It has been reported that the ghost of the North Dakota born founder of one of the most famous theatrical playhouses frequently plays practical jokes on people in his theater.
Gilmore Brown founded the Pasadena Playhouse in 1917 and remained its director until his death in 1960. Alumni of the playhouse reads like a who's who of American actors and includes Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Raymond Burr, Gene Hackman, William Holden, Dustin Hoffman, Tyrone Power, Robert Preston, Robert Taylor and Robert Young.
George Gilmor Brown was born June 16, 1886, in New Salem to Orville and Emma Augusta (Gilmor) Brown.
Brown attended elementary school in Mandan and was bitten by the acting bug. By the time he was 8, he “ran the children through performances of selections from the school readers.” In 1895, the Browns moved to Denver, where Brown finished grade school. In January 1901, he attended a theatrical production of “Becky Sharp” and realized that the theater was where he belonged.
He gathered together a number of his friends and formed what he called the Tuxedo Stock Company. He was the company’s playwright, director and leading actor, and his productions at St. Mark's Episcopal Church attracted the attention of the Denver News.
A person who attended one of his performances was Florence Adams, who ran a drama school in Chicago. She encouraged Brown’s mother to have her son acquire theatrical training and, if he happened to come to Chicago, she would accept him as a student at her school.
In the spring of 1903, the Browns returned to North Dakota. Orville Brown operated a real estate office in Glen Ullin and also served as justice of the peace. Since the town did not have a high school, Emma Brown took Brown to Minneapolis where he received his secondary education. He also attended classes at the Johnson School of Music, Oratory and Dramatic Arts.
During the summers of 1904 and 1905, Brown returned to North Dakota and produced plays that were performed in town halls. Brwon then went to Chicago and, through Adams, became acquainted with many of the leading actors of the theater.
In June 1906, Brown got his first professional acting job when he joined “the Shakespearean company of Ben Greet.” He also adopted his middle name as his first name (often spelled Gilmore) and later joined acting companies headed by Harold Nelson, William Yule, and May Stuart.
In February 1909, 22-year-old Brown invited his parents to join a company he was founding and called it “The Orville Brown Comedy Players.” Between 1909 and 1913, the company toured Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah. From 1913 to 1916, Gilmor Brown spent most of his time directing amateur acting groups in Kansas, putting on extravagant outdoor productions.
In September 1916, Brown, along with his parents, brother, and sister-in-law, arrived in Pasadena. On June 1, 1917, Brown met with the Pasadena Drama League and other civic leaders, and a new theater group was formed called the Community Players.
He assembled a small group of professional actors and rented the Savoy Theater. The first year was very rough financially, and after paying all the bills, Brown averaged only $6 a week that he could call his own. His attempt to establish a repertory company with professional actors had failed, but he “then fell upon the brilliant alternative, the establishment of a community theater.”
On Oct. 4, 1918, Brown incorporated the Pasadena Community Playhouse Association, transforming his company of professional actors into an amateur community theater. He also changed the name of the Savoy Theater to the Pasadena Community Playhouse.
By the early 1920s, Brown was able to put the Pasadena Playhouse on a sound financial footing, and in 1924, he founded the Fairoaks Playbox, which was to have a profound influence on the way major plays were to be produced — it popularized central or “flexible staging.” This meant that no single arrangement was considered permanent. The space could be changed to suit the needs of each production.
Because of the limited seating at the old Savoy Theater, the citizens of Pasadena raised funds to build a new and larger theater that was completed in 1925. Also, in 1925, Brown established a school of theater arts at the Playhouse, which became an accredited college in 1937.
Brown began premiering the work of authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, William Saroyan and Noel Coward, and the Pasadena Playhouse was building a reputation as being one of the best theaters in the nation.
As the director, Brown was a perfectionist and also was quite eccentric. According to the playhouse archivist, Brown “would sit in the audience (during rehearsals) with his cat, and if the cat turned his back to the stage, that was Brown’s cue that a scene needed to be tweaked.”
Brown remained the director of the Pasadena Playhouse until his death on Jan. 11, 1960.
After Brown's death, it is reported that his presence was made known by moving things around, dimming the lights, stomping about, and taking control of the elevator.
Dustin Hoffman began his acting career at the Pasadena Playhouse, and in 1967, he spent two months in Fargo as the director of the Emma Herbst Community Theater. Also, Arthur Peterson from Mandan was a regular performer at the playhouse from 1981 to 1991.
(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at firstname.lastname@example.org.)