Curtis Eriksmoen, Published May 08 2011
Eriksmoen: Playhouse founder’s ghost reportedly haunts theater
Gilmore Brown founded the Pasadena Playhouse in 1917 and remained its director until his death in 1960. Alumni of the playhouse reads like a who’s who of American actors and includes Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Raymond Burr, Gene Hackman, William Holden, Dustin Hoffman, Tyrone Power, among others.
George Gilmor Brown was born June 16, 1886, in New Salem, N.D., to Orville “Dad” and Emma Augusta (Gilmor) Brown. While growing up in Illinois, Orville had been an aspiring actor involved in a touring company.
The family later moved to Mandan, where Brown attended school, and by the time he was 8 years old, he “ran the children through performances of selections from the school readers.” In 1895, the Browns moved to Denver, where George finished grade school. In January 1901, he attended a theatrical production of “Becky Sharp” and realized the theater was where he belonged. He gathered together a number of his friends and formed what he called the Tuxedo Stock Company.
In the spring of 1903, the Browns returned to North Dakota. Orville operated a real estate office in Glen Ullin and also served as justice of the peace.
Brown landed his first professional acting job in 1906 when he joined “the Shakespearean company of Ben Greet.” He also adopted his middle name as his first name (often spelled Gilmore) and later joined acting companies headed by Harold Nelson, William Yule and May Stuart.
In September 1916, Brown, along with his parents, brother and sister-in-law, arrived in Pasadena. On June 1, 1917, Brown met with the Pasadena Drama League and other civic leaders, and a new theater group was formed called the Community Players. He assembled a small group of professional actors and rented the Savoy Theater.
The first year was very rough financially, and after paying all the bills, Brown averaged only $6 per week that he could call his own. His attempt to establish a repertory company with professional actors had failed, but he “then fell upon the brilliant alternative, the establishment of a community theater.”
On Oct. 4, 1918, Brown incorporated the Pasadena Community Playhouse Association, transforming his company of professional actors into an amateur community theater. He also changed the name of the Savoy Theater to the Pasadena Community Playhouse. Brown had to manage this company through the terrible influenza epidemic. In fact, performances were given where the actors and the audience were all forced to wear gauze masks.
Brown founded the Fairoaks Playbox in 1924. It was to have a profound influence on the way major plays were to be produced, popularizing central or “flexible staging.” This meant that no single arrangement was considered permanent. The space could be changed to suit the needs of each production.
The theater arts school Brown established at the Playhouse eventually became an accredited college. In 1926, Brown was awarded the Arthur Noble Gold Medal for being “Pasadena’s most useful citizen.”
Brown began premiering the work of authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, William Saroyan and Noel Coward. The Pasadena Playhouse was building a reputation as being one of the best theaters in the nation and was named the “State Theater of California.”
As the director, Brown was a perfectionist and was also quite eccentric. According to the playhouse archivist, Brown “would sit in the audience (during rehearsals) with his cat, and if the cat turned his back to the stage, that was Brown’s cue that a scene needed to be tweaked.”
After Brown’s death in 1960, it is reported that his presence was made known at the Pasadena Playhouse by moving things around, dimming the lights, stomping about and taking control of the elevator.
Brown believed his playhouse most closely resembled the Little Country Theater founded in 1923 at North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University). Brown preferred to use the Ibsen translations provided by Gottfried Hult, head of the classical languages department at the University of North Dakota, whom Brown called “the foremost translator of Ibsen.”
Dustin Hoffman began his acting career at the Pasadena Playhouse, and in 1967, he spent two months in Fargo as the director of the Emma Herbst Community Theater. Also, Arthur Peterson from Mandan was a regular performer at the playhouse from 1981 to 1991.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at email@example.com.