By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
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.
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.”
At the age of 86, Ivy belongs to the Colony Theater and to Theater West, and is currently rehearsing a play called A Word With Orlando, slated to open at the Odyssey Theater.
A group of actors at one table stood up and read scenes from Alice Joseph and Estelle’s play called A Woman’s Place, which, thanks to Mayor Tom Bradley’s sponsorship, Synthaxis took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1979.
Estelle read Bella, somewhat bossily, wearing a hat that Abzug had actually given to her.
The sound of kids singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” bled through the wall when Estelle finally approached the podium to speak: “I’d like to thank all my best friends who are here — where are they? Oh, they went to the ladies’ room.”
We all waited for them to return.
“Theater has been a river running through my life,” Estelle continued. “I was 10 years old in a Bronx tenement when I got some kids to create a play. I played the lead, the parents wanted to see what we were doing. I said if you want to watch, you have to throw money!
“I came out here as a newlywed in 1943, with my husband of 10 months. We were very excited about coming to sunny California, and it was raining. We went through all the difficulties that were apparent here. I worked side by side with Bette Davis, John Garfield, but through the years I have always felt you have to give to the community, even though you have no idea of what you want for yourself.”
“Of course, nobody’s heard of her,” Ivy told me softly. “I mean, in the larger scale of things, 50 years of doing theater in the Valley — who gets famous for that? There was this girl from Theatersports and Theater West, Ellen Idelson died from breast cancer in her 40s. Six hundred people came to her funeral, everyone who got up to speak said the same thing, with tears: ‘She was my best friend.’ She left a mark theatrically, creatively, despite the fact there was no PR, no great accolades. It’s interesting that a drop in a bucket can make such a sound.”
Dennis had gotten up to peruse the photo exhibit of his play, when Estelle sidled into the seat beside me, talking about her work with Women in Theater, the Los Angeles Theater Alliance, the Valley Theater League, the Los Angeles League of Professional Theaters, of her devotion to causes for women, children and seniors (the “neglected” people). She also praised the beneficence of city councilmen who had funded her theater and its work in the schools with “discretionary funds” (that no longer exist).
“I have to ask you,” I said, remembering Estelle as Beckett’s Winnie, sinking so cheerily into the sands of time. “Around 1977, I brought a play to you, at this tiny theater in the attic of an Armenian church on Vine Street. You were rehearsing Happy Days. Do you remember?”
Estelle stared at me with clear, cogent eyes. “No,” she said. “I don’t think it was me. I’ve never done Happy Days. When we were in Hollywood, we were on Santa Monica, in that theater that became the Complex . . .”
“The Richmond Shepard Studio?” I said.
“Yes, I think we were there, on Santa Monica, not on Vine.”
It was a startling plot twist to find myself at the birthday party of somebody I’d never met, and whose work I’d never seen. But if we hadmet in 1977, would it have been so different? What is theater if not the invention of memory?
On the parquet floor in front of us, Justine directed her Vision Acting Workshop — grown actors playing kids, Justine portraying Estelle directing them in one of her school projects.
“Estelle,” Justine snapped, interrupting our conversation. “We’re doing this for you. You really should pay attention.” Slightly chastened, Estelle turned toward them, resting her chin on one hand. Ivy smiled slightly. Justine resumed directing her actors.
“She’s doing it all wrong,” Estelle whispered to me. “She doesn’t describe it right to them. You don’t shout at children if you want results. You show them how to adjust.”
“She never let anything get her down,” said Ivy as the group surrounded Estelle in the middle of the room with a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
“When she didn’t succeed the way she wanted to in any given production or workshop or whatever, she simply went on to another,” Ivy continued. “She was always willing to create a vehicle for herself when there wasn’t a chance, when she didn’t get any work.”
Estelle should have played Winnie, I figured. It’s still not too late. She isWinnie.
As the remaining smattering of people collected raffle prizes, Estelle supervised the cleanup ritual, telling people what to take, and where to move.