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The Great American Melodrama: 40 Years of Vaudeville in Oceano

Cast members entertain audiences during the vaudeville revue in the summer of 1975 at the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano. | Courtesy of Great American Melodrama
Cast members entertain audiences during the vaudeville revue in the summer of 1975 at the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano. | Photo: Courtesy of the Great American Melodrama.

At the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano, audience participation is a must. Theatergoers are encouraged to boo and hiss as the mustache-twirling villain menaces the damsel in distress and cheer when the dashing hero thwarts his evil plans -- just as their counterparts did a century ago.

A Central Coast institution for four decades, the Melodrama specializes in old-fashioned, family-friendly entertainment with a contemporary twist. "When you think, 'Where do I take my 100-year-old mother, and the teenage kids, and six and seven year-olds?'... [The answer is] you go to the Melodrama," said co-owner Lynne Schlenker, whose husband, John, co-founded the Melodrama with Anet Carlin. "Everybody laughs. Everybody interacts."

This month, the Melodrama kicks off its 2016 season with the spy thriller spoof "The 39 Steps," adapted from the John Buchan novel and Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same title, running Jan. 21 through March 6.

"We offer a range of shows here that are always enjoyable for the whole family and they're always of the highest caliber," said Dan Schultz, who took over as Melodrama artistic director in June.

"When people come to see us, it's not like going to see a community theater production. You're going to see actual trained professionals," said the Phoenix, Ariz., native, who holds degrees from Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., and Florida State University in Sarasota, Fla.

The Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano. | Photo: Courtesy of the Great American Melodrama.
The Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano. | Photo: Courtesy of the Great American Melodrama.

First introduced in the 18th century and peaking in popularity in the Victorian era, melodramas -- historically, plays interspersed with songs and orchestral music highlighting the action onstage -- were once a staple of the theater scene. The genre known for its stock characters and sentimental storylines enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in television and film in the 20th century but is now rarely seen on stage.

"More than the date of the material, it is the presentational style, the breaking of the fourth wall and the invitation to the audience participate through booing and cheering" that makes melodramas work, explained longtime employee Eric Hoit, who's spent three stints as Melodrama artistic director and has served as the theater's bookkeeper since 1998. "People like to... feel involved and connected and not just passive."

"It's a social experience as well as a theatrical experience," Hoit added.

On a typical night at the Great American Melodrama, audience members are greeted by the sound of a honky tonk piano. After they're ushered to their seats by cast members in costume, the master of ceremonies -- usually another actor -- explains the house rules, calls out those celebrating birthdays or anniversaries and leads theatergoers in a group sing-along.

The Melodrama presents a mix of contemporary comedies, musical parodies and old-fashioned melodramas, all accompanied live by the music director. During intermissions, the actors clear tables and serve snacks and drinks -- offering up a cheery snippet of song whenever a patron plunks some change in the tip jar.

Each performance is followed by a themed vaudeville revue featuring songs, sketches and pop culture parodies.

"I sometimes call the Melodrama a cross between 'Saturday Night Live' and Disneyland," Hoit said. "We're cleaner [than 'SNL'] and more family friendly and, I think, funnier."

According to John Schlenker, the "rough-and-tumble" nature of the Melodrama has "opened the doors for a lot of people to come and subject themselves to a theater experience. From there it's had a lasting effect."

Musical saw player Tom Scibner chats with cast member Marty Fast as she works at the snack bar at the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano. | Photo: Courtesy of the Great American Melodrama.
Musical saw player Tom Scibner chats with cast member Marty Fast as she works at the snack bar at the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano. | Photo: Courtesy of the Great American Melodrama.

Schlenker, who grew up in west Texas, earned his master's degree in theater arts and English literature at Eastern New Mexico University. He taught high school in Las Cruces, N.M., before founding artistic director Donovan Marley coaxed him to move to the Central Coast in 1968 to work as an actor at PCPA - Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria.

"I worked with the best people that summer I probably ever worked with," Schlenker recalled, including Carlin, a lighting and scenery designer. Then known by her maiden name, Annette Gillespie, the Houston native had moved to California after studying directing and theatrical production at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to Carlin, she and Schlenker weren't friends right away. But when the two moved to the rural community of Halcyon just south of Arroyo Grande, "We started to hit it off and have really big fun together," Schlenker said.

It was Schlenker who proposed starting a theater company, popping the question on an occasion he and Carlin have dubbed "the crab night." After trying, and failing, to fish for crab off the Avila Beach Pier, they drove to nearby Pismo Beach to take in a spectacular red tide.

As they watched scarlet waves crash against the shore, "John said, 'You know what we ought to do? We ought to open a melodrama,'" recalled Carlin, then living in Los Angeles. "I rolled my eyes and said, 'Really?! That's a great idea, John. Go talk to someone else.'"

But Schlenker persisted, and the two decided to launch the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville -- named after a now-defunct restaurant chain, the Great American Food and Beverage Company. They settled on a former Rexall drug store in the small seaside town of Oceano as the location for the fledgling theater.

This playbill advertises the first season of the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in the summer of 1975. | Image: Courtesy of the Great American Melodrama.
This playbill advertises the first season of the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in the summer of 1975. | Image: Courtesy of the Great American Melodrama.

"Nobody took them seriously" at first, Lynne Schlenker said. "Nobody in their right mind would have thought to do that."

When John Schlenker approached a local banker for a loan, "He said, 'What do you want it for?' I said, 'Well, I want to put a theater in,'" Schlenker recalled. "Boy," the banker responded, "if you were going to buy a good racehouse, I'd probably give you that money. But a theater? No way!"

Instead, Carlin and Schlenker scraped together the money themselves, chipping in $5,000 apiece and borrowing $8,000 more. Then came the laborious process of renovating the space.

Aided by friends and professionals, the founders built a small stage and a snack bar, painted backdrops and poured concrete for tables. They even salvaged seating from an old church, pushing the pews through a second-story window.

Their efforts paid off July 2, 1975, when the Melodrama opened to a packed house -- primarily locals lured by the promise of an "authentic 19th century melodrama & vaudeville show with Music and Comedy in the Spirit of the Gay Nineties," as an early handbill proclaimed. "So many people came," Lynne Schlenker said. "They came expecting absolutely nothing and it so blew their expectations [away]."

Admission to the Melodrama cost just $2.50 for adults, or $1.50 for those under 18. (Keeping ticket prices low was "the smartest thing we ever did," John Schlenker said.)

He and Carlin originally planned to run the Melodrama for a single summer, but the strong response persuaded them to reopen for the summer of 1976. The following year, the theater stayed open year-round.

Cast members Skip Sage, Michael Pollock, Marilyn McGuire and Richard Inman perform at the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano in 1976. | Photo: Courtesy of the Great American Melodrama.
Cast members Skip Sage, Michael Pollock, Marilyn McGuire and Richard Inman perform at the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano in 1976. | Photo: Courtesy of the Great American Melodrama.

Carlin and Schlenker handled nearly every aspect of their new business -- from acting and directing to cleaning the toilets. "It was pretty seat-of-the-pants stuff," Carlin recalled, comparing the pair to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, whose characters famously "put on a show" in the movie "Babes in Arms."

The cast members worked just as hard, slinging snacks and drinks in between acts. Actors were provided housing and paid $25 a week plus "all the beer and popcorn they wanted," Carlin said with a chuckle. "Everybody gained, instantly, 10 to 20 pounds."

Hoit joined the Melodrama as an actor fresh out of Stanford University in 1980. At the time, the theater was "a little bit of a hidden treasure," he said. "I don't know if anyone outside the Central Coast, or the Five Cities, knew about it at that point."

Over the years, Hoit and Schultz said, the Melodrama has built a national reputation as a training ground for actors looking to gain experience, beef up skills or improve their comedic chops. "A lot of young actors come out of college, where you do your show for two weekends... and here you do 40, 50 performances," Hoit said.

Erik Stein, casting director at PCPA, launched his professional acting career at the Melodrama.

Stein and his future wife, Jacqueline Hildebrand, met in 1990 when they auditioned for the same role -- that of a tap-dancing Christmas package in a holiday-themed vaudeville revue. They shared their first kiss onstage as the Prince and Cinderella in a comic opera version of the classic fairytale, "The Shoe Must Go On."

"The Melodrama gave me a grad school experience that otherwise I would not have had," said Hildebrand, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree from USC. Specifically, she said, the theater has given her the opportunity to take on roles she may have not otherwise tackled -- from rosy-cheeked ingenues to wizened crones.

Billy Breed, Jeff Salsbury and Katie Worley appear in a scene from "The 39 Steps," playing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano. | Daniel Schultz
Billy Breed, Jeff Salsbury and Katie Worley appear in a scene from "The 39 Steps," playing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano. | Photo: Daniel Schultz.

"It's such a great place for young people to work right off school because you are in front of an audience six days a week," said Stein, who attended PCPA from 1988 to 1990. "We're performing for them. We're serving them. We're taking them to their seats. We're saying goodbye to them after the show."

That intimate connection with the audience translates into immediate feedback during performances. "You can see them. You can feel them. You know when you land a joke. You know when you've mistimed something," Hoit said.

The same intimacy, Stein and Hildebrand added, fosters a sense of connection and ownership in the community.

"You can tell the audience takes a lot of pride in their local actors," Stein said. "They are very supportive and think of us as their hometown team, even though we're from all over (the country)," his wife said. "They've really invited us into their lives..."

Over the decades, the Melodrama has fostered a steady stream of talented cast and crew members, including playwright and director Neal LaVine, music director Todd Schroeder and Kevin Goetz, founder and CEO of movie and television research firm Screen Engine Inc.

Acting alumni include "Top Gun" star Kelly McGillis, Emmy Award winner Leslie Jordan of "Will & Grace" fame and Patrick Page, whose Broadway credits include "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King" and "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."

Steve Kazee, who won a Tony Award and a Grammy Award for his starring role in the musical "Once," professed his love for the Melodrama via Twitter, Schultz said. And Kathy Fitzgerald, who's found fame on Broadway in "The Producers," "Wicked" and "9 to 5: The Musical," called the Oceano theater her "comedy school," Hoit said.

Jeff Salsbury stars as Richard Hannay in "The 39 Steps," playing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano. | Daniel Schultz
Jeff Salsbury stars as Richard Hannay in "The 39 Steps," playing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano. | Photo: Daniel Schultz.

Many of the Melodrama's brightest stars have also studied and worked at PCPA. In addition to Stein, the Santa Maria theater company counts former Melodrama artistic director Brad Carroll and former Melodrama actor George Walker among its resident artists.

"We share directors. We share actors. We share technicians. We share costumes and set pieces," Stein said. "We try to give each other moral support, and we go and see each other's shows, too."

Schultz described the relationship between the two companies as "very symbiotic." "I know the importance of having a good training program just 20 minutes down the road," he said, noting that the Melodrama also offers training for young and old. (Its children's theater program, Camp Melodrama, celebrates its 22nd anniversary this year.)

Just as PCPA has expanded its scope in recent years, so too has the Melodrama. The theater, which underwent a remodel in 2011, originally only presented material written before 1910.

"I remember the first time we did a '20s-themed revue -- it was almost controversial," Hoit said. "Over the years, the revues became more and more modern, to the point where we're doing spoofs of Beyoncé or Lady Gaga."

Housekeeper Mrs. Higgins (Travis Mitchell) discovers a dead body (Katie Worley) in "The 39 Steps," playing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano. | Daniel Schultz
Housekeeper Mrs. Higgins (Travis Mitchell) discovers a dead body (Katie Worley) in "The 39 Steps," playing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano. | Photo: Daniel Schultz.

Productions, too, have grown more contemporary in scope.

"That's why this particular theater has thrived; we've made those adjustments," Hoit said, the result of "a real effort to listen to the audience response and sales." "If we were still doing turn-of-the-century melodrama and old-fashioned vaudeville [exclusively], I think we would have closed, honestly."

In store this season are the classic melodrama "A Witless Rogue," the musical horror spoof "Trudy and the Beast" and the modern musicals "A Dog's Life," "Across the River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Under the Boardwalk." (Stein penned "Under the Boardwalk," about a clam who falls in love with a seagull under the Pismo Beach Pier, while Hoit created "Trudy and the Beast," in which a monster menaces a Nipomo golf course, with former musical director Jordan Richardson.)

Wrapping up 2016 will be "The Holiday Extravaganza," a show that's a seasonal staple on the Central Coast event calendar. The production includes a one-act version of "A Christmas Carol," a fractured fairy tale opera and a holiday-themed vaudeville revue featuring festive songs and sketches.

In addition to focusing on programming, Schultz said he's stepping up outreach efforts and boosting the Melodrama's social media presence. "What I'd really like to do is make the Melodrama the first name on the list when our audience thinks of entertainment," he said.

Carlin and the Schlenkers said they're excited to see the Melodrama grow, even though they've cut most direct ties to the company.

"It's an absolute institution," said Carlin, who left the Melodrama in 1987 and sold her share of the company to the Schlenkers two years later. While John Schlenker is no longer involved with the Melodrama, his wife stops by the theater a couple times a week to "stay in touch," she said.

"Just to go and watch a show [at the Melodrama]... you really realize how it touches people in a super-special way," Lynne Schlenker said. "They see it as their theater."

Charles Creasey plays the honky tonk piano at the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano. | Photo: Courtesy of the Great American Melodrama.
Charles Creasey plays the honky tonk piano at the Great American Melodrama & Vaudeville in Oceano. | Photo: Courtesy of the Great American Melodrama.

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