Gil Riego, Jr.
Ellen Albertini Dow, widow of the founder of Pierce College’s theater arts department, Eugene Francis Dow, wiped tears away from her pale blue eyes as she recalled the moment, then cupped her life-worn hands together and held them to her mouth and softly said, “It was beautiful here.”
“There’s nothing like beginnings,” said the 89-year-old actress who has such film credits as “54,” “Road Trip,” “Sister Act” and “The Wedding Singer.”
“The first time we came to Pierce (Eugene) went into the interview and came out beaming, shouting, ‘This is where I want to be!’ “
There was no drama department when Eugene Dow first set foot on campus as an English professor. In fact there was not much of anything in 1957, other than a farm, dirt roads and orange groves.
Eventually, Eugene Dow went up to then-Pierce President John Shepard, and said, “I love Pierce but what I am trained in is to be a director. We need a drama department.” The next day, Shepard went to Eugene Dow and said, “I found an old Quonset hut. It’s yours if you can make it a theater.”
“I give Shepard the credit for the department, he could have just ignored (Eugene),” Ellen continued.
Whoever gets the credit, this is where the Golden Age of the Pierce theater arts department began.
She was fresh out of Cornell University. He was a naturally talented actor and musician. They met in New York in a Broadway production of Sean O’ Casey’s controversial play “The Silver Tassie.”
Little did Eugene Francis Dow and Ellen Albertini Dow know that they would change the lives of thousands upon thousands of aspiring actors, make-up artists and technical crew members.
“Being at Pierce was our dream come true,” exclaimed Ellen.
Starting off with a beginning acting class to bring in an audience to occupy 35 folding chairs in a World War II-era steel-corrugated Quonset hut 50 years ago, to today’s program with 16 different courses, a 375-seat auditorium and a 90-seat black box arena, the Pierce theater arts department has expanded from the one-man show that was started by Eugene Dow.
“We were a small, young school with the most amazing campus. My husband wrote the music and lyrics for all of our plays. He was a one-man-department,” she said.
That “one-man-department” grew into a legacy.
A World War II veteran, Eugene Dow got by with what he had. Doing mostly British mysteries with the rain beating on the roof of the Quonset hut for ambiance, he attracted a following.
A following that included the then-college president.
“(John) Shepard and his wife always attended every one of our shows,” said Ellen Dow.
“When (Eugene) first started the program, Shepard said that he would never come to any of our plays since he abhorred amateur dramatics. When we asked what happened to him not wanting to watch amateur productions, he said, ‘Yes, but at the time, I did not know I hired a professional,’ ” Ellen proudly said.
That following eventually led to acquisition of a surplus bungalow from Valley College.
The adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” was certainly true as Eugene Dow turned the more than 80-person capacity theater, which was about to be scrapped into what has become one of the most prominent theaters in the Valley.
The new transportable bungalow replaced the tin hut of yesteryear. Here, they staged many Shakespearian plays.
” ‘This is how Shakespeare would have done it,’ is what (Eugene) used to say,” said Ellen. The smell of the animals, out in the elements, it was truly an experience.
“We have been told by people that they would never see another version of the plays we put on, because it would never equal up to the quality that we gave,” said Ellen Dow.
After years of Eugene Dow’s service to Pierce, Ellen finally transferred from Los Angeles City College to Pierce in 1968, even though she had already assisted in producing many plays over the previous 11 years.
“[Eugene] was always writing, playing music and was just such a literary person,” Ellen Dow explained. “I was the movement. The style, the choreographer, the dance.”
It was destiny.
Ellen brought in the Children’s Theater, which took place in the Campus Center and traveled to local schools and hospitals. She and her husband organized a summer show, starting with “Peter Pan.”
“We didn’t have a way for flying in the Campus Center, so we did it like in Chinese plays with mimes dressed in black to lift us up,” she recalls.
But even this was not enough for the Dows. They had a dream that they wanted to see come true.
After witnessing the music, art and dance departments get the facilities they wanted, Eugene Dow went to then-Chancellor Leslie Koltai and requested that they build a theater on the Art Hill.
Ellen Dow retells Koltai’s response: “Because of the body of work of Eugene Dow, Pierce deserves a theater.” It was dedicated in 1981.
His dream came true.
Their dream came true.
This past October was the third anniversary of Eugene Dow’s death. Even in passing, his spirit and legacy live on.
This section is dedicated to Eugene Francis Dow.
“Theater at a community college is a lot different than at a university,” said Gene Putnam, chairman of the theater arts department.
“Students here get the opportunity to be a star, to have a lead role. They have the opportunity to run the light board, the sound board, to design the set, to design the lights.
“They don’t get to do that at a university the first four years.”
He explains that the department encourages beginning acting students to perform and the faculty tries hard to put them into roles, allowing new actors to make their mark on the Performing Arts Building Mainstage.
“It’s usually returning students who do more productions though,” said Putnam. “They just have more time.”
The theater arts department now has three full-time instructors in Putnam, RoZsa Horvath and Valorie Grear.
“We give three different points of view on how theater works,” Putnam emphasized. “I think that’s something we have that’s special.”
A prestigious honor came to Pierce’s theater arts department with the play of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Abridged.”
“There is a following for “Abridged” that when they saw that show, they called up the authors and playwrights telling them how fantastic our performance was,” explained Putnam.
“Two of the actual playwrights came by and they liked it so much, that they had our actors audition for a revival of the play. To have the original playwrights come in and do that was a real big deal for us,” he said.
Still making history, the theater arts department is living up to the dreams of Eugene Francis Dow and adding to the legacy of what Putnam and many theater students call an “Ivy League-quality” program.
The department currently offers three associates degrees: one a general degree in theater, one with a costume option and one with a technical theater option.
Always looking forward, this season those involved in the program took a moment to acknowledge their past before plunging into another year.
This fall the department staged a retrospective of-sorts that featured selections from throughout its history of productions, with longtime director Horvath at the helm.
“It was an amazing selection,” enthused Pierce President Robert Garber about this summer’s “Golden Encore” production.
“I had seen so many of those plays over the years, and it was beautiful the way that it was put together.”
RoZsa Horvath, an instructor at Pierce College since 1981, celebrated the theater arts department’s 50-year anniversary with a play she conceived and directed entitled “Golden Encore” which premiered Oct. 26, 2007.
“With more than 320 plays over our history, I wanted to take some of the best and most moving scenes from a selection of what we’ve done,” said Horvath.
“When I got the call I was apprehensive on how this would work,” said Bill Walsh, who’s been in plays at Pierce since 2005. “I was amazed at how well (RoZsa) planned all this out.”
Alumni gathered along with current theater students to put on this 35-person production that featured selected scenes from 40 different plays that have been performed at Pierce.
“[Pierce theater] is a part of my life,” said Steve Rogers, a former Pierce student with more than 20 plays to his credit including “Of Mice and Men” and “Lost in Yonkers.”
“When you do this sort of thing it really is a part of your life.”
From the first play, directed by theater arts department founder, Eugene Dow, “A Child is Born,” all the way to the most recent summer musical, directed by Gene Putnam, “Carousel,” this play honored those who have graced the many stages of Pierce.