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Happy Days 

Synthaxis Theater’s Estelle Busch turns 90

Thursday, Oct 21 2004
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Something told me it would be fun to attend Estelle Busch’s 90th-birthday roast last Sunday at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Sherman Oaks. Not many people know that Busch has been the artistic director of Synthaxis Theater Company for 26 years. Synthaxis has been around since 1972, operating mostly in the Valley, though it doesn’t even have a home anymore, thanks to rising rents. The theater briefly resided in Hollywood circa 1977, around the time that I, in my early 20s, peddled my own plays — pedaled them, actually, going door-to-door on a bicycle to many of Hollywood’s small theaters. I was trying to get someone interested in producing my static, Ionesco-derivative one-act about two people driving aimlessly around the L.A. freeways. A workman at Company of Angels said he’d deliver it to the right person. I never heard back. A sympathetic actor at the Richmond Shepard Studio said he would read it and call me. He never did. One time, I followed a sign to a tiny 20-seat attic theater above the Armenian church on Vine Street. Two women in their early 60s were rehearsing Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. One played Winnie, the woman who chatters cheerfully while disappearing into a mound of earth. The other was the director. I handed them my play and said it was sort of like Beckett’s. They nodded, smiled politely and said they’d get back to me.

If memory serves, those women were Estelle Busch and Mary Mann — the scholar with whom Estelle took over Synthaxis from Cyndi Turtledove in 1980. After a decade or so working in Valley theaters, Turtledove fled to Mexico and has never been heard from since. I remember Busch and Mann from that 1977 meeting — a memory rekindled by numerous press releases

I’ve received over the years from Synthaxis Theater Company: notices for kids’ shows, feminist plays, plays for seniors, acting workshops, and a musical, Thogun and Natasha, written for youth by Mann.

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This is why I thought it might be fun to meet Estelle again, after 27 years, on the occasion of her 90th birthday. If nothing else, maybe she’d finally give me some feedback on my play.

 

About 50 people of all ages gathered at a dozen tables in the banquet hall. Estelle and her immediate family and friends sat behind a long table at the head of the room. I wrote out a $25 check for a fish dinner with salad and coffee, and asked to be seated next to anyone who had some knowledge of local theater history. Synthaxis’ associate producer Justine Visone parked me between actress Ivy Bethune, who’s in her mid-80s, and a 68-year-old standup comedian/radio host/playwright named Dennis Dalrymple. Dennis is also vice president of retirees for UAW Local 645 and is working for the Kerry campaign. Synthaxis produced his play, Mark Twain in Hawaii. Dennis didn’t talk much about it, but kept referring me to its photo display in the lobby. He did mention that Estelle hired him to direct it, and that one of the leads was a pompous ass who wouldn’t allow any other actors to cross in front of him.

“Estelle had some differences on how he was doing this and that, they had an argument, and he quit. I said, I can’t deal with this,” Dennis confided. A new director was brought in, Dennis stayed away from rehearsals, and the play ran for five months. Dennis remarked that Estelle’s bossiness could both inspire and infuriate.

Estelle was born August 30, 1914, to parents who came separately through Ellis Island from Russia in 1903 and 1905. At age 8, she joined a Yiddish theater in New York; at 14, she taught elocution lessons. She’s been a teacher ever since.

As Justine stood at the microphone praising Estelle’s perseverance and determination, Ivy pecked at her salad. We whispered back and forth.

Ivy has a soft-spoken, regal bearing, wears a hearing aid and is still at the top of her mental game. She said she came here from New York in 1957 with the touring Broadway production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. After commuting from NYC once a month to film a TV show called Matinee Theater, Ivy finally settled here in 1963, working with Estelle at Theater Rapport, which later became Theater Exchange. Ivy served on many committees for Actors Equity during the union’s “waiver wars” of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

“It was a very tough fight to get the membership to agree that they had to get paid,” Ivy said. “There are still a lot of things that need to be done to make it work for the actor successfully. We’re still working on it.”

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