Desert Theatre League
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The Genesis of the DTL and Desert Star Awards

by BRUCE FESSIER

When I became The Desert Sun entertainment editor in 1979 there were two theater companies in the Coachella Valley: the Valley Players Guild and College of the Desert. And the latter wasn’t a troupe. It was a course.

That meant I reviewed every play in the desert. There was nothing else to write about.

Seven years later, there were more than a dozen theater troupes and the McCallum Theatre would debut in less than two years. Then Gannett bought The Desert Sun and I was told, from then on, coverage would be prioritized based on numbers.

I realized The Desert Sun would never again be able to thoroughly cover locally produced theater. The numbers just didn’t justify it. But, if the theater producers could unite, they could swell their numbers and occasionally get out from underneath the McCallum’s giant shadow.

In the spring of 1987, I wrote a column suggesting that all local theater producers form a theater league similar to the ones in Riverside and San Diego. I noted benefits such as having a common box office, a common storage facility and the ability to buy group advertising.

I got a call the next day from Cam Russo, a Tony-nominated actress who had formed the Palm Desert Theatre Company with her son, Walter. Cam said I needed to call the theater producers to get them to join this desert theater league. She said the theater community was too divided to expect them to come together on their own. She asked me to call an organizational meeting.

While I was mulling this over, my co-worker, Steve Meek, was planning a two-page Desert Sun house ad describing every local theater company. He was an actor who realized the need to promote theater to ensure its survival. He asked me for a quote for his layout and I gave him a Tallulah Bankhead line: “If you want to support theater, don’t be an actor. Be an audience!”

While Steve sold ads to pay for his two-page project, I researched theater leagues.  But one day, we met in a Desert Sun hallway as if we had been struck by the same bolt of lightning. He said we needed something to get all the theater companies together. I said, “An awards show.”

Within days, we were both calling theater producers to invite them to discuss a theater league that would produce an annual awards show. An independent producer, Albert Levin, let us meet at his house – which had a stage in the living room. I still have the agendas for our first few meetings. We got representatives from:

Actors Anonymous, College of the Desert, Groves Abraham Lincoln’s Cabin Theatre, the Hi-Desert Playhouse, Moody’s Supper Club, Palm Desert Community Theatre, the Phoenix Players, Stage Door Dinner Theatre, the Valley Players Guild and West Coast Opera. We had several independent producers, including Levin and Wayne Pitts, three youth theater companies, and the first executive director of the McCallum Theatre, Michael Grossman.

We began writing bylaws for our own nonprofit organization and it seemed like we never stopped. Pitts, CPA Etta Campbell and I wrote the articles of incorporation. We were so unsure of our future, only a board member named Evon Morris would sign the articles as the executor.

Steve became president and I became an ex officio member so I wouldn’t look partisan. Steve and I ponied up $100 to open the first Desert Theatre League bank account, but we knew we needed much more to achieve our lofty goals. We needed a fundraiser. But what kind?

Steve and I agreed from the start that the DTL should not be a producing theater company. We’d promote theater and provide networking, but we wouldn’t compete with local troupes like an all-star production company.

A local artist named Tripp Douglas was planning an ambitious Cristo-like art exhibition to cover the mountainside with a huge lighting design. He wanted to raise funds by having a roast of me. I said no, but then I realized having the theater leaders roast the critic would be a great way to unite all the splintered theater groups in a benefit for the Desert Theatre League. My friend Ruth Gibson, a musician and comedy writer, agreed to produce the roast and we got a panel including Steve, Michael Grossman, jazz legend and Broadway actor Georgie Auld, Rabbi Joseph Hurwitz (the valley’s “toastmaster general”), columnist Allene Arthur, KESQ anchorman Phil Blauer, radio station executive Scott Kiner and our host, Sonny Bono, who had recruited me to join his committee to form a film festival a few months before the first Desert Theatre League meeting.

We had the roast just after Thanksgiving at Cathedral Canyon Country Club. We raised over $2,000 and got great press -- partly because Sonny was running for mayor. He had the best ad lib of the night when Bill Groves, dressed as Abraham Lincoln, stood behind him to make an unscripted remark. Sonny looked at him and said, “Are you running for mayor, too?”

With a little money in our pocket, we got down to the business of promoting theater.

Ruth Gibson produced our first awards show a year later at Palm Desert Country Club, where she was an influential member. Our goal was to promote the best theater in the desert and to allow theater people to network and discuss common goals and challenges. That’s why we wanted to have the ceremony in a room where people could sit around tables instead of in theatrical rows. To enhance the networking experience for people interested in going into show biz for a living, we got celebrities to sit at every table, including:

Kaye Ballard, Gavin MacLeod, Tony winner Sydney Chaplin, Yiddish Art Theatre star Charlotte Chafran, “Beverly Hillbillies” co-star Nancy Kulp, “Dirty Dozen” co-star Trini Lopez, Ziegfeld Follies star (and Harpo Marx widow) Susan Marx, and "The Waltons" star Ralph Waite. The great Alice Faye couldn't attend, but we got permission to put her name on our stationary with all the other celebrity participants.

We honored the legendary Joseph Cotton, Francis Lederer and Valley Players Guild founder Joan Woodbury Mitchell, who received an award that was named after her for outstanding work in local theater. Terry Green, the COD development director who helped Sidney Harmon develop a COD-Friends of the Cultural Center series that built an audience for the McCallum Theatre, sponsored an award in Sidney's name for people who had served the theater on stage and off. Steve had designed the DTL logo based on one of Harmon’s sculptures and it also became the model for which the awards we designed.

That was the first of many triumphs, but there were also many frustrations. We never did get the theater companies to jointly advertise their productions. That’s a huge disappointment. I also think the DTL has become too inclusive. There are now so many nominees, we can’t list them in the newspaper because it would take up an entire section. I think the awards should be given in at least two ceremonies. Why not honor community dance productions as a third evening of the McCallum’s Dance Under the Stars Choreography Festival?

But the DTL has succeeded magnificently as a resume builder and promoter of individual talents. One of my greatest pleasures is reading about performers and seeing them cite their DTL awards. Alison Lohman still cites her DTL Award for her role in “Annie” on her website. And seeing how meaningful the lifetime achievement awards are is enormously rewarding. I got to present one to Jack Jones after his stirring performance in “Man of La Mancha.” Jack had won two Grammy Awards, but it was his first lifetime achievement honor and his speech was moving.

I’m so pleased that the DTL has been so important to so many actors and crew personnel. The organization still has a ways to go to fulfill its promise, but the fact that people like Wendy Willson, Gary Walker, Walter Russo, Steve Fisher, Bob Reinhagen, Irwin Rubinsky, Jim Warner, Derik Shopinski and Gina Bikales have continued to make it such an invaluable service to this community does my heart good. I particularly want to thank my colleague, Steve Meek, for serving three years as the DTL’s first president, from which he’s never recovered.

I look forward to watching it grow and to continue to nurture the remarkable talent in this desert.