Eyewitness 1946: CLO overcomes rain, creates a tradition

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Rain ruined plans for a preview of "Naughty Marietta," the opening show of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's 1946 inaugural season.

The long-anticipated outdoor performance, scheduled for June 1 in Pitt Stadium, drew more than 5,000 people, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on June 3.

They sat under umbrellas to watch Edgar J. Kaufmann accept a bronze plaque to mark the 75th anniversary of his family's department store. He had donated $50,000 to finance the first CLO season and promised to underwrite any losses.

While that ceremony was under way, the evening drizzle turned to a downpour and the show was canceled. "The audience filed out, disappointed, but their attendance was a tribute to the eagerness and enthusiasm with which Pittsburghers are greeting the series," the newspaper said.

Plans to offer light opera had begun a decade earlier, reporter Frank M. Matthews wrote on June 4. In his 1937 run for office, City Councilman A.L. "Abe" Wolk had made civic support for musical theater a campaign issue.

"There were great problems -- there was no money in hand, there was no suitable place and finally there was no one around with the complete know-how of [how to stage] successful operetta productions," Matthews wrote.

In 1940 the city recreation bureau sponsored the first outdoor shows on a makeshift stage at Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park. In summer 1941, the Pittsburgh Savoyards presented Gilbert & Sullivan productions there. World War II put plans for a more extensive season on hold.

Then Kaufmann offered his anniversary gift, and the CLO Association was formed, with H. Edgar Lewis, head of Jones & Laughlin Steel, as president and Wolk as vice president.

The first season called for eight shows over eight weeks. In addition to Victor Herbert's "Naughty Marietta," the roster included turn-of-the-century classics like Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow," and more recent works like Sigmund Romberg's "The New Moon" and Jerome Kern's "Roberta."

Tickets cost 60 cents to $3 -- equal to about $6.50 to $33 in today's currency--- for the 8:45 p.m. performances.

The washed-out preview was not a bad omen for the June 3 opening night. "Pittsburgh has never seen a more glittering show," Harold V. Cohen, the Post-Gazette's drama critic, wrote the next day. "[T]he revivals ... which have visited the Nixon [Theater] downtown in the past were drab quickies by comparison."

Cohen liked the stage set, the costumes, the 40-piece orchestra and the principal performers, Rosemarie Brancato and Bill Johnson. "'Naughty Marietta' hasn't been shown such respect in voice or acting for a long time," he wrote. Brancato, playing the title role, "has a naturally vivacious instinct for the part itself and she sings it with feeling and brilliance."

Johnson's Kentucky trapper "is good-natured and properly effervescent, and he matches Miss Brancato in the score whenever the two of them get together, which is happily quite often."

"[T]he large dancing and singing ensembles give the whole thing a full bloom, and the people sing and play 'Naughty Marietta' as if they were meeting it for the first time."

After performing for more than a decade at Pitt Stadium, sometimes fighting bad weather and bugs, the CLO troupe relocated in 1962 to the newly built Civic Arena, now Mellon Arena, and later to Heinz Hall.

Sixty-four years after those first performances, the CLO still is going strong. It opens its 2010 season Tuesday at the Benedum Center with a production of "Oliver."

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. Past stories in the "Eyewitness" series can be read at www.post-gazette.com/pgh250


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