All those former make-believe characters got together last weekend to celebrate a program that once was so huge that it’s story has taken on a mythical quality of its own.
More than 60 former Downey Children’s Theater’s players showed up at Furman Park on Saturday to catch up on old times and relive memories of a program that served thousands of Downey’s children.
And the guest of honor was an oil-on-canvas visage that sat on an easel next to a tree: John Hume.
An actor from northern California who came to Downey in the 1950s, Hume was the driving force of the theater for more than 20 years.
Hume, who died in 2002 at age 83, in 1955 began working with county park supervisors to organize a play for children. He expected 50 kids to audition, but 200 came. He put on a show at Rio Hondo Elementary. And then he kept on putting on more shows for the next 22 years, filling stages with children while fending off criticism by naysayers, spendthrifts, know-it-alls and non-believers
For those who attended Saturday’s reunion, it was not only a way to remember old friends and different times, but a chance to lament the demise of a program that burned bright for 23 years and then completely flamed out in 1978 in one foul swoop by Howard Jarvis and a fiscally hawkish Downey City Council.
After that first show, the theater grew to include programs for teenagers and adults, and was eventually taken over by the city after Downey’s incorporation. It was canceled in 1978 upon the institution of Prop. 13, a law pushed by anti-tax crusaders Estelle and Howard Jarvis. The law kept property taxes low, but it also drastically limited how local governments could raise money. The theater technically ran in the red, so the city cut it. Only the adult program, now called the Downey Civic Light Opera, survived.
At the reunion Saturday, former actors looked over old newspaper articles and laughed at their young faces in yellowed newsprint.
“It’s wonderful,” said Floyd Riggle, a former actor in Hume’s teenage group. “Getting to see all these people is great. We all tell each other that we haven’t changed bit.”
He and others recalled all the ways they used to raise money, such as car washes and a 30-hour marathon volleyball game.
By all accounts, the theater group was huge. Hume estimated that 75,000 people somehow participated in the 1963-1964 season, either by acting, building, raising money or watching the shows.
A Los Angeles Times reviewer once quipped that Hume put the whole city on stage, said Hume’s wife, Pauline.
Although Hume enjoyed a good play, making the world’s greatest productions was not the goal.
In a brief history of the group he wrote in the 1960s, Hume spelled out why he did what he did:
“The children’s theater is a tool to build character. Many people are ‘problems’ or ‘delinquents’ because they have developed an unreal standard of values. Many do not care what becomes of them, as they are convinced that no one cares for them. In the theater, we try to show what makes a good man good and then give to all participating those qualities that make a bad person a good person and a good person a better person.”
Pauline Hume said her husband avoided bawdy humor and cheap laughs.
“He was teaching those kids to grow up with morals,” she said. “He really cared about them.”
“The stage would be crawling with kids, and he would yell ‘Gerald, get back over there,'” Pauline Hume said. “How did he know Gerald was Gerald? How could anyone remember all those names?”
But almost everyone in the group moved away from Downey, said Larry Dusich, who was one of the driving forces in putting the reunion together.
Then in 2009, former actress Tori Murrill Connolly put up a Facebook page for people to swap stories and pictures.
In June, the membership of the Downey Children’s Theater page jumped from 29 to 64. And not long after, dates for the reunion were chosen.
The theater is not without a legacy. It was Hume and the city’s other thespians who pushed for the construction of the Downey Civic Theatre, which was built in 1972 after years of failed attempts to get something off the ground. The building campaign was paid for by a cigarette and hotel tax, Dusich said.
There is a movement to have the Downey Civic Theatre after Hume.
The Downey Arts Coalition published several historical documents about the theater’s history.
The coalition’s founder, Andrew Wahlquist, said he has become somewhat fascinated with the topic.
“Just seeing pictures of John Hume sitting there with his skinny black tie surrounded by all these adoring kids, it’s hard to believe it really happened,” he said.