A Christmas Panto at the Pasadena Playhouse

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

30 thoughts on “A Christmas Panto at the Pasadena Playhouse

    1. Debra Post author

      I now understand that this production company, Lythgoe Family Productions, operate out of Southern California but have British roots, and maybe sometime there’d be a way to find an event you can attend with the grandchildren. It would be a fun part of your wife’s heritage to share with the younger ones! You’d enjoy it, too, no doubt.

      Reply
  1. Cathy

    I am glad you have now experienced a pantomime Debra! They were a part of my childhood in the UK – a special treat usually between Christmas and the return to school in January in our lovely old repertory theatre with its grand curtain and plush seats. But when my niece was small I had the excuse to go several times again… and I have also since then seen one in the company of adults only! 😉

    Reply
    1. Debra Post author

      What fun memories for you, Cathy, and I know what you mean about having an “excuse” to revisit childhood pleasures. I was reminding my mom the other day that I took my niece to see the movie Beauty and the Beast because I wanted to see it, and my daughter, at the time was older and not as available to go to the movies with mom! I have to tell you that I wondered how our audience, me included, would respond–I’ve never been to a performance where audience participation was not just permitted but expected. It took a little bit of time, but the audience definitely warmed up. If we’d known a thing about it, or how good it was going to be, we would have encouraged some of our other friends and family with children to join us. Next time, for sure!

      Reply
    1. Debra Post author

      California lottery Powerball winnings (tonight) are up to $1.5 billion. I plan to win. So for all to see, Kate, when I do, you and I are going to the Pasadena Playhouse! It would just seem natural!

      Reply
    1. Debra Post author

      Keep your antennae up next Christmas, Colleen, and you might find a panto after all. I think they tend to be seasonal, so perhaps there are more in December than in other months, and if we miss them, they’re gone. 🙂

      Reply
  2. lifeonthecutoff

    This sounds absolutely delightful, Debra. I did some digging around with Google and it looks like there were some holiday panto performances in the area. I will be keeping my eyes open for one.
    You find the best entertainment, especially with your darlings. Karina and Sophia must have loved this.

    Reply
    1. Debra Post author

      I think even little Ezra would be at a wonderful age for a panto next year, Penny. There were many very young children in our audience, and I think because so much of the action is a little “over the top,” choreography very lively and lots of music, all children would be highly entertained. And then because the children don’t need to be quiet–a real bonus! I’ll tell you what is the most difficult thing for me in terms of entertainment and the girls. We really do live in the entertainment capitol, and the barrage of advertisements waving “possibilities” under my nose are so difficult to resist. At times I have to talk to myself and remember that there really are limits. LOL! But pantos are entirely new to me and I’m so pleased you researched them as well. 🙂

      Reply
    1. Debra Post author

      I didn’t know you had lived in South Pasadena, Robert. We were practically neighbors. 🙂 Isn’t the Playhouse delightful? And I’ve enjoyed sharing the “panto” with my American friends because I don’t think very many of us knew the term or this very enjoyable form of entertainment. It would be fun if they enjoyed a revival in American family entertainment.

      Reply
  3. hotlyspiced

    I think pantomimes stem from Britain? I grew up performing in pantomimes and thoroughly loved the experience. They were always put on for a three-week season in the leap up to Christmas. The costumes and make-up and singing and dancing and OTT acting combined with interaction from the audience always made these shows a great night out for families xx

    Reply
    1. Debra Post author

      How much fun to have participated in a panto and to be a part of such a delightful tradition, Charlie. Marvelous memories, I’m sure. And at Christmas time, in particular, everyone is already in such a festive mood. 🙂

      Reply
  4. ChgoJohn

    I’m aware that panto exists but really not much more than that. I’ve certainly never seen on. I think I’ll go looking for one during next season. It would interest me on so many levels. Thanks for the heads up, Debra.
    BTW … I manage a few fantasy sports team and my name is J Peterman. 🙂

    Reply
  5. Perpetua

    I blogged a couple of years ago about a family visit to the panto at New year and I remember you being very interested, Debra. I’m really delighted to hear that you’ve had the chance to experience a panto for yourself and it sounds like all the panto traditions were alive and well in the production you saw. Such fun. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Debra Post author

      Thank you for remembering, Perpetua! I just couldn’t recall precisely which blog had first introduced pantos to me! It was you! 🙂 I truly had never heard of them as a theater experience until that time, and as I’m learning upon sharing about my recent experience, it seems that many Americans, maybe most, are unfamiliar. We enjoyed it so much and have every intention of going to a new production next December!

      Reply
  6. reocochran

    Debra, the closest I have come to this happened years ago, in a “western town” portrayal at an amusement park called Cedar Point, there were gunslingers, maiden in distress and the comedy relief in a root beer (and other sodas) serving “tavern” I had worked there two summers when I met some of the college and high school drama students said I ought to see it. They had the melodramatic piano music which I have heard organs can do this well. Your participation was enhanced by your grandchildren’s excitement. Sounded like a wonderful experience! 🙂

    Reply
    1. Debra Post author

      Cedar Point sounds like so much fun and has a very American appeal, quite complimentary to the British panto, I think! There are so many unique theater experiences. 🙂

      Reply
  7. 2e0mca

    I haven’t been to a Panto in many years and Alasdair is not really interested in the theatre so it’s unlikely I’ll have an excuse to go soon 😦 It sounds like you had great fun hissing and shouting ‘He’s behind you!!!’ I did note a couple of breaks with English Pantomime Tradition – The lead Man (Peter Pan, Aladdin, etc.) is always played by a lady and there should be a Pantomime Dame in there somewhere (played by a male comedian of course) to provide extra laughs and most of the slapstick 🙂

    Reply

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