Friday, July 2, 2010

Forest Theater, Carmel

In the summer of 1968 after graduating from high school I auditioned for the cast at Woodminster – an outdoor amphitheater in the Oakland hills. I was in two musicals – The Most Happy Fella and The King and I where I played one of the king’s many wives. It was a lot of fun, so when I read about the Forest Theater in Carmel I was keen to go see it as part of my HALS adventure.

The Forest Theater was built in 1910 and is the oldest outdoor theater west of the Rockies. It was started by actor/director Herbert Heron with poet Mary Austin. The land for the theater was given rent free by Carmel’s founder Frank Devendorf – the same person who gave the land for Devendorf Park that I wrote about of week. Plays, pageants, musicals, Shakespeare and outdoor films have been performed at the theater. There is a long-standing tradition of featuring original works of California authors including the work of Robinson Jeffers, Mary Austin, and Barbara Newberry who wrote The Toad and Junipero Serra, a historical pageant focusing on the life of Father Junipero Serra.

The privately owned theater was deeded to the city of Carmel in 1939 so it would be eligible for federal support when it became a WPA project. The theater closed during World War II in response to mandatory blackouts, but reopened after the war. Since then interest in the theater has waxed and waned but renewed community interest has kept it going for 100 years. According to Wikipedia, “in 2005, Pacific Repertory Theater presented the theater’s highest attended production, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, to a combined audience of over 10,000 ticket holders.”

The site of the 60-seat theater is a naturally occurring bowl-shaped area in an oak woodland, in a residential neighborhood of Carmel. Oaks were removed to construct the bleacher seating but the grove remains at the back and sides. Most of the understory has been cleared. The view back of stage is through Monterey pines and beyond to the Monterey Bay. The character of the site and planting is left a bit wild and natural.

The perimeter of the theater is defined by a four-five foot high grape-stake fence. There are two gates into the theater; one wide enough for vehicles and one pedestrian gateway that has a beam overhead with “Forest Theater” carved into it.

Materials are limited to wood and rough stone. The wood is either painted “state parks brown” or left unpainted. The bleacher seating is divided into two sections with concrete paths at either side and in the middle. There are 11 rows of seating, then a stone retaining wall about 30” high, and 6 additional rows of seating. Seats have backs and the space between rows is compacted earth.

Near the stage there are semi-circular stone fireplaces built at either side of the bleachers that provide warmth to those sitting near enough and ambiance for the rest of the audience.
The stage is wood and there are storage areas for props at either side. Additional storage, dressing rooms, and an indoor theater are below the main stage. There is also a wood deck (about 40’ x 80’) with a built in bench on the downhill side of the theater.

The form and layout of the theater all appear to be original as does the stone work and arrangement of the seating. In 1939 Works Progress Administration (WPA) crews undertook a major reconstruction. They built new benches, laid a concrete foundation for the stage, and replaced a barbed-wire fence with the grape-stake fence.

To stage left there is a square of stones and an upright carved boulder: “Here lies Pal the friend of all who knew and loved him. Carmel’s dog, born Aug 1929, died Dec. 1943.”

1 comment:

  1. i am in the production ANNIE! at the forest theater

    the area is very pretty and enjoyable
    i love it alot :)