Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Vee Rae interview: Sausalito's Gate 5 Theater & beyond


Vee Rae (Virginia Rae Kane) was an actor friend of my mother's at the Gate Playhouse Theatre in Sausalito during the late 1950s- early 1960s. I was young, still in the single digits, so my memory was sparse. But my first blog pieces in 2007 were on Gate 5, Tiki Junction, and also Juanita, which led to this post.

The photo that started it all. My mother, Kellé Reilly (later it was Kellé Green—
her stage name as there was already an actress, Maureen Hurley in SAG), 
Richard Knablin, Skip Rognlien and Vee Rae, Christmas, 1960. 
(Photo by Chris Gracida, courtesy of Richard Knablin.)

Somehow my mom's friend, Richard "Dik" Knablin stumbled across my blog post in 2009, and contacted me which led me to an email from Vee Rae. He sent me a photo of my mother with him and Vee Rae, and the memories came flooding back. Wow!

So this interview is a decade, or more like a lifetime in the making. Also, my drama teacher from College of Marin, James Dunn just passed away, he was also part of the lively and vibrant theatre scene in Marin. Come what come may, time and the hour run through the roughest day.

I was able to glean information on Skip Rognlien and Les Abbot, thanks to Google. I found a few reviews that mention Vee and other actors in the ensemble (Bill Edwards, Jim Holiday, Vickie Frazer, Sharleen Lambert, Diane Santich, John Rose, Jack Brennan and J. W. Cheetham, see newspaper archives at bottom), but nothing in print on my mother who worked so tirelessly behind the scenes with costuming, and she was also in most of the plays as well. I only have a few stills of her.

Skip Rognlien (1934-2018) was a ballet dancer

D. GORDON "SKIP" ROGNLIEN

When the Gate Playhouse director, stage manager, technical director, lighting and set designer, Skip Rognlien was killed in a head-on car accident in March, in Oregon, I realized that very few people held the oral history of that era were still among the living.

I had the idea of going up to Oregon to visit Richard Knablin and Skip Rognlien to collect their oral history. But life got in the way. I was laid up with a bum knee that wouldn't heal after surgery. I was goin' nowhere as they say. I couldn't even get across the room, let alone, drive to Oregon.

From what I can piece together, shows at the Gate Playhouse began in the fall of 1958 or 59. By 1962, or 1963, the Gate Five Players had folded, Les Abbott had gone off to Hollywood, as did Vee Rae.

Skip had returned to his home town, Kalispell, MT, to produce a few plays for Playhouse Actors in 1963. Then by 1965, he moved to New York and was producing plays for (another) Gate Theatre, and the Cricket Theatre. (Vee says he spent time in LA too. Need do get that story.) My mother would occasionally hear from Skip and tell me of his successes and escapades. I always loved Skip. He was kind to kids.

Skip, who was a lithe 6 foot 4 inches, was hand-picked by Mr. Balanchine, to attend the Balanchine School of American Ballet in Manhattan, but theatre was always his first love.
In the mid-50's, Marnie Cooper, a former Balanchine dancer, arrived at the University of Montana to teach ballet to football players. The theater department asked that she also teach a class for theater majors. The wife of the dean of music took home movies of our single performance, and a copy of the film was sent to Mr. B to show him what Ms. Cooper was doing out West. Evidently Mr. Balanchine took a look, for soon a letter arrived asking Ms. Cooper to ''send the tall boy,'' indicating me, to New York as a scholarship student. —Skip Rognlien

My earliest memory of Skip is during a rehearsal, him lounging on a tall wooden stool, wearing striped a sailor's shirt, telling everyone to "Take Five." And me asking my mother what it meant, as I conflated that with Dave Brubeck's album. She laughed and said it meant a smoke break. We stood on the ledge outside the back of the Gate as she smoked her Parliament, and flicked the butt into the dark bay.

While in New York, Skip also taught American square dance, and was founding president of the first gay square dance club, the Times Squares in New York.

Skip's obit mentions that he was involved with the theater for 50 years in New York City, San Francisco, and Sacramento. I wonder if that Sacramento nod is how my mother also wound up at the Music Circus theatre in the round, with Lloyd Bridges, in Guys and Dolls? My mom also costumed The Student Prince there. Vee Rae said that Les Abbot and Skip Rogniein worked several shows at the Sacramento Music Circus.

Skip also worked with  IBM’s Media Gallery, as the principal of Staging Techniques, LLC, which staged trade shows for major corporations. He retired to Oregon to run a B&B in Sullivan's Gulch, Portland. He retired from being an innkeeper, and built a home on the Oregon coast near Tillamook, and was active in the arts until his death at 83.

Les Abbott (1925-2012) DVC instructor IMDb

LESLIE (KARL) "LES" ABBOTT

Another member of the Gate Playhouse ensemble, director and producer, and later, Diablo Valley College instructor, Les Abbott, had died in 2012. Richard Knablin told me that Les had Alzheimer's for years. So it would be difficult to interview him. At the time I began to realize that all the principal actors were taking that final curtain call.

I don't know when the Gate Playhouse came into existence, but from a Sausalito Historical Society article on the Sausalito Art Festival review, I found this: "in 1959...Entertainment included folk and jazz singers, poets, dancers and performances by the Sausalito Little Theatre summer program and Les Abbott’s Gate Theatre Players."

After the Gate Playhouse Theatre folded in the early 1960s, Les Abbott, who was a member of the Actors Studio, moved to LA where he directed and acted at the Pasadena Playhouse. He also coached acting at NBC and Desilu Studio. Vee's interview fills in some of Les's backstory from the San Francisco days.

Neil & I ushered for that Dame Edna show, Theatre in the Square.
Les's obit history goes from NY direct to LA without stopping off in SF, which was a very important time. He formed two theatre companies Abbott-Abrams Productions and TheaterFest. He received his MA in psychology at Stanford, and taught at Foothill College, And of course, at Diablo Valley College, from 1973 to 2008, he mentored hundreds of young actors including my ex-partner, actor-singer Neil O'Neill.
Les directed over one hundred and fifty plays, including the West Coast premieres of Blues of Mister Charlie, All the King's Men, The Immoralist, Man with a Golden Arm, A Clearing in the Woods, besides numerous other plays including his final production, Angels in America, before retiring from directing. He also directed seven original plays and musicals with his production companies.
Leslie also authored 2 published books, Active Acting and Acting for Films and TV, that became part of the curriculum in some theater schools.  —from A Retrospective of Les Abbott's Life

Wonder what play they're reading? (Chris Gracida photo, Richard Knablin)

VIRGINIA "VEE" RAE KANE

When I contacted Vee in 2009, she was in the process of moving and didn't have access to her memorabilia, but we kept in touch over the years via Facebook. Of course I was curious as to what happened to Vee after the Gate Playhouse dissolved. The talented Vee was cast in the leading role of Annie Get Your Gun, and was going places. Did she make it, how did she get to Hollywood?

Last month, Vee sent me some photos of the Gate Playhouse which spurred me on to finally write this piece. I had originally planned on going to LA to collect her oral history, or folklore, but the timing wasn't right. So I made up a series of questions for Vee to answer at her leisure. This is what follows:

Gate Playhouse Theatre, ca. 1961. (Photo courtesy of Richard Knablin)

Hi Mo!                                                   Aug 29
I wrote a long answer to you about an hour ago but somehow the internet connection failed and I couldn't get it sent or even save a copy or have a draft copy! I can't tell you how frustrated I am (not the first time this has happened). Anyway -- I'll start again tomorrow. (Seems like I had to quit out but had no way to save the email I wrote). So... looking forward to answering some of your queries and will try to start again tomorrow. More to follow (hopefully)!!!

Gate Playhouse, Sausalito. Richard Knablin  photos 1961

OK, Mo—
I'm taking this a bit at a time, not in the order you wrote:
The Gate Playhouse: I got involved there approx summer 1958-59? when Les Abbott (having seen me in a theatre production at City College of SF) asked me to come audition for a musical he was mounting in Sausalito. I did audition and got the role of "Hildy" in the production of "On the Town".

I'm not sure Kelle was there at that time. After this show, Les directed "Annie". Your mom was very involved with the costumes and probably more at that time. She worked day and nite on the costumes.

Les Abbott and the Marquee. Richard Knablin photos 1961
Richard Knablin photos 1961
Skip Rognlien, I believe, did the sets and more. Kelle and Skip were close buddies. I believe that (as you may know), the theatre was formally a small movie theatre. I think it was Les who revived it. I don't know how long it lasted as I moved from Northern California in the fall of 1961. It was still going strong then, I believe.

My mom fitting a costume. Annie Get Your Gun?
Remembrances of Kelle are her endless patience and stamina. I'm serious when I tell you she worked thru the nite on the costumes and I believe had very little help. This was a huge costume show with tons of performers. I know we went to cast parties with the others and we were all one big happy group. She was very popular with us all.

Back of the Gate Playhouse opened abruptly into the bay,
a tiny ledge & nothing more than air. Richard Knablin photos 1961

I remember Athena—didn't know her last name (Note bene: Martin). She was legend there. She never did a show but was—apparently seriously with Les (tho he, of course, was gay).

I don't know what ever happened to Athena but my co-star, in "On the Town" who remained in Sausalito told me years later that she was "still around" (but this was many years ago). I "think" she may have had a son?? I may be confusing her with some of the other local characters??
(Note bene: Athena, who was my mom's best friend, was living with Les at the Alta Mira, and had a baby. Was it Les's? I remember visiting them with my mother.)
On "breaking free from the mold of the 50's" —hell, I have no idea but it's a great question. Maybe Dik (Richard) Knablin could help a bit with this one? As for the political climate—Geez! I was (and still am) somewhat apolitical, and being a rather "lightweight" theatre person wasn't at all interested in the outside world! We were ACTORS/ PERFORMERS, ETC! This was all that really existed for many of us I'm sure. (Ya' know—not too unlike the celebs today)!

On working with Les & Skip: Les was a gas! One of the funniest I ever met, and I still rely on some of his famous quotes. He worked hard on that theatre and held down a job as a waiter at the Alta Mira to help make ends meet.

I loved the guy—he was a dynamo and also quite intelligent. He was great in the City as a director of dramas and I think he excelled at this. In the City, he was a partner of "Abbot Abrams Productions". They were an equity house and produced many excellent plays.

My understanding is that Abrams caused financial problems and the whole thing fell apart so it was a few years before Les got to Sausalito. Interesting that he went on to teach and direct at Mt. Diablo (Valley) College for many years, and I think you are aware of that part of his life.

Skip Rognlien was truly a gifted and lovable guy. He and I became very close. We were friends in SF, in Sausalito & in L.A. Everyone who ever met him adored him. He was highly intelligent and had so many incredible jobs in NYC, L.A., etc.
When he and a partner bought a B&B in Portland (his later years)—I visited about 3 times & always had a fab time. Very hard to accept that he died in a traffic accident earlier this year. He was 83 but a very young 83 at that!

Back of the Gate Playhouse. Richard Knablin photos 1961

Got off the track with the last bit but on that note: I don't remember us all doubling up on duties at the theatre. Les had lots of minions who hung around the place and I'm sure they did most of the work.

Programs were always printed I believe and Herm Arrow who lived in Marin took all of our photos—gratis, I believe. Herm's son, David Arrow stayed a close friend of Skip's for many years. Not sure what the cost of tickets were—we played mostly on weekends and I remember no totally empty houses and Sat. nites, as expected, were packed! Not sure where the audience came from but you know many from the City and probably most from friends/relatives of the cast!

Hope this helps a bit, Mo -- I'll check off more on your list as time permits -- feel free to offer further questions or clarifications if you need them. Stay tuned!!!
I wrote back: Yes, please answer in any way you see fit. Hopefully it'll be fun too. Awesome, so far, and you're chronicling something that's never been done before! Feel free to expand...Another question: when you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Mo: It IS fun and a kind of "life review" for me as well. Hopefully some of it will be useful to you wherever it takes you.
Going back to your first question since you asked about childhood aspirations, etc. I first became interested in theater as a chum on our block in SF (Parkside district) had a mother who believed in a child becoming involved in ALL classes artistic!

Thru her mom, I heard about (get this): "Aunt Lolly's Children's Theatre"! It was a class this woman held in her home in the Sunset/ Parkside district. When I heard that this class was to be about "dramatics"—I had no idea what that meant. I thought maybe it had something to do with "Elocution" classes or?

Anyway—I went to the class and immediately "Miss Lolly" cast me in character roles (I had a deep voice for one so young). She was also doing a play "Little Women" at the local Orphanage. She cast me in the role of "Amy". I had no idea at all what I was doing. I must have been a pre-teen at that point.

Anyway—that was the first experience I had in theatre. I think it stuck but I didn't really get active again until I was in high school in SF and discovered the "Opera Ring" run by Irma Kay (sister of the illustrious Hershy Kay (google him). So it was set, I wanted to be an actress. I think I can actually say I became interested on becoming an actress at age 11.
In 1957 I think when I started City College—the director of the theatre, Dr. Michael Griffin—cast me as lead in many productions. That sealed the deal! And that is where Les Abbott came into the picture (I also did chorus & small roles in the Opera Ring (theatre in the round) in SF intermittently.

I also toyed with the idea of being a "detective" back in the day! (I know—errant gene I guess). Later, I became interested in being a psychologist (doesn't everyone)? AND an investigative reporter! (HUH)?

As a note about who inspired me in literature (if that was the case)—YES! It's interesting you mentioned it—I have always been a huge reader (gene from my mother) and in high school, I had a marvelous Eng. teacher but one book we were required to read was: "Pride and Predjudice". I hated that book!

Suffice to say—I've realized I'm ignorant when it comes to Jane Austen and wanted to figure out what all the hoopla was about. AND SO—I just finished reading the book and I was surprised that I actually enjoyed some of it. It was a struggle for me in some parts but I was happy to say I got thru it and was rooting for Mr. Darcy from the get-go!

That said, I think I'll leave it to the Brits movie versions of more of Austen in the future. One last thought: I wondered how sophisticated was my English teacher to think a 15 or 16 year old girl would be able to relate to that book? Wishful thinking I'll bet, or bets on a very advanced young teen?

So that's it for now, Mo! thanks for your interest and the "stirring up of my much-needed dusting off—gray matter! More to follow after a day or so...hope you have a relaxing and peaceful and PLEASANT weekend and hopefully cooler!!

Hey Mo:                                                 Aug 30
Sorry for the stop and start. I'm overloaded with stuff to do but will try to knock out more answers to your questions as often as I can (and at the risk of boring you to tears).

Did I live in Sausalito or commute: Lived with my parents in the foggy Parkside district of SF and an actor friend used to drive me to Sausalito. I also often took a bus or my dad, if available, would drive me there. I lived in Larkspur much later in my life— from 1999 to 2003.

BTW: used to enjoy shows at the little theatre there (name escapes me [Lark Theatre?] ). This group was in the heart of Larkspur and a talented group of actors as well. I "think" I may have heard of or seen James Dunn at that venue (or maybe not).

As for Kelle's house in Sausalito? I never knew where she lived actually. One of the actors rented a cool abode in the hills above Sausalito and I think that is where we attended some cast parties, get-togethers, etc.

As for the cast from the shows at the Gate: I know Skip, after hanging around L.A. for awhile, finally ended up in NYC —he had a couple of great jobs there and even partnered with 4 other guys and formed a company called: "Staging Techniques" (rented video/movie equipment).

They were based as I recall in NY but also here in Hollywood. After that and a gig with IBM in NY, Skip and another guy bought a charming old house in Portland, ORE. and ran a B&B there for a number of years—much later—he moved to the northern coast of [Wheeler] Oregon—built a cool house there with another partner, and was there until he died in March, this year.

Dik (Richard) Knablin, one of my funnymen babysitters

Richard (Dik) Knablin also lives in Northern Oregon now—he went to work for a school in Palo Alto I believe (after the Gate). He retired to North Bend. Dik, as you probably know wasn't in any of the shows but hung out with us all—he wanted to be a writer.

Other cast members: Ronnie De Benedictis moved to NYC and then years later moved back to Sausalito with his partner and they bought a gift shop in town that they ran for a number of years.

Stan Church had several jobs over the years and I lost touch with him along the way.

If there are others I've forgotten— I'll send you an update—trouble is I've been involved with so many shows, theatre peeps, etc. Hard to remember, let alone keep track of them all.

Where did I go after: OMG! This would take forever to explain. Directly after the Gate, however, I wound up in Hollywood. A quickie explanation: I was having fun being in the chorus and taking small parts in Les' production of "Of Thee I Sing" (not sure if Kelle did the costumes for this one but think she may have)? (Note bene: she did.)

I got a phone call while actually at the theatre from Jack Pierce (a director friend from SF). He was in Hollywood directing "The Boyfriend" and wanted me to come down for a part in the show. Since I thought this was probably a good opportunity, I packed up and moved. Unfortunately, Jack had been fired and the new director was keeping the gal who originally had been cast!

Here's an interesting note for you: Remember Litchfield's Bermuda Palms in San Rafael? Jack signed on to direct an original musical there titled: "It's Great to be Alive". Thru my buddy who was in the chorus, I got to join in as well. When that was over, Jack staged a musical review on the premises and I was one of the principals.

Next door to Litchfield's was a club called: "The Wye Club". It was sorta tacky but I signed on with another actor pal to do their melodramas on the weekends. It wasn't very exciting BUT we got PAID!!!

Signing off now, Mo, for part 3 (we're almost done). bye for now....v

I just finished reading this, Mo and I loved it all! It's neat that this piece filled in some blanks for me and I picked up a few names I can elaborate on later, tho not sure I'll have much to report. I was a friend of Bill Edwards aka Guy Edwards aka Guy Williams (I think)! He was such a talented guy and very handsome. I wonder what ever happened to him.

I also knew Vicki Frazier —I just loved her. She had a terrific Jazz voice and I heard she gave up singing to marry an airline pilot.
John Rose was one of my closest and bestest of friends. He was a brilliant actor but could do anything necessary in the theatre—editing music, running lights, doing photography, etc. He got some fantastic reviews in the LA Times on his acting performances. Unfortunately, he died of AIDS very early on. 

I was surprised to read that Les Abbott actually lived at the Alta Mira.  My understanding was he lived in a room above the theatre (Skip also used a room there as well for awhile). But since Les worked as a waiter at the Alta Mira—maybe they gave him a room before he wound up living in the theatre?

Re: Athena's son—intriguing that Les might have been the father but somehow I doubt it. I knew Les very well over the years and I think he would have let something slip about this child. Also, Athena was "very" popular with many guys—she may have even married somewhere along the line. I do remember, now, my chum in Sausalito telling me
she got very involved in political events there.
To be continued....

(Photo by Chris Gracida, Richard Knablin photos 1960)