History of the Forest Theater
by Rose McClendon
with additional material by the Forest Theater Foundation
by Rose McClendon
with additional material by the Forest Theater Foundation
with additional material by the Forest Theater Foundation
Attending a play or musical at the beloved Forest Theater is a long-standing Carmel tradition, followed annually by residents and visitors alike. Longtime Carmelites treasure memories of their first magical visit to the city's "open-air playhouse", or of long-forgotten words to a role in one of the early plays or pageants. Visitors have heard tales of renowned luminaries gracing the stage. Young and old share in the wonder of live dramas, comedies, musicals, children's theater, and feature films, all presented under a summer's night sky3.
As the Forest Theater begins to celebrate its first centennial, you are invited to discover the rich history of one of the oldest outdoor theaters west of the Rockies1.
Depending on who tells the story, the Forest Theater was started by several different people. Mary Austin is often attributed as the one who first suggested the idea2. Others say that George Sterling, Michael Williams, Austin, Herbert Huron and other developed a shared vision of a theater beneath the stars. No matter who claims this distinction, there is no mistake as to who can be considered "the father of the Forest Theater" - Herbert Huron.
Herbert Heron came to Carmel in 1908. He had worked extensively on the stage in Los Angeles and came from a background of writers and dramatists. On a visit from Los Angeles, Heron fell in love with the village by the sea. He soon settled in Carmel, bringing with him his young bride Opal Heron, the daughter of a Polish Count.
Image: Hubert Heron in 1926. courtesy Pacific Repertory Theater
In 1910, the Herons found a concave hillside looking out, surrounded by oaks and pines, and thought it would be an ideal space for an outdoor theater. Heron’s idea was to stage plays by Carmel authors starring local residents – a true community theater. He approached Frank Devendorf, co-founder of the Carmel Development Company, and asked about purchasing the plot for such a purpose. Devendorf, wanting to attract artistic spirits and "brain workers" to the nascent village, i.e. teachers, librarians, etc., agreed and let Heron have the space rent-free.
By February 1910, construction began on the theater. It was a simple plan: a wooden proscenium stage with a scrim of pines and plain wooden benches. Meanwhile, Heron was busying organizing the first production with the help of the newly-minted Forest Theater Society.
The first theatrical production, David, a biblical drama by Constance Lindsay Skinner, inaugurated the Forest Theater on July 9, 1910. Reviewed in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, it was reported that over 1,000 theatergoers attended the production9. There was no electricity at the theater – calcium floodlights were brought by covered wagon from Monterey to light the stage10. Two bonfires were also lit on opposite ends of the proscenium, a tradition which continues today. By all accounts, the performance was considered a success and the packed house helped to solidify the role of theater in Carmel.
Forest Theater Society, Western Drama Society & Carmel Arts & Crafts Club
The Forest Theater Society produced several plays in the next few years. Of note was the 1912 production of The Toad, a play written by Bertha Newberry, the wife of Perry Newberry, an early Carmel leader. Also produced that year was the first children's play staged at the Forest Theater, Alice in Wonderland, adapted by Newberry and Arthur Vachell, and the first Shakespeare production, Twelfth Night, directed by Herbert Huron. There was so much enthusiasm for live theater, and varying ideas on how the Forest Theater should be run, that two additional theater groups began participating – The Western Drama Society (including Heron and other members of the Forest Theater Society), whose goal was to focus on California authors, and the already-established Carmel Arts and Crafts Club, which had been active in the theater arts in Carmel since 1906.
image: Forest Theater in 1916. courtesy Pacific Repertory Theater
Unfortunately, this overabundance of plays became a serious strain on resources, such as players, donations and attendees, which were, understandably, spread thin. Inevitably, factional strife erupted between the groups and the quality of theater in Carmel began to decline. In 1924, in order to solve this dilemma and rebuild a healthy theater scene, the producing organizations merged under the auspices of the old Carmel Arts and Crafts Club, forming the Forest Theater Corporation, a unifying entity to produce and manage the plays staged at the Forest Theater11.
Once again, the picturesque outdoor theater became extremely popular in the small village and it seemed that the whole town added to the creative process. The many carpenters and woodworkers built highly intricate sets; those handy with a thread and needle created costumes. And just about everyone found their way on stage. Productions at the Forest Theater were truly a village affair. The resulting success enabled the Forest Theater Corporation to buy the land from the Carmel Development Company in 192512. The Corporation continued to produce plays throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. While the state of theater in Carmel was in a precarious position due to a glut of indoor theaters and theatrical companies, the Forest Theater continued to flourish. In 1934, the Forest Theater saw its 100th major production, The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife, by Anatole France. Heron directed the comedy, which featured set and costumes designs by Helena Heron.
The Great Depression struck and it affected all aspects of local life. When repairs were needed and no money could be found from local donors, the idea of applying for Works Progress Administration (WPA) money was proffered. Funds were only available to government entities and the private non-profit Forest Theater was not eligible. In 1937, it was decided to deed the Forest Theater to the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea in order to obtain WPA funds for major renovations. Improvements to the facility included building new benches, laying a concrete foundation for the stage, and replacing the surrounding barbed-wired fences with a traditional grape-stake fence. While renovations were taking place there were no productions, no rehearsals – for almost 3 years, the Forest Theater was dark.
Carmel Shakespeare Festival
With a rejuvenated space in 1940, the amphitheater was ready to get back into the theater business. The works of Shakespeare had proven highly popular beginning with Heron’s 1911 production of Twelfth Night, and upon completion of the WPA project, Heron formally resumed productions under a new banner - the Carmel Shakespeare Festival. In its first three years festival audiences saw Macbeth, Hamlet, Merry Wives of Windsor, and two productions of Twelfth Night as well as the work of several Carmel authors, including the world premiere production of Robinson Jeffers' The Tower Beyond Tragedy.
With the advent of World War II, however, mandatory blackouts were ordered for coastal towns and cities. The residents of Carmel participated and halted all Forest Theater activity, essentially closing the facility in 1943-44, and again in 194612. In 1947, the facility resumed annual productions for two more years.
Forest Theater Guild
Throughout this time, Herbert Heron maintained his intense involvement with the Forest Theater, continuing to write, produce, direct and star in productions. Growing tired of the constant activity, Heron retired from active involvement. Theater was in Heron's blood, though, and he could not completely leave the theater behind. As part of deeding the Forest Theater to the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea, the City took over responsibility for the physical plant.
In 1949, realizing that a supporting organization was needed for the City-owned facility, Heron organized and co-founded the Forest Theatre Guild13. Guided by Cole Weston and Philip Oberg, the Forest Theater Guild continued to produce plays by local authors, Shakespeare, and classic drama. In 1950, under the energetic guidance of Cole Weston, the Guild built dressing rooms and a small theater underneath the main outdoor stage. Eventually, the space became known as the Theater-in-the-Ground, and today is simply called the Indoor Forest Theater. In 1960, Herbert Heron finished his 50th year at the forest Theater with his own play, Pharaoh. The first Forest Theater Guild ceased operations in 196114.
End of Heron era
By 1963 the theater had shown over 140 plays, including scores of world premieres by California authors, and works of Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Greek tragedies, local history, children's plays, light operas and musical comedies. One production even featured real horses on stage! Following a brief illness Herbert Heron died on January 8, 1968, at the age of 84.
Unfortunately, despite some continued play production, parts of the theater were left in disrepair. Upkeep was not maintained by the City and, during the mid-1960s, the wood in the stage and seating rotted and the grounds became rundown. By this time, the Forest Theater Guild had become dormant, and, with a few minor exceptions, no plays were being shown on the main stage. The City began to use the site for other purposes, such as a Boy Scout camp, and a city-storage yard. The Cultural Commission recommended to the City that either repairs should be made to the aging Forest Theater, or it should be unloaded from the City's holdings. At that time, no action was taken. In 1966, rumblings about the usefulness of the Forest Theater were made by the City Council during the 1966-1967 budget meetings15. Discussions included whether it was cost effective to keep the theater, resulting in an uproar by Carmelites determined to save the historic site. In 1968, to keep the Forest Theater in use, Cole Weston, who had then become the city’s first Cultural Director, leased the Theater-in-the-Ground to the Children's Experimental Theatre, founded and operated by Marcia Hovick.
Children's Experimental Theater
The Children's Experimental Theatre (CET) was formed in 1960 to encourage children of all ages to develop confidence and creativity by teaching theatrical skills such as diction, characterization, memorization, classical movement, stage combat, technical theater, and more. Children's Experimental Theatre had been temporarily using space at the Golden Bough Theatre and Sunset Center, and needed a permanent place for their activities16.
At the Forest Theater, Children's Experimental Theatre flourished and expanded. In 1969, staff of Children's Experimental Theatre formed a new production entity called the Staff Players Repertory Company, staging classic dramas and comedies in the Indoor Forest Theater, including plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, Molière, and Giraudoux. In addition, Children's Experimental Theatre formed a “Traveling Troupe” in order to bring performances to school-children who would not otherwise have the opportunity to see live theater. Not only did Children's Experimental Theatre benefit generations of Monterey County children, but it also kick-started the theatrical careers of many of the area's current actors, directors, and producers. In 2010, after 50 years of continuous business, CET ceased operations17.
Threat of Closure
In spite of this new use of the Forest Theater, the main stage remained dark. And once again, reservations about the usefulness of the theater were voiced. This time, the Cultural Commission was seriously considering closing the theater for good18. Again, the residents of Carmel rose up and voiced their opposition. A second Forest Theater Guild (FTG) was created and, in 1971, in order to raise needed funds as well as draw attention to the possible closure, produced a staged reading of Robinson Jeffers’ Medea and The Tower Beyond Tragedy, featuring an electrifying performance by world renowned actress Dame Judith Anderson19. In 1972, the Forest Theater Guild officially incorporated20, and staged their second successful production with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The success of these two productions showed the City that there was still public interest and support for the Forest Theater. The City Council commissioned a study to evaluate the efficacy of the theater21.
The public was invited to comment and, after several months of often heated discussions, the Council decided, on a two-year trial basis, to continue city operation of the facility and to lease the facility to the Forest Theater Guild. The trial was a success, and, after negotiations over calendar use of space with CET, the lease with the Forest Theater Guild was renewed. Over the coming decade, the Forest Theater Guild would produce over 20 major plays, focusing on the great classics from the world stage, including memorable productions of such important American works as Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten and A Long Day’s Journey into Night, both staged by Cole Weston, son of the well-known photography icon, Edward Weston, and a renowned photographer in his own right.
Pacific Repertory Theatre
In 1984, a new organization joined the Forest Theater community - GroveMont Theatre, founded in 1982 by Stephen Moorer. As a youth, Moorer acted and assisted in the Children's Experimental Theatre program, and had performed major roles in several Forest Theater Guild productions. Inspired by his theater experiences in Carmel and on the Monterey Peninsula, as well as the rich performing arts tradition in the region, Moorer founded GroveMont Theatre. In 1984, at the request of the Carmel Cultural Commission, GroveMont began producing at the Forest Theater. Their first production there was Jeffers’ Medea, starring local actress Rosamond Goodrich Zanides22, which proved a successful fundraiser for the company. Following Medea, GroveMont continued to stage productions at the Forest Theater every September and October, expanding into August in 2000. In 1994, in addition to the seasonal use of the Forest Theater, Moorer found a year-round home at the Golden Bough Playhouse, the historic Carmel Theater founded by Edward Kuster. In 1993, to better reflect the company's growth and development, GroveMont changed its name to Pacific Repertory Theatre (PacRep), began performing at the Golden Bouth, Circle, and Forest Theaters, and became the only professional theater company in Carmel23.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, facility maintenance and play production remained constant. In 1988, the City spent $200,000 for much-needed renovations, which included replacing the seating, rebuilding the stage, and addressing necessary safety issues. Children's Experimental Theatre/Staff Players contined its twofold mission, and in the process, educated thousands of area youth while staging hundreds of productions featuring children and adults from the local region. With the Forest Theater Guild’s production of Canterbury Tales, one of the first musicals staged at the Forest Theater since the 1950s, annual large-scale musicals began to be produced on the outdoor stage, with great success. Of particular note was the 1989 Forest Theater Guild production of Showboat, directed by long-time Forest Theater Guild leader Hamish Tyler, and featuring hundreds of members of the community working backstage, onstage, and in the house. The production recalled the unifying spirit upon which the theater was originally founded, bringing together people from all walks of life to participate in true community theater.
In 1990, PacRep reinstated the Carmel Shake-speare Festival hearkening to the early days at the theater, and when Herbert Heron inaugurated the original Carmel Shakespeare Festival in 1940. PacRep used the hyphenated version of "Shake-speare" to acknowledge interest in the Shakespeare authorship question. In 1994, the Forest Theater Guild initiated the "Films in the Forest", a program showing classic and newer films during the summer months, which proved highly popular with the community. In 1997, Pacific Repertory Theatre began staging annual family musicals, some of which have included “high-flying” technology, including The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. Among the many successful productions at the Forest Theater over the years, PacRep's version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast proved to be a benchmark for attendance records. Directed in 2005 by Walt DeFaria and with musical direction by Stephen Tosh, the play sold over 10,000 tickets, and was repeated in 2006 with similar success25.
In late 2010, the 5-decade old Children's Experimental Theatre closed its doors. With the blessings of founder Marcia Hovick and the CET Board of Directors, the city of Carmel awarded the lease on the indoor theatre to PacRep Theatre, to serve as a "home" for the company's popular School of Dramatic Arts, known affectionately as "SoDA"24.
In 2014, the Forest Theater was closed due to safety concerns26. Over the next two years, the City of Carmel embarked on an aggressive effort to bring the Forest Theater back up to modern safety standards. In addition, the Forest Theater is now up to current ADA standards as well. This was a two million dollar restoration and the Forest Theater opened up to the public again in May 201627. There are still some issues that need further work (moving the concession stand, improving the restrooms, and improving parking) and the Forest Theater Foundation is looking forward to working with the public, the City of Carmel, and the Sunset Center (the new manager of the Forest Theater lease) to make all of our plans a reality.
Forest Theater Foundation
Today, as the community reflects on the recent centennial celebration of the historic site, the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea is planning a significant renovation of the aging facility, which is again showing considerable wear and tear. Pacific Repertory Theatre, the Forest Theater Guild, and the PacRep SoDA (School of Dramatic Arts) program continue to bring the joy of live performance to the venerable old theater. In 1999, the organizations joined together to form the Forest Theater Foundation (FTF), dedicated “to the preservation and enhancement of the Forest Theater and its historic programs”. Since its inception, the Forest Theater Foundation has raised donations to purchase portable dressing rooms, as well as shared lighting and sound equipment, and recently funded the pre-design process for the upcoming theater renovation. The Forest Theater Foundation’s mission is to continue the rich history of the theater, inspiring those who create the magic at the unique “open-air playhouse”, while maintaining the Forest Theater as a treasure for residents and visitors alike. Longtime Carmel advocate and former mayor Perry Newberry perhaps said it best: "There is no other thing here – save only Carmel's beauty – more important to preserve and protect than the Forest Theater."
1. Carmel at Work and Play, Bostick, 1977
2. Carmel's Forest Theater, by Michael Williams, Pacific Monthly, 1912
3. Carmel Today and Yesterday, Bostick, 1945
4. "Forest Theater a 'bohemian grove' for Shakespeare fans – Page 2 of 2". The San Francisco Chronicle. August 2, 2011.
5. "Forest Theater a 'bohemian grove' for Shakespeare fans – Page 2 of 2". The San Francisco Chronicle. August 2, 2011.
7. Shakespeare Companies and Festivals: An International Guide By Ron Engle, Felicia Hardison Londré, Daniel J. Watermeier. Entry on Carmel Shakespeare Festival by Philip Clarkson
9. Barman, Jean. Constance Lindsay Skinner. University of Toronto Press, 2002.
10. Letter to Richard N. Palmer from Herbert Heron, June 12, 1963. Harrison Memorial Library, Herbert Heron Collected Papers.
11. Bostick, Daisy and Castelhun, Dorthea. Carmel at Work and Play, The Seven Arts, 1925.
12. a b Cf. Letter to Palmer, June 1963.
13. “David Prince to head newly organized Forest Theater Guild.” May 9, 1949. Harrison Memorial Library, Nixon File Forest Theater #11.
14. "Forest Theater a 'bohemian grove' for Shakespeare fans – Page 2 of 2". The San Francisco Chronicle. August 2, 2011.
15. “Forest Theater given support.” Monterey Peninsula Herald, August 4, 1966.
16. Nichols, Kathryn M. “40… and still going strong.” Monterey County Herald, September 7, 1999.
17. "Forest Theater a 'bohemian grove' for Shakespeare fans – Page 2 of 2". The San Francisco Chronicle. August 2, 2011.
18. Nickerson, Roy. “Is Forest Theater’s usefulness outlived?” Monterey Peninsula Herald, June 2, 1971.
19. "Forest Theater a 'bohemian grove' for Shakespeare fans – Page 2 of 2". The San Francisco Chronicle. August 2, 2011.
21. Forest Theater Committee of the Cultural Commission, City of Carmel-by-the-Sea. “Report on the Forest Theater.” December 4, 1971.
22. Blum, Terry (January 2002). "Spotlight On Carmel Stephen Moorer". Mctaweb.org, Monterey County Theatre Alliance. Retrieved 2009-07-20.
23. "Pacific Repertory Theatre", Theatre Bay Area website, accessed July 23, 2009 24. http://www.pineconearchive.com/110204PCA.pdf, page 2A