance for autistic children, and early results are wonderfully promising.

'This could be the program that makes that happen,' Totah said. 'When you have a disability, you're often very isolated in the community; community theater is a great way to get involved with other people. Everybody walks away feeling a little bit better. Nobody walks away empty-handed.'

On that long-ago morning in 1984, Jan Isaacson thought she and Steve would create a theater company. Clearly, they've done that ... and much, much more.

'Jan and Steve just keep yanking at ya,' said my son Ned, also a DMTC alum, 'and more power to them. With DMTC, the show always goes on'

'If someone had told me, back in 1984, that DMTC would be around for 25 years, I'd have thought their gaffer's tape was wound too tightly,' Bowen said. 'I know how demanding and stressful it is to raise money and produce theater in Davis. For DMTC to produce a series of adult and children's shows - every year, and for a quarter of a century - is a testament to the their passion and energy for theater.

'Since Davis elementary school teachers these days rarely have the time and support necessary to produce plays and musicals, the DMTC Young Performers Theatre addresses a real need for Davis children to get involved.'

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