(949) 631-5918 Thursday - Friday 10am - 3pm

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.

Continue Reading
Japanese Costa Mesans, 1920-1942
Detail from a 1938 photo of students and parents at the Japanese school in Costa Mesa. L-to-R: B. Omori, M. Inokuchi, S. Kanno, Kaz Kuirhara, S. Kurihara, K. Shigaki, Unknown.

Japanese Costa Mesans, 1920-1942

You may have heard of the postwar Japanese-Costa Mesans like the Sakiokas and the Iwamotos. But how much do you know about the Japanese families who lived here before World War II – the Hiratas, Yamamis, Omoris, Ikedas, and Kuriharas?

Continue Reading
The World War I Diary of George Vincent Fox
George Vincent Fox's dog tag from World War I.

The World War I Diary of George Vincent Fox

One of the treasures of the historical society’s collection is the daily diary kept by George Vincent Fox, an artilleryman in World War I. Fox documents his journey across the Atlantic, his time on the front lines, and his postwar duty as peacekeeper. Although the prose is sparse and matter-of-fact, it vividly captures both the thrill and the tedium of war and peace.

Continue Reading
The Costa Mesa Songbook
A detail of the sheet music to Joan Hoadley's "Costa Mesa Plateau", the first song written about Costa Mesa.

The Costa Mesa Songbook

Did you know that over two dozen songs have name-dropped Costa Mesa? Over ten of them have appeared in the past five years alone. And in a variety of genres, too: rock, reggae, alternative, Christian, electronica, you name it. Everyone loves to sing about our town.

We’ve selected a few notable tracks below. Find a full list of songs at the bottom of the page. Let us know if there’s anything we missed!

Continue Reading

Protecting Costa Mesa’s Native American Heritage

The Costa Mesa Historical Society preserves several documents written by Dr. Keith Dixon, a leader in the effort to protect the Native American site in Fairview Park (4-ORA-58). Taken together, Dixon’s 1971 draft of the site’s National Register of Historic Places nomination and his proposal to turn the archeological site into an open-air museum present a compelling case both for the preservation of the site’s past as well as a bold, if unrealized, vision for its future.

Background

In 1959 the state of California designated as surplus a swath of land it had previously acquired for the Fairview State Hospital. The 350-acres stretched west from the hospital to the Santa Ana River. Had the land been released immediately, the history of Fairview Park might have been very different. But, as it happened, an ownership dispute tied up the land in court throughout the 1960s, and the title wasn’t cleared until 1970.

By then the ecological movement had taken root. Many in Costa Mesa felt squeezed by two decades of rapid suburbanization that had displaced the town’s rural character. Moreover, many felt a need to preserve the area’s disappearing history, as evidenced by, among other things, the formation of the Costa Mesa Historical Society.

By 1972 nearly everyone believed the land ought to be purchased from the state for the purpose of a park. Early champions of the idea include the city’s Project 80 committee, Estancia High School’s Ecology Committee, and Cal State Long Beach’s professor of anthropology, Keith Dixon.

Dixon, who had directed excavations at the site from 1959-1966, was an ideal advocate for the site. He combined scientific credibility, hands-on experience, and passion. Leveraging this background, he nominated the site for the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 to help protect it from urban development.

The National Register, in his words, serves as “the official list of the nation’s cultural property that has been evaluated by experts as worth saving. It is a protective inventory of those irreplaceable resources which are of more than local significance.”

National Register Nomination

In his nomination Dixon argues that the Fairview site is a unique example of what was once typical of the region. “It represents the last well-preserved remnant of an important part of the Indian heritage.” The site is of more than local significance, he says, for the following reasons:

  • It is one of the largest known Indian sites in the region, with up to 750,000 cubic yards of deposit.
  • It was intensely occupied for at least 3,000 years, giving anthropologists centuries of data from which to reconstruct cultural patterns.
  • It contains a large number of human burials, instructive on the diseases, pathology, and nutrition of native peoples.
  • It is the most securely dated prehistoric site in the region, providing clear markers between successive civilizations.
  • Its uniquely clear stratification further illuminates the relationships between the major cultures in the area.
  • It contains a number of cogged stones in their original position rather than scattered on the surface, giving better insight into the mysterious artifacts.
  • Finally, it offers an extensive record of past ecology, through which scientists may reconstruct millennia of ecological history.

Archeological Park

Dixon also argued that, given the proximity to major population centers, the site could attract both locals and tourists with its unique educational opportunities. To that end, he proposed an ambitious five-phase project partly modeled on Hancock Park’s La Brea Tarpits to bring people to what he would call the single most important Native American site south of Ventura. Here are the five stages the envisioned:

  1. Archeologists would conduct a surface survey by “disking” the upper 12 inches of the deposit to identify differences in human activity across the site, reinforce earlier tests, and guide future studies.
  2. A landscaped park would be developed over the site, allowing full public use of the recreational area while at the same time preserving the archeological material below.
  3. Archeological research would be conducted in view of the public, much like the tourist-attracting excavations at Hancock Park.
  4. Permanent exhibits would “recreate the Indian way of life, to make Orange County’s prehistory ‘visible’ for the first time.” Exhibits would include reconstructions of Indian homes, a native plant botanical garden, and an exposed cross-section of the bluff illustrating the archeological deposit and geological strata.
  5. A Museum of Local Ecology would not only house collected artifacts but would also demonstrate how all aspects of the environment — physical characteristics, animal life, plant life, climate, and man — interoperate upon one other as a single system. This kind of interdisciplinary, systematic museum would be, to Dixon’s knowledge, unique in the world.

Dixon believed the park could both memorialize past cultures and increase public understanding of the nation’s Native American heritage. Early planners seemed to agree, giving pride of place to the cultural zone. By 1978, however, the ambitious project was apparently dropped in favor of a less intensive park. Finally, in 1994, after the city performed one last archeological survey, Dixon recommended that the site be “capped.” Archeologists had done all they could to study it, at least for now, he said.

Although Dixon’s vision for an archeological park was never realized, his tireless efforts nevertheless played a vital role in preserving the site for future generations.

Continue Reading

A West Coast Woodstock?

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of a historic music festival remembered as much for its unpredictably large crowds, last minute venue changes, food and water shortages, challenging weather, and mud-loving concertgoers as it is for its lineup of legends like Eric Burden, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane.

No, not that festival.

We’re talking about the Newport Pop Festival, held right here on the OC Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa August 3-4, 1968.

While it’s largely forgotten now, the Newport Pop Festival is arguably one of the most significant events in Costa Mesa cultural history. It is believed to be the first ever pop concert with more than 100,000 paying attendees (total attendance is estimated at 140,000) and it provided an important link between 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and 1969’s Woodstock, presciently foreshadowing what was to come the following year.

To learn more about this important part of our cultural history, visit the Costa Mesa Historical Society Museum’s exhibit box on the Newport Pop Festival, on display every Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m.–3 p.m.

Continue Reading

Bessie Lounsberry: A Most Remarkable Woman

Bessie Nell (White) Lounsberry (1886-1972) made many important contributions to the civic life of 1930s-50s Costa Mesa. She compiled the city directory, worked local elections, and served on the Costa Mesa Citizen’s Council, along with other volunteer roles. Her seven-year beautification campaign led to the planting of 1,026 trees. She was honored for her decades of selfless service with the Costa Mesa Historical Society’s second Living Memorial Award in 1973.

Continue Reading

Costa Mesa 129 Years Ago

Society director Bob Palazzola uncovered this gem from the April 1979 the Costa Mesa Historical Society Quarterly. It paints a colorful portrait of early Costa Mesa. Note the reference to A Slice of Orange by Edrick Miller in the final paragraph. The book is essential reading for local history fans.

Continue Reading
Close Menu
×
×

Cart