Is there anything better than song, dance, popcorn and a sunset view on a summer evening? The Woodminster Summer Musicals in Oakland’s Joaquin Miller Park deliver just the right balance of edgy yet family friendly fun. Since 1967, Producers Associates has put on three musicals each summer, employing professional and amateur performers from the Bay Area. They featured Shrek The Musical, Chicago, and La Cage Aux Folles in 2016.
This season marks 50 years of summer musicals at the Woodminster Theater. The amphitheater’s rich history and its sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay make it an Oakland landmark. It is nestled high up in the 500-acre Joaquin Miller Park next to one of the only urban second-growth redwood groves, yet it is easily accessible from the CA 13 Highway.
Designed by Oakland Park Superintendent William Mott Jr., the amphitheater and cascades were completed in 1940 as a Works Progress Administration project. A series of fountains cascade from the mouth of the theater down to a pool. The Writer Memorial Grove honors California writers, with each tree dedicated to authors such as Joaquin Miller, Jack London and Mark Twain. “The trees planted here had been at the World’s Fair on Treasure Island in 1935,” said Woodminster producer Harriet Schlader. “Horticulturalist Lionel Sprattling was brought in to work on this project. He and Mott disagreed on what to plant. Mott wanted flowers, but Sprattling argued that we need drought-tolerant native vegetation here.”
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Soon after the completion of the theater, producer John Falls began putting on operettas and musicals in 1941. “The city would give him $20,000 each year, $10,000 of which was earmarked for musicians,” Schlader said. “After World War II and the Depression, the musicians were out of work. After the war, this was absolutely essential – if they came back.”
In the 1950s, the theater’s momentum slowed for various reasons. The popularization of television did not help the theater program. “People were fascinated with sitting at home and watching TV,” Schlader said. “And also, it was much warmer, and they didn’t have to hike up the hill to the amphitheater. At the same time, [Falls] was putting on shows that weren’t exactly contemporary at that time. The city kind of let this go, and pretty soon all the piping was stolen, and the electrical went. It all went to pieces.” The programs ended in the mid-60s, and the city began looking for a new theater production group.
Jim and Harriet Schlader began producing shows in 1967. “We got involved sort of by fluke,” Harriet Schlader said. Jim Schlader was a dancer and singer on Broadway for 20 years before moving to California. Harriet began dancing professionally in 1955 with the Radio City Music Hall Corps de Ballet then danced with the June Taylor dancers. “We didn’t know anything about theater in this area,” Harriet Schlader said. “We’d both come from Broadway. So it was kind of an eye-opener to get involved in something like this.” They started the nonprofit arts organization Producers Associates with two other partners who have since left the group.
Jim Schlader produced the summer musicals at Woodminster from 1967 until his death in 2010. Harriet has choreographed almost all of the musicals and now co-produces with her son, Joel. Over the years, they have put on family favorites like West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Greece, The King And I, Oliver, My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins.
Woodminster is deeply committed to affordable entertainment as well as theater education. A portion of the performers are on union contracts, and others are community members or youth with aspiring theater careers. “For young people coming into the theater, we provide a work ethic of the professionals. Hopefully, they will start to reach that level,” Schlader said. The producers strive to bring in a cast and audience as diverse as the community.
In 1975, they produced Oklahoma with a partially African-American cast. “The audience reaction was very interesting, kind of disgusting,” Schlader said. “Coming from New York, I was surprised.” When one of the newspaper reviewers published a photograph of only white performers, some of the African-American leads took insult. “The reviewers thought that our audience wouldn’t come if we published those photos ahead of time,” she said. “It ended up getting huge reviews, and it was one of the best-attended shows we ever had. Still, I watched people in the audience scowl as they saw black actors coming out on stage. They would nudge each other. But in 20 minutes, they were laughing.”
Schlader is intentional about casting and producing shows that are socially and politically forward-thinking. “This is exactly what they are doing with Hamilton in New York,” she said. “It’s done in a contemporary style with a lot of rap, and the performers are so good that people are now interested in Alexander Hamilton. You don’t have to do things that are totally culturally specific. There are things that we have that are culturally built into us. Why not celebrate the differences?”
La Cage Aux Folles was performed in September 2016. “There are people who don’t want to come see La Cage Aux Folles because it has homosexuals in it,” Schlader said. “You’d think that at this particular point in time, that people would. It doesn’t even have anything that’s offensive in it. It’s simply a lovely story which makes you realize that males and males can be as spiritually connected as males and females. So I decided they’re going to see it whether they like it or not.”
The organization runs with just three people on the payroll. An active Advisory Board supports the non-profit by fundraising and doing operations. Peggy Stackable has been on the board for more than 20 years. “It’s amazing to have a non-profit theater running for 50 years – it’s pretty remarkable,” Stackable said.
Woodminster’s Kids Come Free Program has given away thousands of free tickets to kids under 16, making live theater accessible and affordable for youth. On Thursday nights, the theater offers half-price tickets to groups over 25. Community, office and private groups come for summer evening picnics before the shows to enjoy the park ambiance and the company of other theater-goers. “There are people who came as kids and are now bringing their kids,” Stackable said. “It’s a great thing for Oakland, and I wish more people knew about it.”
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