History of the longest continuously operating acting school in LA goes through numerous name changes, but actually gets its start from a former vaudevillian.
Theatre of Arts Timeline
Thespian Ben Bard was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 26, 1893. At the young age of 15, Ben leaves his native Milwaukee as a member of the Jolly Dell Pringle theater company. He later traveled the Schubert vaudeville circuit as straight man to comic Jack “Baron Munchausen” Pearl.
In the mid-1920s, Bard tests for Fox Pictures and hence establishes a career as “suave heavy” in a series of silents. Furthermore, he does this while courting and marrying film star Ruth Roland.
With the advent of sound in 1927, Bard finds himself coaching any number of former silent film actors who respect Bard and also his stage-trained ability to handle dialogue.
1930, Roland gives Bard encouragement, and hence bankrolls her husband to open Ben Bard Drama, at a playhouse on Wilshire Blvd at Fairfax Avenue. The school had an attached theatre company that produced stage classics and also West Coast premieres of contemporary American plays. It quickly establishes itself as one of the more successful acting schools in Hollywood, while also producing a mix of classic theater works and contemporary fare. Distinguished graduates of the school included Alan Ladd, Jack Carson, Shirley Temple, Gower Champion, Cliff Robertson and also Gig Young.
In 1938, Bard departs, probably due to the death of his beloved wife Ruth Roland.
In 1938, noted film and stage director Max Reinhardt takes over the operation as Max Reinhardt Theatre Workshop, while simultaneously operating a separate facility on Sunset Blvd. Reinhardt leaves in 1959, most likely due to deteriorating health.
1941, Reinhardt departs and Jack Geller creates the Geller Theatre Workshop. Michael Chekhov, the renowned Russian expatriate, becomes Geller’s main acting teacher. With Chekhov at the helm, the school became the “go-to” acting school in Hollywood. Chekhov was a Stanislavski disciple who, as a result, goes on to mentor future stars. The list includes famous celebrities such as: Ingrid Bergman, Lloyd Bridges, Yul Brynner, Gary Cooper, James Dean, Clint Eastwood, Elia Kazan, Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, Patricia Neal, Jack Palance, Gregory Peck, Jane Russell, Beatrice Straight, Susan Strassberg, Natalie Wood and more.
Madame Valmar Oleska
1959, entrepreneur Madame Valmar Oleska acquires the workshop and consequently renames it Theatre of Arts. Alumni from this time include Charlene Tilton, Vic Tayback, Frank Bonner and Greg Mullavey.
1980, Theatre of Arts produces Philadelphia, Here I Come, by Irish playwright Brian Friel, and subsequently garners LA Drama Critics Circle nods for helmer Warner Shook. Additionally, it also featured thespian Mary Jo Catlett.
Jan 2000, Theatre Hollywood, a consortium of performing arts academies all based at 6755 Hollywood Blvd, incorporates Theatre of Arts. Theatre Hollywood notes them for providing “multi-media training for actors working in film, television and theatre today.”
He came to Hollywood in 1934 with his fame preceding him. His last tour through Europe had included lavish productions in Florence (1933) and a”Midsummer” at Oxford (1934). He offered to do the same in Hollywood at an ideal outdoor stage, the Hollywood Bowl. But the bowl had to go – it was removed to provide a view of a “forest” up the hillside – a “forest” that required tons of dirt hauled in especially for its planting, Reinhardt and his design staff erected a 250-foot wide, 100-foot deep stage. Also included was a pond and a suspension bridge or trestle constructed from the hills in back to the stage to be lined with torchbearers – with real flaming torches – for the wedding procession inserted between Acts IV and V. This lavish production included a ballet corps, children playing faeries, and hundreds of extras. The 18-year-old Olivia de Havilland was at Mills College in Oakland, participating in a school “Midsummer” production where in attendance was none other than Max Reinhardt himself. He was so impressed with her that he picked her for his extravaganza. Along with other Hollywood actors, was 14 year old veteran of the cinema ‘Mickey Rooney’, added to the cast as Puck. Another new arrival from Austria was classical opera composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, musical collaborator of Reinhardt’s from Vienna.
Reinhardt cabled his friend to come over and help him by doing the orchestrations of Felix Mendelssohn’s famous 1843 music for the Hollywood Bowl production. It was a night to remember, even for Jack L. Warner, who wasn’t always sure of what he was seeing. But it was enough to sign Reinhardt to direct a filmed version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which began shooting in December of 1934. De Havilland was back to start her film career-Rooney for another memorable part.
Otherwise, it was new cast headed by Hollywood stars ‘Dick Powell’ and James Cagney and boasting the best actors from Warner’s impressive stock company of players. Since Reinhardt did not know Hollywood film-making, Warner assigned a co-director, William Dieterle. Dieterle was Reinhardt’s acting protege, and then his directing protege from the Deutsches Theater days in Berlin. Dieterle, the disciple, had directed in Germany since 1923 and then came to Hollywood to become one of the studio’s most reliable new directors.
It was the beginning of Korngold’s screen career as a film composer when he was hired to do the film score, an arrangement based on Mendelssohn’s music used at the Bowl. But he actually mixed in much more of a variety of the composer’s music to fit the play.
Warner laid down 1.5 million dollars and had its top technical staff step up to the challenge. With everyone there was a bit of a learning curve, especially Reinhardt. Reinhardt was allowed the liberty of long play-like rehearsals instead of rehearsing scene by scene. Reinhardt’s early overemphasized stage acting directions were recalled by Cagney, who noted the actors often stood around on the sidelines whispering to one another, “Somebody ought to tell him.” It was Dieterle who did finally tell him; setting his old master straight as to the subtle wonders of the microphone and sound film techniques. Shakespeare’s lines were cut for public consumption, but there was so much to see – who would notice.
In Depression era America the movie theater had taken the place of Reinhardt’s all encompassing theater as a haven and that was certainly fine with him. Reinhardt’s multi-faceted approach to theater shone in all its entertaining best through Warner stage design efficiency.
There was the realist extravagance in forested backdrops, but the wonderful ballet of the coming of night with dancer Nini Theilade was distilled expressionism. Other ballet sequences featuring the fairies-children and adults – were choreographed by ‘Bronislava Nijinska’ (the great Nijinsky’s sister). Reinhardt conjured all his and the camera’s magic to create the summation of a lifetime of stagecraft. His imaginative wizardry with lighting put the remarkable glow on the faces of Cagney and his motley peasant comrades as they rehearsed – on the dancing faeries in their sequins – on the enchanted sparkle of shimmering (painted and tinseled) woods and veiled atmosphere that awaited the gaiety of Titania and the black looks of King Oberon.
Everything of British and German folklore was thrown in for good measure – from gossamer English faeries and magic animals to rather frightening, rubber-masked dwarfs dressed as Teutonic gnomes and goblins. Reinhardt fuzzed and gauzed the camera lens and even put scintillating borders and covers of various sorts on the camera cowling to frame some faerie scenes as if from a Victorian painting by English artists Richard Dadd and Joseph Noel Paton-obvious influences.
The movie was not a box office success, but it was a salute to Shakespeare and a great melting pot of talent and modern film making that was Hollywood coupled with profound European stage traditions that began with Max Reinhardt. He did no more films, perhaps deciding that the real challenge was still the stage. But this one record on sound film measures the genius of the man of theater and gives today a glimpse of his creative powers and something of what his stage productions were like. He was more interested in continuing working on-stage as a director and producer, but he did not forsake Hollywood.
With his second wife actress ‘Helene Thimig’, from a famous Viennese acting family, he split his time between the coasts. He found a Hollywood based theater workshop and an acting school in New York. All of Reinhardt’s productions were tallied (from 1905 to 1930) and found to total 23,374 performances of 452 plays. His wide eyed exuberance for spreading out a great show was indicative of the child in Max Reinhardt. He betrayed that very comparison unashamedly: “Theater is the happiest haven for those who have secretly put their childhood in their pockets, so that they can continue to play to the end of their days.
- Alan Ladd (Shane, The Blue Dahlia, The Proud Rebel)
- Jack Carson ( Arsenic and Old Lace, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Mildred Pierce)
- Shirley Temple (Academy award winner. The Little Princess, Fort Apache, Heidi)
- Gower Champion (Show Boat, Till the Clouds Roll By, The Marge and Gower Champion Show)
- Angie Dickinson (5 time Golden Globe nominee. Two time winner for Police Woman.)
- Cliff Robertson (Oscar winner for Charlie. Spider Man, Sunday in New Your, The Devil’s Brigade)
- Gig Young (3 time Oscar nominee. Winner for They Shoot Horses Don’t They?)
He was born Mikhail Aleksandrovich Chekhov in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1891. His mother, Natalya Golden, was Jewish, and his father, Aleksandr Chekhov, was a brother of writer Anton Chekhov. Anton wrote of his four-year-old nephew in 1895, “I believe that he has a growing talent.” From 1907-11 he studied classic drama and comedy at Suvorin Theater School in St. Petersburg, graduating with honors as actor. In St. Petersburg he met Konstantin Stanislavski who invited him to join the Moscow Art Theater. The two became good friends and partners in propelling the Moscow Art Theater to international fame. Later Stanislavsky wrote that Michael Chekhov was a genius.
His film career began in 1913 with a role in ‘Tryokhsotletie tsarstvovaniya doma Romanovykh (1913)’ (aka Tercentenary of the Romanov Dynasty), followed by a few more roles in Russian silent films. It was during the Russian Revolution of 1917 that his beloved first wife, Olga Tschechowa, divorced him. He was devastated and suffered from depression and alcoholism for the rest of his life.
Between 1922 and 1928 he led the second Moscow Art Theater, earning himself a reputation as teacher, actor and director who brought innovations experimenting with symbolism and acmeist poetry. Chekhov updated the Stanislavsky’s acting method, by blending it with yoga, theosophy, psychology and physiology, and adding his own ideas of transformation of actor’s consciousness through psychological gesture and movement techniques for entering a special state of subconscious creativity. His idea of using an actor’s own intuition and creative imagination was a departure from the original method of his teacher, Stanislavsky.
Chekhov ignored the communist regime and was attacked by the Soviets for joining the Anthroposophic Society. In 1928 he was fired from the Moscow Art Theatre and eventually left Russia. In Europe, he taught his acting method and also made a big success in German films, co-starring with his ex-wife Olga Tschechowa, who was then living in Germany with her second husband. In 1931 he founded the Chekhov Theatre, with support from Rachmaninov, Bohner and Morgenstern, and in 1935 he brought the Chekhov Theatre on tour to New York. He taught acting in France, Austria, Latvia, Lithuania, and in England before WWII. In 1938 he moved to the United States, where he started his own school, and also successfully directed Dostoyevsky’s “Demons” on Broadway. Then he was introduced to Hollywood by Sergei Rachmaninoff.
In 1945 Chekhov played his best known film role, psychiatrist Brulov in Spellbound. He received an Academy Award nomination for the role and became a member of the American Film Academy in 1946. At that time, he taught his acting method in Hollywood. In 1953 he published a book about his method, “To The Actor”, with preface written by Yul Brynner. His students included Gregory Peck, Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Quinn, Jack Palance, Feodor Chaliapin Jr., Elia Kazan, Clint Eastwood, Yul Brynner and many other Hollywood actors and directors.
Gregory Peck (4 time Oscar nominee. Winner for: To Kill a Mockingbird)
Marilyn Monroe (Hollywood’s most famous leading lady)
Gary Cooper (5 time Oscar nominee, 2 time Winner for High Noon, and also Sergeant York)
Ingrid Bergman (7 time Oscar nominee. 3 time winner: Murder on the Orient Express, Anastasia, and also Gaslight)
Anthony Quinn (4 time Oscar nominee. 2 time winner: Lust for Life, and also Viva Zapata!)
Jack Palance (3 time Oscar nominee. Winner for City Slickers)
Elia Kazan (6 time Oscar nominee for directing. 2 time winner for On the Waterfront, and also A Gentleman’s Agreement)
Clint Eastwood (11 time Oscar Nominee. 4 time winner for direction and production for Million Dollar Baby, and also Unforgiven. Furthermore, the winner of 1995 Lifetime achievement Oscar)
Yul Brynner (Oscar winner for The King and I)
Patricia Neal (2 time Oscar nominee. Winner for Hud)
Sterling Hayden (The Godfather, Dr. Strangelove, The Asphalt Jungle, Johnny Guitar, Zero Hour!)
Lloyd Bridges (2 time Emmy Nominee. Appeared in Airplane,Sea Hunt, High Noon, Hot Shots!, and also Roots)
Beatrice Straight (Oscar winner for Network)
Theatre of Arts – Valmar Oleska (1959-2000)