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Company of Angels Turns 50 

And celebrates with its first director, Leonard Nimoy

Wednesday, Oct 14 2009
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On October 17, the Company of Angels is throwing a bash to celebrate its 50th-anniversary season. To mark the occasion, the company is honoring Culture Clash, Robert Ellenstein and Leonard Nimoy.

Mr. Spock? What could he have to do with Company of Angels? Even Nimoy was a little surprised. “They must have dug my name out of the archives,” he says, from his Westwood office. It turns out Nimoy directed Company of Angels’ first production, in 1961, and worked through the byzantine and impenetrable city bureaucracy in order to secure permits to run what’s now the city’s oldest operating theater. To employ as many of the company’s large stable of actors as possible, the troupe staged Tennessee Williams’ character-bountiful Camino Real.

“We cast it and started rehearsing and rehearsing, and rehearsing — for months,” Nimoy recalls. “Sally Kellerman was cast but dropped out because she went on tour with another play — eight weeks later she came back, and we put her back in the production because we hadn’t opened yet.”

click to enlarge COURTESY OF LEONARD NIMOY - Nimoy (right) onstage on La Cienega Boulevard, circa 1953
  • Courtesy of Leonard Nimoy
  • Nimoy (right) onstage on La Cienega Boulevard, circa 1953

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Nimoy describes how they ran lines while hammers were pounding on the set, as lights were being hung, and as city inspectors snooped around to see if they could find anything illegal in order to prevent the show from opening. The inspectors got what they apparently wanted: Camino Real never opened at Company of Angels, and Nimoy went on to be a Star Trek superstar, which propelled him onto the stages of regional theaters and to Broadway.

Between 1949, when he first arrived in L.A. from Boston, and his Trekkie days, Nimoy was onstage throughout L.A., as well as the country. He played the devil in Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus at the city’s first professional theater, the Orchard Gables Repertory Theatre, a 28-seat venue situated in the living room of a home a group of actors all chipped in to rent. That was the antecedent of the actor-driven company that has become a linchpin of L.A. theater.

 

Now 78, Nimoy is ruggedly handsome, with deep-set eyes like dark pools, and the lugubrious voice that hasn’t thinned since his days of playing Spock. He’s been married twice, and has two children by his first wife, actress Sandra Zober, whom he married in 1954. In 1988, he married Susan Bay. Nimoy is also an accomplished photographer. The walls of his studio are lined with photographs of zaftig nude women from his “Full Body Project.” One depicts a trio cavorting in a circle.

“I call them ‘My Three Muses,’ ” he offers.

Nimoy’s theatrical history began in the ’40s in Boston, where he did quite a bit of stage work. “I couldn’t stay long because I couldn’t afford it,” he explains. “I had to work to make a living, so I moved to Hollywood.”

Keep in mind, Nimoy knew he wasn’t what Hollywood’s studios needed in a leading man. His ambitions were focused on the legitimate stage. So why L.A. and not New York?

“That’s a very good question,” Nimoy reflects. “Unfortunately, the answer is kind of stupid. I didn’t have good information. I used to read Theatre Arts Magazine, and the Pasadena Playhouse [acting academy] always had a full-page ad. They had an impressive reputation. On the other hand, on the streets of Boston, if I talked to a couple of people about New York, they’d say, ‘Oh, it snows there, you’ll freeze your ass off.’ ”

In the late ’40s, while in Boston, Nimoy was playing Ralph in a production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing, when a pre-Broadway production of Odets’ The Big Knife rolled through, with a very successful character actor named J. Edward Bromberg.

“I sought his advice. I started calling hotels and looking for him. When I got the Ritz-Carlton, he answered the phone.

“Mr. Bromberg?”

“Yes?”

“My name is Leonard Nimoy. You saw me playing Ralph.”

“Yes. What can I do for you?”

“I want to study acting. What should I do?”

“Go to California.”

A twist of mockery plays on Nimoy’s lips: “The first professional actor I ever spoke with said, ‘Go to California.’ I had no choice.”

 

Upon moving here in 1949, Nimoy rented a room in a boarding house on the corner of De Longpre and Sweetzer avenues for $6 a week. His first roommate was Jay Fiondella, who started a restaurant in Santa Monica called Chez Jay, which has become a local landmark, now in its 48th year.

“A budding actress was living there and asked, ‘Do you fence?’ I had done some fencing in Boston. She was acting in a kids’ production of The Three Musketeers at the Coronet — two Saturday performances a week, and they’d lost their D’Artagnan. I went; it was a raucous experience, the kids were yelling through all the dialogue, but they shut up for the sword fights.”

I went to a movie audition, and the director had seen The Three Musketeers. So I worked in my first movie — I think it was called Zombies of the Stratosphere, I don’t know — because of a kids’ show at the Coronet.”

Nimoy speaks with enormous devotion about acting teacher Jeff Corey — “the Lee Strasberg of the West Coast” — with whom Nimoy studied, beginning in 1958. “He cast me with Paul Mazursky and Michael Forest in Death Watch by Jean Genet. We did the play in a coffeehouse on Cosmo Alley, off of Vine Street. Because Genet had never been produced on the West Coast, and there was this intrigue about this exotic writer, the industry people came.

“The L.A. Times referred to it as a ‘miasma of homosexuality.’ Of course, everybody wanted to see this. I started working steadily as an actor after that.”

Before Star Trek, Nimoy continued to do theater around L.A. and occasionally out of town; in 1953, Nimoy, who reads and speaks Yiddish, acted in a production of Sholom Aleichem’s It’s Hard to be a Jew, with Maurice Schwartz, founder of the Yiddish Art Theater, in New York. The production ran for a few weeks at the Civic Playhouse, a now-defunct theater north of the Coronet, on La Cienega.

Meanwhile, Nimoy was teaching for Corey, who’d been blacklisted until 1960. When Corey finally returned to work, several of his students came to Nimoy and asked if he wanted to start an acting company. They said they’d found a place behind a restaurant on the corner of Waring Avenue and Vine Street.

“I laid it all out for them, the design, and they tried this tedious process of making this into a working theater.”

That was the beginning of Company of Angels.

The Company of Angels 50th-anniversary bash, on October 17, at the Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., dwntwn. Arrivals start at 6 p.m. For more information, go to companyofangels.org.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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