Arts & Culture

At 60, this cultural district playhouse shows no signs of slowing down

The renovation of Casa Mañana in 2003 enlarged the lobby and left the dome intact.
The renovation of Casa Mañana in 2003 enlarged the lobby and left the dome intact. Star­Telegram archives

Casa Mañana, the venerable dome-shaped theater in the cultural district, is turning 60 this year. But, despite now being eligible for senior discounts in some places, the playhouse is showing no signs of slowing down or yielding its place as a shaping force in area theater.

“I think what Casa has been able to do over the years, along with other regional theaters, is they have been able to keep actors employed,” said Wally Jones, president and executive producer at Casa. “You go to New York to hire your actors and none of those New York actors work in [just] New York. They work all over the country. I think regional theater in general has allowed them to have a life in the theater. And in this area as well. There are plenty of working actors here in theater who are able to have a profession.”

Casa Mañana has had a few different personalities and has reached beyond its main stage over its long history. The company has presented shows at Bass Hall and in a downtown venue called Casa on the Square.

But most of the theater’s history has taken place in the distinctive domed structure at University and Lancaster in the cultural district.

Amazingly, the theater was built in 1958 in only 114 days. Its first show, Cole Porter’s “Can-Can,” opened the venue on July 5, 1958.

In its early days, Casa functioned primarily as a “summer stock” theater. Stars of stage, screen and television would often come down to do two-week runs of well-known musicals (because of the tight production schedules, those outside stars had to pretty much have their parts down before they got here). They included such famous names as Van Johnson, Cyd Charisse, Sally Struthers, Sandy Duncan, Lorenzo Lamas, Lou Diamond Phillips and Gavin MacLeod. These names were supported by casts that usually included local actors.

Today, the pattern in place is a slight variation on that. Casa presents most of its shows in the September to May cultural season. Out of town actors are still brought in, but they are usually highly accomplished stage actors, rather than recognizable names from film or television.

But the greatest difference between then and now is that, for much of Casa’s history, the shows were done in an in-the-round configuration, meaning that the stage was set smack in the middle of the theater.

When speaking with actors and patrons from Casa’s past, the one thing that is mentioned more than anything else is seeing shows presented in that fashion, which is intended to bring patrons closer to the action on stage.

But that configuration was dropped in renovations done in 2002 and 2003, in favor of the more traditional proscenium stage now employed.

“I certainly understand people’s nostalgia for the round. They had it here for 50 years,” said Jones, who took charge at Casa long after those changes were made. “But Casa was an 1,800-seat theater back then. With Bass Hall coming on line [in 1998], they did the right thing. I know it upset a lot of people, but it was the right thing to make it a 1,000 seat theater. I think the design now, for a patron, is more enjoyable.”

Also, producing in-the-round can be a nightmare. Sets have to be minimal and largely transparent to keep from blocking patrons’ views. And making entrances or changing those sets can only be done by coming up the aisles. A number of Casa’s early fans still talk about being paid a dollar a night to haul set pieces up and down the aisles of the theater — something that occasionally made things scary for the actors.

“I remember running off the stage in the dark and running up the wrong aisle and being rescued from being hit by a piece of scenery being moved in,” said Betty Lynn Buckley, one of Casa’s most famous veterans, before adding that she still misses the in-the-round configuration, all the same.

But whether in-the-round or in its current layout, Casa Mañana has never stopped drawing audiences for its musicals, plays, concerts and exceptional children’s theater presentations.

In honor of its 60th birthday, we spoke with some of the actors who are indelibly linked to the theater’s past and present.

David Coffee

No actor better connects the dots between Casa and the history of theater in Fort Worth than David Coffee. The affable actor has worked with an amazing range of significant actors, producers and directors, while also inspiring a legion of young actors who found their path to the theater in his broad wake.

So it is richly appropriate that Casa’s 60th birthday would also mark the 50th anniversary of Coffee’s storied career on the stage, which is still very much in progress.

The actor’s links to theater in Fort Worth run so deep that one of his earliest moments of shock and awe in a playhouse has a tie to Billy Rose’s original Casa Mañana.

“’A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ really made an impression on me, because Sally Rand did the show and she came out and did her fan dance,” said Coffee, referring to the famed stripper who was the featured performer in the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration, and who returned in the late 1960s. “I was 10 years old when I saw her. And I said, ‘My gosh, there’s a naked lady on that stage.’”

Just a few months after that eye-opening night at the theater, Coffee himself would be on that same stage, making his debut in a children’s theater production of “The Wind and the Willows.”

“It was just a little part. One line, I think. But it turned out to be quite a production,” said Coffee. “It was a great first experience, and I was totally bitten.”

The people involved in that production read like a who’s who of Fort Worth theater history. They included director Johnny Simons, who went on to co-found Hip Pocket Theatre; performer Jim Covault, who is a former co-artistic director at Stage West, the house where he spent much of his continuing career; and the director of the children’s theater program at the time, Casa Manana Playhouse, was Sharon Benge, who has long been one of the most respected directors and theater educators in North Texas.

“And B.J. Cleveland talks about seeing that first performance,” said Coffee, referring to another actor, director and theater administrator who is widely known and loved for his many contributions to area theater.

Coffee went on to do a ton of shows at Casa (“I think it is 86 or 87,” he said). And he has seldom known a night that did include a curtain call. He is one of those rare actors who never had to worry about having a “day job.”

And he gives a lot of the credit for that to Casa Mañana.

“[Casa has] been everything to me. It’s where everything has come from. It was a home for me,” said Coffee.

And he continues to make Casa one of his many theatrical homes. He will be featured in Casa’s upcoming production of “Hello, Dolly!,” which runs Sept. 8-17, with stars another longtime Casa favorite and highly successful professional performer, Julie Johnson, in the title role.

Looking at the inside of the renovated, reconfigured Casa Manana in 2003. Ralph Lauer Star­Telegram archives

Betty Lynn Buckley

Sharon Benge, in her capacity as the executive director of the Casa Mañana Playhouse (the children’s theatre program at Casa in the 1960s), trained almost all of the future actors in Fort Worth in that era.

“At one time, we had over 500 students and a staff of 30,” said Benge.

Well, every actor except one.

“Betty Lynn never took any classes. She didn’t need them,” Benge said.

Betty Lynn Buckley instead took her stunning voice directly to the Casa stage, making her professional debut in a production of “Gypsy” there when she was only 15 years old.

“I’ve had quite a long history with this theater. It was a tremendous training ground. So I was incredibly well trained and experienced when I got to New York,” said Buckley who, in addition to drawing accolades at the theater, was crowned “Miss Fort Worth” in 1966.

Her point was proven when Buckley went to New York in 1969 and landed the role of Martha Jefferson in “1776,” a new Broadway show that was destined to become a classic. And it would not be the last major Broadway role Buckley would originate. In 1982, she was cast to play Grizabella the Glamour cat in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats,” one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history.

Since 2000, Casa has honored Buckley’s contributions to the theater (and theater in general) by hosting an awards ceremony for high school musical productions that is named in her honor. The next Betty Lynn Buckley Awards take place at Casa on May 24.

“I learned so much by seeing the shows at Casa and being in them. [Having the awards named in her honor] really means a lot to me. It has grown so much over the years and inspired so many young people,” said Buckley, who was educated at TCU where she was, shockingly, a journalism major with a theater minor.

Buckley is the most famous and lauded of all Casa alums, but she is one of several who made a direct leap from Casa’s stage to the Great White Way. The latest example of that is Fort Worth actor Major Attaway, who performed frequently at Casa, including shows with Coffee. He is currently playing the genie in the long-running production of Disney’s “Aladdin.”

“It is so wonderful to see what he has done. He was only about 12 or 13 when I first worked with him. But he was already good, and he just ate it up. He was a natural for it. And to think that he is able to do his dream part in New York is just the best story ever,” said Coffee.

Buckley, 70, has had a career filled with Broadway shows, films, concerts, a lot of television work and a slew of Tony, Grammy and Emmy nominations. And she shows no signs of slowing down. When we spoke with her, she was in New Orleans, on the set of the AMC series, “Preacher,” in which she plays a Cajun sorceress. She is also continuing to appear in the “Supergirl” television series and will soon hit the road in a national touring production of “Hello, Dolly!”

But, despite all of her high-profile successes, she has never forgotten her first home.

“When I am done with the ‘Dolly’ tour, I would sure love to come back to Casa and do something for them,” she said.

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Actress Ruta Lee stars as Truvy in "Steel Magnolias" at Casa Mañana in 2015. Max Faulkner Star-Telegram

Ruta Lee

Of all the big names who have passed through Casa over the years, none are more closely tied to the theater than Ruta Lee, an actress who made a reputation for herself, especially in film (“Witness for the Prosecution”) and in a staggering number of television guest spots, running the gamut from “Gunsmoke” to the original “Roseanne” series (she estimates that she has made about 2,500 appearances of that type).

But, since 1964, she has been a frequent guest at Casa Mañana.

“The nicest gift God sent my way was my relationship with Fort Worth and Fort Worth with me, with Casa Manana being the center of that world. There was a fabulous simpatico between me and Fort Worth. I think my energy was something new for the audience,” said Lee, who is the wife of Dallas restaurant executive Webster B. Lowe Jr.

But it took an effort to get her here the first time.

“Michael Pollack [one of Casa’s directors of that era] approached me in New York and wanted me to do ‘Molly Brown’ at Casa. I think he offered me $600 a week, which they considered high, but I considered low. But he did such a sales job on me that I took it.”

And although film and television work continued to be more lucrative for Lee, she never lost her love of live theater.

“I think stage tops film. In film and television there was a hell of a lot more money to be made. But there is nothing more thrilling and heartwarming than a live audience. That takes the place of money,” said Lee, 82, who was born in Montreal and has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship.

But, although she and her husband have homes scattered around the country, she is also proud to be a Texan.

“When we first got married, we got a home in Dallas. So I am a resident of Texas officially,” said Lee. “But I consider Fort Worth my home.”

Zak Reynolds

The past, present and future of Casa Mañana live in Zak Reynolds.

“I am very conscious of that. I don’t talk about it a lot. But it is a powerful thing for me to know that I am working at a place my grandfather built. This is his dream place,” said Reynolds, who is the son of Kim Dacus Reynolds, the daughter of Casa co-founder Mel Dacus.

And Zak is not the first member of the Dacus clan to be part of the theater. His uncle, Brent Dacus, is a professional percussionist who has held the beat for numerous shows while serving in Casa’s pit orchestra.

“What I remember from when I was growing up is that that everything [at the theater] was kind of an event. Everybody dressed up. There would be so much chatter at intermission. And the lobby would just fill up with cigarette smoke,” said Dacus, who was born in the same year as the theater.

But don’t think that nepotism is at play in either case. Mel Dacus left Casa in 1975, so most of Brent Dacus’ work and all of Reynold’s work at the theater postdate their father and grandfather there.

Reynolds, a graduate of Arlington Heights High School who also trained at New York’s Circle in the Square, did not do his first Casa show until 2015. But he has been a mainstay since, especially in the outstanding children’s theater productions, which are overseen by director of theater for youth Noah Putterman.

“Whenever I get to do a show with the veterans, it is always a little bit more special. Because, for me, it is personal.And they often have stories to tell about Casa’s past,” said Reynolds, 25, who is performing in Casa’s current production of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” “Every time I am on stage and I look up at the dome, I think of my grandpa. So it is really like a soothing sensation. It kind of feels like my grandparents are always looking over me.”

Reynolds has a special love for his children’s theater work and hopes to continue it.

“I think this is a great place to land and make a career for yourself.I don’t find [going to New York] to be too pressing. I have a lot of friends in New York who are pretty idle. And it is not because they are not good. There is just a lot of competition,” said Reynolds. “I don’t think you have to base yourself in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles anymore.”

And that may be a concise way of identifying Casa Mañana's greatest contribution to our theater scene over its glorious 60 year history.

David Coffee played Edna Turnblad in Hairspray in 2011. Coffee has worked with a range of actors and producers at Casa Mañana through the years. Curtis Brown Photography

The 2018-19 Season

The coming 60th anniversary season for Casa Mañana quite fittingly features some old friends, and a lineup of shows that reflects a programming pattern that the theater has established in recent seasons.

Julie Johnson and David Coffee, two the best known and most accomplished players in our area, open the new season with “Hello, Dolly!” Sept. 8-16.

“With the [Broadway] revival of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ it is getting so much recognition right now,” said Casa president and executive producer Wally Jones. “I am just thrilled about having Julie Johnson and David Coffee for our leads. They are both DFW acting royalty. I think it is going to be a lot of fun.”

That classic will be followed by two other popular and familiar shows: “Grease,” March 2-10, 2019, and “The Producers,” June 1-9, 2019.

The only outlier is the Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning rock musical, “Next to Normal,” which runs Nov. 3-11. The show is an atypical musical in that it deals with dark subjects, which include mental illness and domestic strife.

“We love to throw one of those in every year. It’s a little bit newer and more contemporary, and kind of a little bit riskier show that we feel has tremendous artistic value and something to say,” said Jones.

The theater’s Apprentice Production (a show done by advanced high school players each summer) will be Stephen Sondheim’s grisly visit to the barber’s chair, “Sweeney Todd,” Aug. 3-5.

The theater will also be presenting the seasonal concert, “Sandi Patty: Christmas Blessings,” on Dec. 13. And the new Reid Cabaret Theatre within Casa will be the site for David Sedaris’ sardonic comedy monolog, “Santaland Diaries” on Dec. 6-22.

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