The first time I heard a British friend mention attending a panto, I deduced the word was shortened from pantomime, but all I could think of was using physical and non-verbal language in a lively game of charades. In my experience, pantomime was primarily miming to act out a word or phrase.
I really had no reference point for this form of entertainment. I learned that pantos are popular family entertainment, often physical or slapstick comedies based on familiar fairy tales or popular stories, infused with topical jokes tied to current cultural references and peppered with adult innuendo. A key element, audience participation, is helped along with popular music.
History records an early American pantomime of Robinson Crusoe produced in 1786, and although pantos are no longer familiar to most Americans, I can see, how the once popular theater form may have influenced the rise of American Vaudeville.
In late December, my mother and I accompanied Aimee and the girls to share our first authentic panto experience, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, A Pirate’s Christmas. Sophia and Karina were more familiar with the Disney stars in the roles of Wendy, Peter, John and Michael, but I was more amused at the humorous John O’Hurley in his dual role as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling.
In true panto fashion, the script included tongue-in-cheek references to O’Hurley’s well-known Seinfeld character, J. Peterman, as well as his popular stint on Dancing with the Stars. Some of the pirates bore a clever resemblance to the Beatles, Elvis and a very talented Michael Jackson. The children were thoroughly entertained with slapstick physical comedy, popular songs and a colorful stage production while the adults enjoyed current cultural references and the humor targeting a more mature audience.
It felt very unusual to chime in from the balcony with “boo and hiss” for the villains while also yelling at the other characters to “watch their backs” and “look out” for the pirates. The interplay between actors and audience was a clever and unique theater experience.
It was an added bonus to have the excuse to once again visit the Pasadena Playhouse, with its very interesting local history.
One hundred years ago Pasadena was primarily a town of farmers and wealthy vacationers, a far cry from today’s sprawling city of high-end retail and restaurants, civic center banking and commercial buildings and worldwide reputation as the home of the Rose Parade.
The little theater community that founded the Playhouse got its start in 1916 with the Gilmore Brown Players, a popular itinerant acting troupe that by 1917 moved from their burlesque house to the newly constructed Pasadena Playhouse.
At one time the Playhouse was the largest and most technically advanced theater venue west of the Mississippi, enjoying such tremendous community support that George Bernard Shaw dubbed it, “Athens of the West,” with a comparison to the ancient Festival Dionysia.
For many years, the theater was also a College of Theater Arts with many acting notables (Tyrone Power, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Raymond Burr and many others) premiering hundreds of plays as part of their acting education. But the theater and school closed in 1969 when the founding director died and changes in Actors Equity Association made productions more difficult.
With both celebrity and community support, the Playhouse opened again in the 1980’s and has a permanent place in the heart of local theater lovers.
If you’re an American, I’d be interested to know if you’ve had the opportunity to enjoy this unique form of theater entertainment. And if you’re not “from around here,” thank you for keeping such a unique theater tradition alive. I know that we will be looking for next year’s Panto at the Playhouse and this time, we will be telling all our friends.
For more information about the Playhouse, click HERE. If you live in Southern California you will particularly want to visit at some point. After all, it is the state theater, right up there with the poppy as the state flower.
The Pasadena Playhouse is a favorite of mine, so if you plan to attend a performance, consider purchasing me a ticket and inviting me to come along, will you? Thank you.