Community, History, Landmarks, Local

Woodminster & Fifty Years of Music Under The Stars

“High on the summit of Oakland’s eastern skyline a Woodland Open-Air Theater and Temple of Honor, reached by a gigantic stairway and surrounded by a grove of huge Sequoia trees, are being constructed to commemorate great California authors of the past and of the future, who among their writings heralded to the world the scenic beauties and the historic life of our superb State.”

Gertrude Mott, 1936

I have become sentimental about Woodminster.  Odd, given that until five days ago I had never set foot inside its gates.  Something about how this place came to be, and how it has become a second home to a family that has been producing musicals inside its open-air bowl for fifty years, has captivated me.  It’s a place that was built amidst depression; a “cathedral in the woods” to honor California writers.  Its early advocates had high hopes for its use; festivals in honor of California literature, educational programs for East Bay schools and civic organizations, and of course large theatrical and musical performances.  World War II caused the lights to be turned off for the first few years of its existence and the rise of the television caused interest to wane in the middle of the century.  However, for the past fifty years the summer musical program has endured thanks to a husband and wife team that brought innovation, passion, and family-filled exuberance to this special spot in Oakland’s woods.

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In October of 1930, just one year after the start of the Great Depression, a gathering of people came together on a spot in Joaquin Miller Park, chosen by Mayor Frank Mott’s wife Gertrude, to plant nine Sequoia trees in honor of influential California authors.  Known first as the California Writers’ Club Memorial Grove, the project soon grew as plans were developed to create an open-air theater atop the hill, with grand staircases and cascading pools on its back side.  Architect Edward Foulkes and Edgar Sanborn of the Oakland Parks Commission worked tirelessly alongside landscape architect Howard Gilkey to create a vision on paper that would later be built by hand as inmates worked side-by-side with down and out businessmen from the 1929 stock market crash.  Construction was funded by federal money and was supported through the largest of F.D.R’s New Deal agencies, the Works Project Administration.  To reach the amphitheater patrons ascended grand staircases made with slabs of California stone hewn 80 years earlier, past a middle pool which included a fountain moved to the site from Treasure Island after its use in the Golden Gate Exposition.  On the exterior of the amphitheater two eighteen-foot high art deco statues were installed, depicting what is believed to be a mother and daughter and father and son.

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Dedicated in 1940, the theater lights were dimmed the following year as World War II took hold.  When they came back on in 1944, the theater was used for a variety of events.  Juanita Miller, daughter of Joaquin Miller, would hold whimsical plays in honor of her father and host annual celebrations in his name.  The summer musical program was produced by John Falls through the 1950’s until 1966.  According to an article written for the Oakland Tribune in 1959, Falls had four teenage volunteers on staff for several years, giving them experience in everything from set design to lighting.  However, the popularity of the television slowed ticket sales and a desire for more contemporary performances sent the City of Oakland looking for a way to revive the program at Woodminster.  They turned to a veteran husband and wife team with Broadway experience to revitalize summer entertainment in the Oakland Hills.

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Music 23Woodminster volunteers keeping cool in the cascade pools, 1959

Jim and Harriet Schlader took over the program in the summer of 1967, creating the non-profit organization Producers Associates, Inc.  For the past fifty years the family tradition of a picnic in the park and a show under the stars has been thanks to their dedication to this special outdoor venue.  Jim peacefully passed away in 2010, having helped cast shows just weeks prior.  Since then, his son Joel has been in the director’s seat, having spent years under his father’s tutelage.  I was fortunate enough to spend an evening with Harriet Schlader this past week, along with Producer Associates, Inc. Publicity and Marketing Representative Kathy Kahn.  As the July fog rolled in over the hills, Harriet, Kathy and I wandered the theater and talked about its history.  With dogs and grandkids coming and going, Harriet led the way to take me on a tour.  On the main floor behind the stage I took in walls covered in memorabilia, a prop room packed to the gills, and the workshop for set design.

Yet beneath the main floor is what was so intriguing.  The lower levels of Woodminster are filled with underground passageways.  Harriet took us down to the hallway that led to the old lighting control “booth” which was a cement alcove tucked underneath the front rows; we laughed as she reminisced about the time she marched down to kill a prior lighting designer who botched a show.  She pointed out that the spaces under the theater were once used by the Oakland Police for training, and that the site was the evacuation center for city officials during the period of nuclear paranoia amidst the Cold War.  Underneath a metal door in the floor still sit barrels of saltine crackers meant for city employees to snack on.

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We wandered out to the balcony that connects the two wings and stood overlooking the cascade which has been dry for a few years.  For over six decades the cascades which dropped water down the backside of Woodminster defined the vision that the original design team had hoped for; a series of pools for water to flow through amongst the trees, centered between two grand staircases, with various levels and landings offering panoramic views of the bay.  Original plans had actually called for an additional pool to exist in front of the stage.  Gertrude Mott, a staunch advocate for the project who was later honored in 1955 with the dedication of the middle fountain in her name, noted in her 1936 recap of the project, “The front of the stage will be adorned with a pool of water.  Water from the pool will pass under the stage and descend the hillside in a waterfall.”  This part of the project was later removed.

It is not public knowledge as to why the cascades are no longer flowing.  I tried to get to the bottom of this in the research for my prior post about Howard Gilkey.  I could not get a straight answer, nor a return phone call, from the Parks & Recreation Department and Public Works.  Harriet says it is due to a crack someone in the pipes that circulate the water, likely difficult to locate and costly to fix.

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The first season that Jim and Harriet put on in 1967 included popular shows such as South Pacific and Music Man.  The Schladers tried to bring entertainment to the stage that struck a balance between what would draw an audience and yet stay not only current, but often a step ahead of what the community expects and might be ready for.  In 1970 they followed the example set by Richard Rodgers on Broadway eight years prior, and cast their production of No Strings with an interracial couple in the lead roles.  The decision to cast African-Americans in a 1975 production of Oklahoma! caused the phone to ring the next day, people inquired if all of the shows would be cast that way.

Harriet told me about the challenges of outdoor theater.  While the often foggy Bay Area summer evenings may be perfect for Brigadoon, they are not ideal for South Pacific.  She shared with me the humorous story of the Santa Ana winds wreaking havoc on a styrofoam castle which sat atop a giant turntable in the middle of the stage for Once Upon A Mattress, sending a tumbling turret all the way to Fairyland.  When asked about her personal favorites, Harriet shared that Hello, Dolly! will always be a favorite from a musical standpoint, while the production of Little Me in 1983 was representative of an actor and a role coming together to create performance perfection.

Music 8Harriet Schlader sharing memories while overlooking the cascade at Woodminster Amphitheater

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Due to its size, Woodminster competes with the theaters in San Francisco when annual bids are made for specific shows.  It took five tries to finally be able to put Chicago on the summer schedule, which will be performed next month for the first time in their fifty year history.  Harriet shared that Mamma Mia has been secured for July 2017.  To keep the doors open each year, Producer Associates, Inc. needs to average 1,000 seats filled per show, with the City of Oakland taking $2.50 per ticket for the facility fee.  Unfortunately the city does not do much to maintain the amphitheater.  While a $5 per vehicle parking fee is collected on show evenings, Kathy and Harriet believe the income goes into general city funds and does not go towards maintenance and upkeep at Woodminster directly.  Harriet proudly showed me the new concession stand that is nearing completion, built by volunteer labor.  While the stadium seating at Woodminster is a huge improvement over the wooden benches that were used for decades, they are showing signs of heavy wear due to exposure to the elements over the past twenty years.  Harriet’s dream would be to see it all torn out and to lessen the overall capacity in exchange for larger seats with more leg room.

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Music 14I ended my visit beside the stage as a dress rehearsal for this seasons first show, Shrek The Musical, got underway.  Thick fog was spilling in and our jackets were zipped all the way up as the pianist and performers practiced their first tune.  The little chihuahua Sammy who had been faithfully with us throughout my visit was ready to head for the office.  Adopted three years ago by Harriet to take the role of Bruiser in the production of Legally Blonde in 2013, he ultimately had to watch from the wings due to a feisty temperament that sent the team looking for an older pooch more willing to sit still in a purse.  Yet he has a home here now.  I think that for many that is what Woodminster has become, home.  Whether it is the Harriet’s daughter who flies out from New York to help with choreography, her son Todd who has participated in over 100 performances, or her daughter-in-law who was on hand to help with opening night logistics; for this family I sense that the historic venue tucked into the Oakland hillside is a place where memories have been made to fill their family’s scrapbooks.  It is the same for so many East Bay families who have come generation after generation; it is a beautiful place to spend a summer evening, to enjoy theater in the way that Woodminster’s founders wanted people to…among the trees.

“Will you not imagine yourself on the heights of Woodminster looking down the shafts of sunshine broken and mellowed as they fall through wide-spreading branches of the stately trees…symbols of eternity, perpetuating forever the memory of those men and women whose sympathetic thoughts are immortalized upon paper.  Thus will Woodminster help to make live forever the beauty of the written word.”

Gertrude Mott, 1936

I hope you are able to make a summer evening at Woodminster part of your family’s tradition.  I look forward to making it part of mine.

Enjoy!
:o)
Adrienne

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

For more details about the summer musical program at Woodminster Amphitheater, please visit www.woodminster.com.  The website is packed with information about tickets, how to prepare for your visit, and more about the fifty year history of Producers Associates, Inc.

One of the wonderful parts of the summer musical program is that children 16 and younger can attend a show for FREE, one child per one paying adult.  Please note, this does come with logistical considerations in terms of sitting together so I suggest to read this section of the website about how to ensure your child will be in an adjoining seat, if this is a concern.  Maybe not such a worry with teenagers :o)

Tonight is opening night of Shrek The Musical.  Additional performances will run July 9th-10th and July 14th-17th.

Future shows for the 2016 season:
Chicago The Musical will run August 5th-7th and August 11th-14th.
La Cage aux folles will run September 2nd-4th and September 8th-11th.

Tickets to the final dress rehearsals are available for the Thursday night prior to opening night for $20.00.  These tickets are sold on that day only, through the box office.  More information can be found here.

A wonderful part of an evening at Woodminster is a dinner picnic before the show.  Picnic tables inside the amphitheater can be rented for $10.00, more information here.  Picnic tables are also located throughout Joaquin Miller Park on a first come, first served basis.  You are welcome to bring food to the show itself, and alcohol is allowed.  Please note that alcohol is not sold through the theater’s concession stand.

I would like to thank Kathy Kahn and Harriet Schlader of Producers Associates, Inc. for their time and generosity.

Photo Credits:
Featured Image at the Top: View of Joaquin Miller Park fountains, cascade, and amphitheater – Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
Black and white image of Woodminster Cascade (with people looking down) – Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
Black and white image of Woodminster under construction – photograph of Oakland Tribune article Vibrant Weekends Have Woodminster Aglow, 7/27/1969
Two color postcard images of Woodminster fountains – Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
Black and white Woodminster fairy scene – Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
Two black and white images of John Falls teenage volunteers – photograph of Oakland Tribune article dated 8/30/1959, Building toward the future, By Bill Strobel
Color image of Woodminster cascade with water running – Gary Pope via flickr
Black and white images of South Pacific and Music Man – courtesy of Producer Associates, Inc.
Black and white image of Woodminster Amphitheater stage and stands – Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
All other images by Adrienne Schell

Sources:

Oakland Tribune – Vibrant Weekends Have Woodminster Aglow, 7/27/1969
Montclarion – Woodminster – a moving tribute to the city’s literary past, by Erika Mailman 7/16/2002
Woodminster Amphitheater and Cascade Joaquin Miller Park – Report written by Helen Sunburn, 3/20/1970
The Story of Woodminster – report written by Gertrude Mott, 1936
Oakland Tribune – Building toward the future, by Bill Strobel 8/30/1959
Snapp Shots: Woodminster set for 50th season of musicals, by Martin Snapp 6/29/2016
50 Years Of Woodminster: Musicals In The Oakland Hills, by Anika Rice 6/1/2016

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2 Comments

  • Reply A Celebration...with the Necklace of Lights - Oakland Momma October 21, 2016 at 11:49 am

    […] implement.  I saw it in the words written by Gertrude Mott as she worked tirelessly to bring the Woodminster Cascade to life.  It was evident in the descriptive way the Cleveland Cascade came to life in one’s […]

  • Reply Donald G. Wilosn July 12, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    This is a wonderful, informative article about this beautiful theater. For those of us that have worked there as part of the staff or on the stage as a performer, we continue to appreciate it’s very being. Also I might add that many successful performers who now grace the stages of the Broadway theater, worked on this very stage, adding experience to their talents. The Schladers have made this their life and continue to keep it fresh.

  • Leave a Reply to Donald G. Wilosn Cancel Reply