Before becoming a nationally recognized theater company, Musical Theatre West humbly began as the Whittier Civic Light Opera (CLO) in 1952. Around that time, Civic Light Operas were popping up all over Southern California, as well as the rest of the country, and the Whittier CLO was founded by a group of volunteers who shared an intense passion for theater. In the decade after Edwin Lester started the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, similar companies were established in neighboring cities such as Santa Barbara, Long Beach and San Bernardino. In this context, it may seem as though the Whittier CLO was just another product of the era’s theater craze, but it proved to be much more than that. Paul Garman, the current executive director of Musical Theatre West, attributes this to the dedication and perseverance of the company’s earliest members. “They just dedicated their lives to it,” he says. “People would have rehearsals in their homes or their garages, then they started seaming the costumes in their homes and garages. . . . There was a lot of passion involved.”
Garman, who is also the longest-running member of the company, started acting with the Whittier CLO as a child in 1963. Over the years, he’s experienced most chapters of the group’s history and seen many of its performers on even larger stages. The most notable would be Susan Egan, who performed with the group while she was in high school and later gained fame for originating the role of Belle in the Broadway adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.
Despite the widespread success they’ve achieved as Musical Theatre West, Garman remembers when times were tough. The company’s first venue, Whittier High School’s auditorium, often had a full event schedule, so the Whittier CLO could only stage one or two performances per year. The group would rehearse for six weeks for a one-weekend-only production. It was also rare for the company to break even, let alone make a profit from ticket sales. “We would do the shows, but we might not be able to finish paying the director or royalties to the company in New York,” Garman recalls. “So we’d spend the rest of the year doing white elephant sales, mini shows and things like that to try to raise enough money to pay everybody. By then, it was time to start on the next one,” he adds with a chuckle.
The group’s luck began to change in 1977, when the city of La Mirada asked for advice on starting a new community-theater group in a vacant movie theater. Because the city of Whittier hadn’t been very supportive of the Whittier CLO, the group decided to offer much more than advice and relocated. Thus, the second incarnation of the company was born. The Whittier-La Mirada Light Opera was now able to put on three shows a year, which Garman admits was a bit intimidating.
In the mid-’80s, the company finally started to make some profits. Garman, who by this time had gone from acting to becoming a member of the executive board to company president to production coordinator, could finally start making an income from his passion. “It was a big, big thing when they decided to pay me $50 a month to do that,” he says with a laugh. “It literally took three board meetings to figure out if that was okay.” Though Garman had to work a second and sometimes even a third job to make ends meet until the mid-’90s, his dedication to the group never waivered.
Unfortunately, the Whittier-La Mirada Light Opera’s La Mirada glory days would come to an end as a city-sponsored group started putting on musical productions in the same theater. Once again, the company found itself in need of a permanent home.
Meanwhile, the Long Beach CLO had just gone bankrupt, leaving a ton of disgruntled subscribers who hadn’t gotten the full season they had paid for. The Whittier-La Mirada Light Opera then offered all Long Beach CLO subscribers the chance to exchange their tickets for a subscription to the rest of their shows in La Mirada that year. “Fifteen thousand people did that,” recalls Garman. “So we figured there was definitely an interest in musical theater down [in Long Beach]. We moved here between ’97 and ’98.” The company changed its name again, hopefully for the last time, and became Musical Theatre West.
The company has seen more success than its original members could have imagined. Garman attributes much of this to the Long Beach arts community. In addition, Garman says, it’s important for the various arts and theater groups in the city to cooperate with one another, instead of acting as competitors. Whenever he speaks onstage before a show, he urges the audience to check out the other groups in the area. “It’s so that we’re always trying to nourish and support one another,” he explains.
These days, the company puts on an average of three large productions per year, often with some smaller ones sprinkled in between. And the group offers a variety in its schedule. For instance, its production of the classic musical Oliver! recently wrapped, and next, Musical Theatre West will present Catch Me If You Can, based on the 2002 movie of the same name. This diversity ensures the group is always doing something different and fresh, especially when compared to touring Broadway productions. “Many times, the tours that have been out for a year or two are not as energetic as a show that’s just going to be produced for three weeks here in Long Beach,” explains Garman.
It was a long and often tumultuous road, but Musical Theatre West serves as an example of what can be achieved through plenty of determination, especially when things seem most disheartening. “I’ve pretty much seen it grow from a community-theater type of organization to a professional regional-theater group,” Garman says. Hopefully, the next 67 years will be smooth sailing.
Musical Theatre West at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach, (562) 856-1999; musical.org.