8351 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
The Players Ring was an offshoot of the Circle, one of the first Los Angeles-based professional theatre groups. Formed in 1945 by a group of starry eyed UCLA students excited by the new concept of theatre in the round, the Circle opened a year later in a renovated store at El Centro and Waring, near Paramount Studios.
Among its first recruits were three noteworthy young actors. Kathleen Freeman would become a ubiquitous character actor with a long career in television, movies and on stage. Often typecast as a feisty female foil in sitcoms, of the hundreds of parts she played, she’s probably best remembered as Sister Mary Stigmata in “The Blues Brother.” Twenty years later William Schallert would be known to millions of young Baby Boomers as the father/uncle of twin cousins on “The Patty Duke Show.”
The third actor was Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie Chaplin, the silent film acting great. The elder Chaplin supplied props, coaching and doubtless a little funding to get the Center up and running. Its first show was a production of “Ethan Frome.”
During the Circle’s third season a schism developed, and in November 1949 Kathleen Freeman, along with troupe members Paul Levitt, Ted Thorpe and a half dozen others – “Variety” called them a “dissident group” – broke off and formed a new theatre that was also dedicated to performing in the round. They acquired a former antique store at 8351 Santa Monica Boulevard at North Flores Avenue in what is now West Hollywood, and renovated it into a 200-seat theatre they called the Players Ring.
The Players Ring was an overnight sensation, starting with its first production, Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene,” with a cast of 50, including walk-ons, which opened in February 1950. Their second show, George Bernard Shaw’s “Androcles and the Lion,” opened in May and garnered a write up in Screenland Magazine:
“Another spot that’s catching on with celebs is the novel new theatre, the Players Ring, which is operated by a bunch of ambitious actors. One night in the audience for “Androcles and the Lion” were Shelley Winters with two beaux, the Ricardo Montalbans, Ann Blyth with Dick Clayton. Roddy MacDowall and Amanda Blake, two of the Marx Brothers — Groucho and Harpo … This theatre is particularly attractive to the younger bunch in pictures who are mad to do some work on the stage.”
Later that year a Los Angeles Times columnist named Paul Levitt and Kathleen Freeman the leading character actors in town. In another write-up Freeman was praised as “one of the most versatile actresses in local legitimate theater … The portly young actress, who’s popular with the critics as well as Ring audiences, played a dramatic role in a recent offering … and then followed it up with a light comedy character… Still in her twenties, she has been acting since she went into Vaudeville when she was seven.”
Over time, as her screen career took off, Kathleen Freeman became less involved in the group’s day to day operations and production, and Paul Levitt and Ted Thorpe assumed the management of the company. In 1955 they acquired the 200-seat Gallery Stage a few blocks east on Santa Monica Boulevard at Crescent Heights, which they renamed Players Ring Gallery. In 1957 they assumed the lease on the Civic Theatre on La Cienega. “The three legitimate Players Ring theaters are the only group in the Los Angeles area offering legitimate theater 52 weeks a year,” the Times reported.
Among the future television stars who appeared at the Players Ring were Ellen Corby (Grandma on “The Waltons”), Barbara Bain (“Mission: Impossible” and “Space 1999”), Jack Cassidy (frequent sitcom guest star and father of David and Shaun Cassidy), Bea Benederet (“Petticoat Junction” and “Beverly Hillbillies”), Harvey Korman (“The Carol Burnett Show”) and Bernie Kopell (Dr. Bricker on “The Love Boat”) among many others.
But hands down the biggest star who got his start at the Players Ring was a kid who came to Hollywood from Neptune, N.J., in the mid-1950s and got a job in a studio mailroom, where he came to the attention of Joe Pasternak. The producer encouraged the kid to take up acting. He studied at the Players Ring, and it was there in 1956 that he landed his first acting job – in a supporting role in “Tea and Sympathy,” a coming-of-age drama set at a boys’ school. The young lead in the play was Michael Landon, who would go on to play “Little Joe” Cartwright on the Western series, “Bonanza” for 14 seasons. The kid in the supporting role was Jack Nicholson.
In the early 1960s, Ted Thorpe left the Players Ring to produce independently, and the Ring group dropped its lease on the Civic Theatre. Then came the fire at the Players Ring in June 1964 that gutted its interior and collapsed the roof. The dressing rooms, costumes, sets and props and theatre seats were lost. All that remained was the front wall and the marquee.
Pledging to rebuild, Levitt temporarily moved operations to the Gallery (today’s Coast Playhouse), where the next scheduled production, “Thousand Clowns,” starring Ted Knight (later Ted Baxter on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show”), opened on time. A year later, however, citing rising building costs, Levitt announced that the original Players Ring theatre would not be rebuilt, and that a shopping center would be built in its place. The organization was now down to one theatre, the Players Ring Gallery, which Levitt rechristened as simply the Players Ring.
But its moment was passing – a downward trajectory that accelerated with the death of Paul Levitt in September 1968. His obituary in the Times described him as “a leader in this city’s theatrical renaissance,” noting that he had produced over 300 plays at the Ring group theatres. He’d also been an associate producer for CBS-TV and vice president in charge of daytime programming, according to the Times, and had produced a Tarzan series for NBC. He was 41 years old.
The Players Ring continued for a while as a venue-for-hire, but its days as a theatrical company were over. The parking lot for the shopping center at N. Flores occupies the site of the Players Ring today.
“Dark of the Moon” (1950), featuring Carolyn Jones, who later played Morticia on “The Addams Family.”
Moss Hart’s “Light up the Sky” (1953).
“I Am a Camera” (October 1953) based on the Christopher Isherwood novel and the basis of the musical “Cabaret.”
“Merrily We Roll Along,” by George Kaufman and Moss Hart.
Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo” (December 1954) , starring Jody McCrea, son of Joel McCrea, and Francis Dee – Tennessee Williams was in the front row on opening night.
Three by William Inge, “Picnic” (July 1955), by William Inge, directed by Kathleen Freeman; “Dark at the Top of the Stairs” (March 1960); and “A Loss of Roses” (August 1960).
“End as a Man” (1956) with Robert Vaughn, the future star of “The Man from Uncle.”
”King of Hearts” (1956) , featuring Joe Flynn, best remembered as Capt. Binghamton on “McHale’s Navy.”
Two by Lillian Hellman, “The Children’s Hour (1956) and “Toys in the Attic” (1962).
“The Matchmaker” (February 1958), by Thorton Wilder, the basis for the musical “Hello Dolly,” featuring Bert Convey.