In the Shadow of the Stars
If you are trying to make it in Hollywood, acting in community theater in Idaho can seem like trying to reach the West Coast on a paper airplane. In Sun Valley—where fame and obscurity often walk hand in hand—aspiring actors are never so far from their dreams as when they are standing right next to them.
Sun Valley was born in a starburst of glamour and hype in 1936, when Union Pacific Railroad chief Averell Harriman brought the likes of Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Lucille Ball and Clark Gable to town to promote America’s first destination ski resort. Later, stars such as Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood made it their home. The big stars say they come here to get away from the glitz, but they also come to bask in Hollywood tradition.
Well below the radar of Hollywood celebrity (and in some ways because of it), local theater has proliferated for three decades, spotlighting hundreds on its stages and training thousands of the valley’s schoolchildren in the dramatic arts. A multitude of plays have been staged over the past 30 years, from street-skit comedies to Broadway musicals, from Shakespeare, Chekov and Terrence McNally to David Mamet.
One of the
early Laughing Stock shows, Cowboy,
starring J.K. Simmons, center (now a successful Hollywood actor),
premiered at the Opera House in 1982. It also featured local actresses
Jules Petit, left, Cherie Kessler, Karyn Crawford, Patty Parsons and
Janet Edmund (front). Courtesy photo
It’s hard to say how many locals have had stars in their eyes at one time or another. Maybe they rehearse Academy Award acceptance speeches while prep-cooking in a resort restaurant or riding a frigid mid-winter ski lift. While some local actors have had shots at big-screen careers, most work in the shadow of stardom on shoestring budgets. But, every now and then, a little of that Hollywood stardust is sprinkled over local stages.
It all started high-brow enough. In the early 1970s, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts brought Vincent Dowling from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and Walt Jones from Yale to teach acting. Kathy Wygle was there, along with the Hemingway sisters, Mariel and Margaux, Cameron Cooper and others. Today, Wygle is managing director of Ketchum’s stage staple, the nexStage Theatre. "We did some improv, no big shows, but it sparked a big interest in theater," she said.
In 1977, Wygle founded Ketchum’s first theatre group, The Laughing Stock Theater Company, by gathering a few actors at Louie’s restaurant. The company included Chris Millspaugh, Rick Kessler, David Blampied and Bill Nagel. Their first production was Neil Simon’sPlaza Suite, performed at the Sun Valley Opera House. Wygle has gone on to produce 40 plays in 30-odd years.
That year, 1977, was also the year Mariel Hemingway would leave town for her Oscar-nominated turn in Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Vincent Dowling left the valley to resume his duties at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Ohio. While there, he gave an equity card to a young actor named Tom Hanks.
By the 1980s, Ketchum was cracking itself up to Chris Millspaugh’s Whoop Shows and Zoo Review, comedy skits based on local news staged at The Kneadery restaurant. The Fabulous Vuarnettes—a campy, comedy musical act—was also born at that time and continues today in Sun Valley.
But there were those who thought the valley was ready for something a bit more serious. "We wanted to do challenging and provocative theater," said David Blampied, who left Laughing Stock in 1984 to embark on seven years of theatrical training in New York City. Upon his return in 1991, he founded the New Theater Company, and went on to stage 35 plays in 13 years, including Pulitzer prize-winningWit by Margaret Edson.
Blampied also toured Idaho in the one-man-show Papa by John de Groot to commemorate Ernest Hemingway’s 100th birthday. "It wasn’t easy doing serious theater in a town that likes to be entertained," said Blampied. He eventually decided to give the valley masses what they wanted when he brought Forever Plaid to Sun Valley. The song and dance show has been running for nearly a decade at the resort.
Wygle believes Blampied’s work opened valley audiences to more serious theater and perhaps paved the way for the Hailey-based Company of Fools, founded in 1996 with the help of Hollywood action star and Hailey resident Bruce Willis. "In the old days, theater was more of a social thing. Now it is seen more as cultural and intellectual,’" Wygle said.
Jon Kane, founder of the Interplanetary Theatre Company, consistently drew big names to local stages for both reasons. The actors included Pamela Sue Martin (fromNancy Drew, Dynasty and The Poseidon Adventure) and Adam West (star of the original 1970s Batman series). "I basically had to stalk Adam to get him on the stage for a reading of David Mamet’s Duck Variations with Bill Raymond," said Kane, who now works on construction sites in the valley and has no immediate plans to return to producing. "Raymond had won several Obie Awards for his work off-Broadway, but I still had to educate people as to who he was. When you use actors with a deeper level of experience, it brings cachet to local productions."
Kane played Bundles the Laundry Man in Laughing Stock’s Annie, which starred Steve D’Smith as Daddy Warbucks. Bruce Willis’ daughter Rumor was in the show, and Kane saw Willis in the audience every night. "I asked him if he wanted to play the part of Bundles for the final night. He said, ‘I thought you’d never ask.’ It was my best moment as a producer. The audience went nuts."
Soon Willis took to a stage of his own at the Liberty Theatre in Hailey, which he purchased, renovated and made available to his old friend Denise Simone and her partner Rusty Wilson. Their Company of Fools debuted with Diary of a Mad Man, and has since become an Idaho arts institution. In 2005, the company received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, due in large part to its commitment to theater education in the community. "Our first show cost $5 and people brought bags of food and beer from Paul’s Grocery," said Simone. The next show starred Willis in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, marking his return to theater after an 18-year Hollywood career.
Keith Joe Dick came to the valley from Los Angeles to play in Fool for Love. Dick also had a part in the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, shot in Twin Falls and featuring Willis, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte and a group of local actors, including Anna Johnson, Denise Simone and one of the early Laughing Stock players, Bill Nagel.
Today, Dick owns a sign-painting business. "Most people have to do things other than act to survive here, unless you are George Clooney or something."
Although Company of Fools has been on its own financially for some years, it doesn’t hurt that stars hit its stage from time to time. Comedian Robin Williams tore the house down with three nights of outrageous comedy four years ago while preparing for shows in Las Vegas. Yet Company of Fools musical director R.L. Rowsey downplays the significance of big-name stars in the local theater community. "More of them are interested in coming here to refuel and play golf than to share their work," he said. "We just continue our original mission at the theater, which is to tell stories that resonate with the local community."
But in the Age of Celebrity, it matters much who tells the story. Wygle’s nexStage has had Carol Burnett, Cliff Robertson and British film star David Hemmings from Michael Antonioni’sBlowup on its boards. This year she is canceling the Sun Valley Shakespeare Festival after nine seasons, due to financial constraints. "It helps shine your star to have big names in your theater, but the real task lies in long-term fundraising."
This valley has the funds and the Hollywood connections to make dreams come true for even the biggest of stars. Every summer, dozens of media mogul jets line the runway at the airport in Hailey for the Allen & Company conference. Last year, Google’s Sergey Brin and Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein strolled together in front of the Sun Valley Inn. Perhaps even locals like Tom Hanks, Scott Glenn and Jamie Lee Curtis are hoping for a break.
of Community Theater
Pamela Sue Martin & Bill Raymond in Seduced, 1999
The New Theatre Company 1993 – 2003
Adam West & Bill Raymond in Duck Variations, 1999
Company of Fools 1996 – present
Rusty Wilson in Diary of a Mad Man, 1997
Royal Larkspur Theater Company 1998 – present
nexStage Theatre 2000 – present
Kennedy & Kathleen Craig in Agnes of God, 2003
Classic Theatre Co. 2005 – present