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Pasadena Playhouse

39 S. El Molino Ave. Pasadena, CA 91101 | map |


Opened: The Pasadena Playhouse opened May 18, 1925 as a new home for the theatre company that was founded in 1917 by Gilmore Brown. Prior to building this venue, the company had rented the Savoy Theatre, 85 N. Fair Oaks Ave., a theatre later known as the Oaks. The photo is a view looking west. Yes, that's the stagehouse behind it. It has also been known as the Pasadena Community Theatre and the Pasadena Community Playhouse. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010

Phone: 626-356-7529  Website: pasadenaplayhouse.org | on Twitter | on Facebook

Architect: Elmer Grey, who also designed the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Huntington Library and the CalTech campus. A near duplicate of this theatre was also built in Tucson. Dwight Gibbs was associate architect. Mr. Gibbs later went on to design the Carthay Circle Theatre. A six-story addition to the stagehouse for more office and classroom space dates from 1936.



A main floor plan from "The Romance of the Pasadena Community Playhouse," an article written by the architect for the June 1929 issue of Architect and Engineer. It's on Internet Archive.



A balcony plan from Architect and Engineer - June 1929. 



A stage basement plan from Architect and Engineer - June 1929.


 
A section of the building appearing in "Architecture for the New Theatre," edited by Edith J.R. Isaacs. It was published in 1935 by Theatre Arts for "the National Theatre Conference." Thanks to Mike Hume for finding it in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.

The building originally housed the School for Theatre Arts, a three year accredited training program for actors leading to an M.F.A. At its height around 1950 the program presented productions on five separate stages, had several dozen faculty members, and an enrollment of about 300. The Pasadena Playhouse was designated by the legislature as the "State Theatre of California" in 1937. The school also used several other buildings nearby.

The Playhouse and school closed amid financial problems in 1969. The City of Pasadena bought the building in 1975 and later transferred it to developer David Houk. After renovation, a new production company was formed to utilize the building but a school was no longer part of the program. The reopening was in 1986. Most of the six floor addition behind the stagehouse that used to be classroom areas and faculty offices for the school is leased out to other tenants with an entrance in the alley.

Seating: 684. In addition to the Main Stage, there's a 72 seat venue, the Carrie Hamilton Theatre, on the second level of the north wing, just off the courtyard. There used to be a small performance space in the south wing as well. Original capacity was 822.



The Playhouse was featured in this American Seating ad in the January 23, 1926 issue of Moving Picture News. Thanks to Bob Foreman for spotting it. He notes that the letter was signed by Charles Prickett. Years later his wife, Maudie Prickett, was instrumental in saving the theatre from demolition. Visit Bob's Vintage Theatre Catalogs site for a great archive of early theatre tech information. 

Stage specifications:

Proscenium:  31' 6" wide x 20' high

Stage Depth: 31' 11"

Stage wall to wall: 80'

Grid height: 67'

Counterweight system: Operated stage right up about 8' from the stage floor. The sets are mostly double purchase with a few single purchase sets. The system, along with a new grid, was installed in the 80s. Originally it was a hemp house. The stage right flyfloor is used for loading as the loading bridge (also added in the 80s) doesn't have much weight capacity.

The Playhouse in the movies:


The courtyard at the theatre is seen very briefly in the J.B. Rogers film "American Pie 2" (Universal, 2001). The cast includes Jason Biggs, Mena Suvari, Chris Klein, Natasha Lyonne and Eugene Levy. Mena, supposedly in Spain, receives a phone call from her boyfriend. Thanks to Mike Hume for the research and the screenshot. 

According to IMDb the 2016 film "Cinema Twain" with Val Kilmer was filmed at the Playhouse. It's based on his play "Citizen Twain."

Status: The Playhouse's resident company has been active in presenting both new plays as well as revivals. After financial problems and a closure in 2010, the company is again presenting a full season.

The building is still privately owned. Pasadena Heritage has noted on their "advocacy watch list" that they hold a historic preservation easement on the building, which is on the National Register. The city controls the use of the building, which is leased to the Pasadena Playhouse producing company.


The lobby: 


The west wall of the lobby. One of the entrances to the auditorium is through that arch. It's a 1925 Mott Studios photo that's one of thirteen from that studio appearing in the California State Library photo set #001387009.



The lobby west wall. The ladies room is under the stairs on that side, the men's room is similarly positioned house left. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



In the lobby looking toward house left. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A look back down from the house left stairs. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



On the stairs. At the left we're headed into the balcony. Thanks to Mike Hume for this 2018 photo and all the others he took that appear on this page. Visit his Historic Theatre Photography website for hundreds of great images of the theatres he's explored. Don't miss his page on the Pasadena Playhouse.


The library:


There is no lobby at balcony level. The stairs on either side of the lobby just go up to a landing and then directly into the auditorium. This library space is what we get directly upstairs over the lobby. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



A look across the library from house right. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018


The auditorium: 


Painting the fire curtain. It's a photo from the Playhouse Archives appearing with "Photos: A Historic Look at the State Theater of California," a March 24, 2020 news post on the Playhouse website. 



The proscenium and fire curtain. The curtain's design was by Alson S. Clark. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1925



A closer look at the fire curtain. It's a photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. A small version of the photo appears in the June 1929 issue of Architect and Engineer.



A later fire curtain view from the theatre's archives appearing with "Photos: A Historic Look at the State Theater of California." The curtain is still in place and functional but seldom seen.



The house left ante-proscenium area. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1925



An early look across the main floor from "The Romance of the Pasadena Community Playhouse," an article written by the architect for the June 1929 issue of Architect and Engineer. It's on Internet Archive. 



A view to the rear of the house that appeared on the Pasadena Playhouse Facebook page.



A c.1925 balcony view on the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration website from the Pasadena Public Library collection.



The rear of the auditorium from the house left aisle. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018


 
The stage from the top of the house left aisle. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



Looking across to house right. The event was a guided tour during an open house and block party. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A proscenium view. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



The gargoyle atop the proscenium. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



A house left aisle seating detail. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



Looking across from the top of the house right aisle. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010



A view from the middle of the house. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018 


 
A peek out from the house right sidestage.  Photo: Mike Hume - 2018 


 
The house left sidestage area. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018


 
A sidewall plaster detail house left. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



A peek to offstage left. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010



The house right sidestage area. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018


 
A peek to stage right. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018


 
Another stage right view from the house. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



The orchestra pit. The piano seen through the doorway is down in the green room. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018


 
The rear of the auditorium. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010



Ornament on the front of the balcony. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A wider view to the rear. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



A look back from house right. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



An end standard on the house right aisle. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A view to house left with a less encumbered balcony rail and older seats. It's a photo that that once appeared on a Playhouse My Space page.


Up to the balcony:
 

Looking back down the stairs from the house left entrance to the balcony. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



Top of the balcony house left. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



A look across down lower. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A house right wall detail. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018


 
One of the faces. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018


 
The profile view. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



A ceiling detail. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



Another look at the ceiling. It's painted muslin over felt. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A peek down the passage behind the openings along the house left wall. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



At the end of the passage we're behind the area above the house left sidestage. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



Looking down the ladder to stage level. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A proscenium view. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



The rear of the balcony from house right. It's a photo by Lawrence K. Ho that appeared with the 2010 L.A. Times article by Mike Boehm about the company's money woes: "Pasadena Playhouse To Close...."



A view down from house right. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



Looking out one of the openings along the house right wall. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



Behind the ornament above the house right sidestage. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018


 Backstage: 


Down the exit passageway on the south side of the auditorium toward the stage door. They call this the "artists entrance." At the end, in addition to the door onto the stage, there are stairs down to the dressing rooms and green room in the basement. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



The view across to stage left. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



The asbestos, proscenium, and first ceiling slot. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



The house right wall from onstage. It's a photo that accompanies the Wikipedia article on the Pasadena Playhouse.



A lovely c.2014 shot toward the rear of the house by Robert C. Sotomayor appearing on the Supernatural Investigation Unit Facebook page.



A great view from upstage. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



 Offstage left. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



Downstage left. The doorway seen through the ladder goes to the sidestage. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



Looking toward the alley. The scene shop is around the corner to the left. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018


 
A look across from downstage left. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018


 
A view from upstage left. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



The stage right wall. Note the pinrail up on a bridge about 8' off the floor. It was originally a hemp house. The counterweight system, a mix of single and double-purchase sets, was installed in the 1980s. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A corridor upstage right heading back to the scene shop. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



The view from upstage right at lockrail level. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



Looking downstage along the lockrail. We're about 8' above stage level. The equipment is by Clancy. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



The view from the downstage end of the lockrail. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



The view from the upstage end of the flyfloor. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018


 
Looking toward the proscenium wall. The grid and loading bridge were installed in the 80s. The theatre explorer with the camera is the amazing Mike Hume. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



The view from the downstage end of the flyfloor. Note the weights. They use this level for loading arbors rather than the under-engineered loading bridge. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A view upward from downstage. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



The tops of several of the Clancy double-purchase arbors. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



Across to stage left.  Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



Another peek into the house from the stage right flyfloor. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018


The stage basement:


We're in the green room looking toward stage left. The room is directly under the stage but the stage is not trappable as the ceiling is concrete. The doors to the left are to individual dressing rooms. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1925



 Looking into the green room from the stage right side. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018 



A corridor of dressing rooms and service areas heading off from the green room. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018  



A dressing room off the upstage wall of the green room. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A look across from the stage left side. Out the exit door is a dressing room corridor heading upstage as well as stairs up to the stage or out to the exit corridor along the south side of the building. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A painting of the design on the fire curtain on the green room's downstage wall. Photo: Mike Hume - Historic Theatre Photography - 2018



A green room ceiling detail. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



A look at the prop department. The 2014 photo appeared on the Supernatural Investigation Unit Facebook page. They were embarking on a ghost hunt.  In the alley, on the stage right side of the building.


The scene shop:


From the alley we're looking into the scene shop upstage of the stagehouse back wall. Note the paint frame on the right wall. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018

The shop as well as the rest of the six-story addition wrapping around the stagehouse was completed in 1936. When the Playhouse was in its heyday running five performance spaces as well as a school with about 300 students, all the space was used for shops, classrooms and offices. Now most of the space (other than the scene shop) is rented to other tenants. 



An alley view of their now-retired 1925 dimmerboard. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



Another look at the dimmerboard. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018


 
A wide-angle view with the doors onto upstage left at the left and the shop space behind the upstage wall at the right. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



Another view looking downstage toward the doors separating the scene shop from backstage. There's also a set of very tall loading doors doors in the alley leading directly onstage. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018


More exterior views: 


A 1925 view from across the street. It's a Mott Studios photo that's one of thirteen from that studio appearing in the California State Library photo set #001387009.



Up the steps toward the entrance. It's a c.1925 photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. There's a similar view from this vantage point in the June 1929 issue of Architect and Engineer.



A look along the entrance arcade toward the north wing. It's a c.1925 photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. The photo also appears in the June 1929 issue of Architect and Engineer.



The arcade at the theatre entrance. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1925



Inside the arcade at the entrance. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1925



A 1925 view out to the street from the theatre entrance. The photo is from "The Romance of the Pasadena Community Playhouse," an article written by the architect for the June 1929 issue of Architect and Engineer. It's on Internet Archive.



The north wing from the street. Photo: Mott Studios - California State Library - 1925



A 1925 view by Frederick Martin. It's one of four exterior views he did that the California State Library has indexed as their set #001385735. We're looking north with the theatre entrance off to the left.



A look at this corner of the courtyard after a fountain had been added. Photo: Architect and Engineer  - June 1929



A 1927 photo from the California Historical Society in the USC Digital Library collection.



Actors relaxing in the courtyard. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library - 1928



Making costumes in the courtyard. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library - 1928



A 1929 street view. Photo: Architect and Engineer - June 1929



A 1939 Herman Schultheis photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection. 



A 1939 Dick Whittington photo looking west on Colorado Blvd. Note the "State Theatre of California" Playhouse signage on the right. In the next block on the left is the United Artists Theatre, hiding behind the palm trees. The photo is in the USC Digital Library collection.



A 1940 photo appearing on the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration website from the Pasadena Public Library collection.  Note that someone tried a bit of retouching to get rid of that unsightly stagehouse.



A 1944 Frasher Foto Postcard from the Pomona Public Library collection. The photo is by Burton Frasher, Sr.



A 1951 view from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



A vintage boxoffice view from the Playhouse Archives that appeared with "Photos: A Historic Look at the State Theater of California," a March 24, 2020 news post on the Playhouse website. 



A courtyard photo that once appeared on a Playhouse My Space page.



The Playhouse was the subject of many postcard views over the years. This one by Western Publishing & Novelty Co. appears on the site Card Cow. More in their collection: card 2 | card 3 | card 4 |



A 1979 photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection. 



A 1987 photo from the Los Angeles Public Library collection. 



The theatre's signage on Colorado Blvd. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



Looking in from the street. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



The north wing. The lower level is used as a restaurant, above is the 72 seat Carrie Hamilton Theatre. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010



The theatre's entrance. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018



The northwest corner of the courtyard. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010



The exit passageway along the north side of the auditorium. Photo: Bill Counter - 2018



The view along the colonnade toward the entrance doors. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018


Looking out into the courtyard from the theatre entrance. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010  



The alley side of the stagehouse. Swivel 90 degrees and you're looking at the side of the United Artists. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010



The east side of the United Artists Theatre, just across the alley from the Playhouse. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010



A look west along the alley. Photo: Mike Hume - 2018. Visit Mike's Historic Theatre Photography website for hundreds of great images of the theatres he's explored. Don't miss his page on the Pasadena Playhouse.



The rear of the stagehouse. We're looking east. Photo: Bill Counter - 2010

Many thanks to Chris Cook, the Production Manager for the Playhouse, for graciously allowing the exploration of the theatre. 

More information: The Playhouse got a fine article by its architect along with photos and floorplans in the June 1929 issue of Architect and Engineer.

The magazine "California Southland" ran a number of articles (and photos) of the Playhouse including "The Growth of a Community Playhouse Idea" (May 1925), "Observations in Community Philosophy" and "The Builders" (June 1925), "A Community Playhouse Belongs to Everyone" (July 1925), "Senoritas of Pasadena's Community Playhouse" (August 1925) and "Pasadena Community Playhouse in Action" (September 1925). Thanks to Mike Hume for finding these on Internet Archive.

Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse has a "Resources for Researchers" pdf online. Sandi Hemmerlein did a fine July 2015 Avoiding Regret photo essay on her visit to the theatre: "Backstage at Pasadena Playhouse." 

Mike Hume has a fine page on the theatre on his Historic Theatre Photography site. The architect Richard McCann has a page describing the renovation work he did in the 1980s for David Houk, who owned the building at the time.

Check out the website for the Pasadena Playhouse District which has a PDF for a district historic walking tour. Also there's a Wikipedia article on the Pasadena Playhouse.

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