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Our Controversial Beginnings

From the Center Theatre Group Archives


The cast of 'The Devils'

This theatre building represents a path by which a journey can begin: it is a tool, not the creative end in itself. By stimulating new work, by heightening the sense of participation of the audience, by evolving a style of acting and producing that can cope with the varied repertoire today’s audiences demand, we have set our sights on important goals.

Gordon Davidson, 1967

On April 9, 1967, the Mark Taper Forum opened with a splash…though not precisely the splash that the Los Angeles civic leaders who had spent a decade building The Music Center had been hoping for. The evening began with a star-studded party with a guest list including Governor Ronald Reagan, Mayor Sam Yorty, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Alfred Hitchcock, and hundreds of people from Los Angeles’ business, social, political, and movie elite.

Our Controversial Beginnings
L-R: Dorothy Chandler, Ronald Reagan, and Nancy Reagan. Courtesy of The Music Center Archives/Otto Rothschild Collection.
Our Controversial Beginnings
L-R: William Severns, Sol Hurok, and Zubin Mehta. Courtesy of The Music Center Archives/Otto Rothschild Collection.

Then, everyone headed into the theatre for the Taper’s very first performance. Peck, Reagan, and others—including S. Mark Taper and Howard Ahmanson, whose early donations made The Music Center possible—made opening remarks. Reagan called the Taper, “a beautiful temple of our art and profession.”

Our Controversial Beginnings
L-R: Howard Ahmanson and S. Mark Taper at opening of Mark Taper Forum. Courtesy of The Music Center Archives/Otto Rothschild Collection.

And then the show began: the West Coast premiere of The Devils by John Whiting, the story of a libertine priest in 17th-century France and the sexually repressed nun who opposes him. Our Founding Artistic Director Gordon Davidson directed the production, which featured Frank Langella as Father Urbain Grandier.

Our Controversial Beginnings
Gordon Davidson talking to the cast of 'The Devils.'
Our Controversial Beginnings
Frank Langella in 'The Devils.'

Davidson recalled what happened next in the first chapter of his unpublished autobiography:

Ed [Flanders, playing the Sewer Man] came up out of his hole, threw a bucket of slop without watching where it was going and some of it hit Langella’s robes. He tried to apologize and, when the vicar said it didn’t matter, the Sewer Man, in some of the first words spoken on the Taper stage, said, ‘It’s wrong, though. Shit on the holy purple.’

For a lot of people, it was all downhill from there. Before the end of the evening, the Reagans were up the aisle never to return and many others were out of the theatre with him.

Our Controversial Beginnings
Patrons at opening night of the Mark Taper Forum. Courtesy of The Music Center Archives/Otto Rothschild Collection.

Newsweek noted that by the end of Act II, a third of the audience had walked out. Davidson and Center Theatre Group were one day old, and were already under fire from local Catholic leaders, the County Board of Supervisors, donors, and local newspapers. Despite threats of withholding funding and levying fines, the Board of Directors—led by media mogul President Lew R. Wasserman and Chairman Dorothy Buffum Chandler—stood behind Davidson and the company. A company that had found its mission.

Only over the years will this building have meaning. All of the productions will ask of the audience that they participate. This is the most important thing. If this takes place, the whole nation will gain a sense of tremendous possession and pride.

Producer Robert Whitehead at the Mark Taper Forum's opening ceremony

Ultimately, The Devils laid the groundwork for the next half-century of thought-provoking theatre at the Taper and beyond, as Wasserman noted just a few years later:

The customers at the Taper are startled and even outraged from time to time—I hope they always will be, just short of insurrection, anyway. Yet they do come and they have learned to appreciate and applaud the vigorous, challenging, experimental work Gordon Davidson has fostered and encouraged.

Our Controversial Beginnings
L-R: Gregory Peck, Gordon Davidson, and Anne Douglas. Courtesy of The Music Center Archives/Otto Rothschild Collection.

As we celebrate Center Theatre Group’s 50th Anniversary Season, we remain proud of our controversial beginnings—and committed, as ever, to presenting and producing work that demonstrates the power of our art form.

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