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How the Costa Mesa Playhouse Got its Start

It took a long time for the “City of the Arts” to earn its name. When the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse was founded in 1965, community theaters had already sprung up in Huntington Beach, Newport, Laguna, Santa Ana, Tustin, and Westminster. Costa Mesa had some catching up to do.

But the city’s first cultural arts coordinator, the industrious Bette Berg, was the woman to do it. She founded the city’s first Cultural Arts Week, organized a community band, and launched the city’s classes in music, art, bridge, and knitting. The Playhouse grew out of one of these programs.

Bette Berg

The program was created to form a teen drama workshop. At first, the city had a hard time keeping it going. Then one day Berg asked a local theater director whether she had a script the kids could borrow. Yes, the director said. She met with Berg, and soon she agreed to help get the workshop off the ground. The director’s name was Pati Tambellini.

Tambellini had made a name for herself in the world of “little theater,” both as an actor and a director, in Newport, Laguna and Huntington Beach. A year prior she had won best director, best set designer, and best supporting actress for her work with the Newport Harbor Players. By the end of 1964, after 12 years of directing, she was ready to “retire for about the 80th time.” Then fate took over.

She went into the workshop with low expectations. It would be a small group and she would have to take it slow, with just the basics.

But when she arrived that first Saturday morning, she found a large group of “the most enthusiastic batch of kids I have ever met in my life.” Before the day was through, they made her guarantee that they would produce a play.

The theater was then located in an old Air Base building on the OC Fairgrounds. Everything had to be built from scratch. Tambellini liked to refer to the Playhouse as “Pinchpenny Theater.” They had no lights, no flats, and no money. Mothers donated old furniture and brought in patio lights to illuminate the stage. Old bed sheets were repurposed to cover the flats. And the flats were built from — well, it’s possible a nearby housing contractor needed to refill his wood supply.

The kids rehearsed after school and Saturday mornings. On Sundays, Tambellini and her brother-in-law, Jack Murray, a respected theater technician, hammered away at the sets, bringing them to life. Tambellini worked without pay. 

Finally, at the start of 1965, Girl Crazy debuted to the public. It was a hit. It was carried over, and parents of younger children began asking Tambellini for a workshop for them. Later, an original production of the Bedraggled Dragon debuted with a cast of 49 kids.

Adults started paying attention, including two prominent Costa Mesans: councilman and former mayor Alvin Pinkley and his wife, the tireless philanthropist Lucille. 

“This is something that has long been needed,” Pinkley said. “We’ve been behind many other cities in this regard for some time.” Bette Berg, he said, has “done an outstanding job with our cultural program and this new group will have the wholehearted support of the city.” 

Tambellini called the Pinkleys the “guardian angels” of the Playhouse. They brought audience members, publicity, and donations to the burgeoning theater. When Lucille invited a group of wives of city staffers (and a Daily Pilot editor) to a tea party, she said, “You guys are the ones who should support it,” and the Playhouse Patrons’ association was born.

Pati Tambellini

The first adult production of the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse opened in June 1965. Pati Tambellini directed a version of the hit Broadway comedy and Rock Hudson movie, Send Me No Flowers. Although the night began, according to one critic, with “awkward staging, opening night jitters, and what might be termed an uncomfortable tempo of communication,” by the time the final curtain fell the cast had delivered “top-notch situation comedy.”

The opening night audience was filled with city officials. Unlike professional theaters such as South Coast Repertory (which arrived in Costa Mesa two years later), community theaters welcome actors with little or no experience. One first-timer remembers being so intimidated on opening night he forgot all of his lines as soon as he stepped on stage. Nevertheless, he would later credit the Playhouse and Pati Tambellini with changing the course of his life. That actor was Tom Titus, theater critic for the Daily Pilot for the past 54 years and director of the Irvine Community Theater for 31.

Another recognizable name associated with the early Playhouse is Barbara Van Holt. Before she became Estancia’s award-winning drama teacher, she directed teen productions and acted in adult productions at the Playhouse. Oh, and another occasional actress? Bette Berg.

The Playhouse staged its second production, Night Must Fall, in September, followed by Enter Laughing and The Women. The blockbuster line-up of the second season featured Arsenic and Old Lace, Mister Roberts, and Come Back, Little Sheba. The teen division continued right along, too.

Pati Tambellini served as the driving force behind the theater until 1988, capping off her career by acting in a production of Harvey. During those 23 years she saw the Playhouse rise to an award-winning company and spearheaded the theater’s move to Rea School, where it remains today.

The Costa Mesa Playhouse’s 55th season is now underway. It’s independent now, no longer sponsored by the city. But its mission remains the same: quality performance at an affordable price, welcoming everyone to the magic of the theater.

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