To Honor a Glorious Past
Lakeside Little Theatre’s history, as remembered by our theatre’s first historian, Tod Jonson:
LLT: Hi Tod, I understand Ektor and you arrived Lakeside in 1985, both of you with extensive showbiz backgrounds, bent on doing a documentary about the artist, Diego Rivera, but upon finding out that one had all ready been done, you two realized you loved the area and the community and decided instead to retire here. A lot of people seem to make that instant decision once they experience all this community has to offer.
Since that time, the two of you have played a big part in both the living and creating of LLT history. Can you tell us a bit about how and why LLT has come to play such an influential role within the Lakeside Community?
TOD: A lot of famous and semi-famous people have come to Ajijic. All of the early expats, and I do mean all of them, revolved around the theatre. It was the place to be, and the thing to do! Not many expats were here in the early days, so they all huddled together at the theatre, working on shows. It was a very creative, dynamic environment, because nearly all of the people involved had had life experiences that, in one or another benefited the theatre... and of course "from what I hear", they all liked to drink together. New friends in town were always a reason for a cocktail party.
As far as I know, every soul who came through either stayed on because of the uniqueness and warmth shared by everyone, or they left and then returned. No one was shy. All the models/actresses wanted to be on stage. Not all had “star power” but some were knock-down gorgeous. It was a valley full of fun and interesting people......"from da theatah!" Talent was everywhere.
LLT: So tell how did all this wonderful madness begin?
TOD: Lay the blame on Betty Kuzell, she was the one who started it all. She and her husband, I think his name was Wade, came down from Texas to the Valley of the Lake to retire. They lived here for many years and of course, made friends with all the other pioneering expats, including Neill James. Neill James, as you know, is the one that donated the ground that LCS rests on. Others of her friends included Ken and Ellen Kurt and Col. Paul Ratay and his wife Gertrude. Col. Ratay was with General Patton throughout the war in Europe and Africa and was the first co-president of the LCS. There was Iona Kupiec, who was one of Mississippi's great school teachers and long-time friend of Neill James - a world traveler, she counted Amelia Earhart among her friends. Princess Zara, a Russian ballerina, was a living legend and told lots of wildly racy stories including some about her incestuous relationship with her brother. Laura and Jack Bateman were the owners of the very first art gallery in Ajijic; later he designed and built the theatre building we now use. They were all, shall we say, the adventurous sort and tended to be heavy partiers. But Betty, Iona, and Neill grew bored of the cocktails and decided to try something different. They decided it would be fun to put on a musical.
Someone in the group knew the late Governor of Jalisco, Gonzalez Gallo, whose family still owned the then derelict train station in Chapala, and they worked their way into getting permission to perform there. So they all pooled their money and talent and went to work putting on a musical, Saddle Bag Saloon, which Betty Kuzell had written. They, of course, had to create all their own costumes and sets. Then, on the evening of June 17, 1965, the curtain went up for the very first time and English–speaking, Lakeside Little Theatre was born. It was Ken Kurt who had the honor of being the first person to speak a line at the theatre.
The play turned out to be a smashing success, way beyond anyone’s expectation. They sold out both nights and it was so well remembered that they brought it back a few years later.
But, despite their resounding triumph, the glamour of the theatre quickly died and most of Betty’s friends went back to the simple pleasures of their regular cocktail hour. But the theatre bug had indeed infected Betty, Robert Owens and Olive Maw, so they started planning a second show. Betty didn’t feel up to writing a new play, but someone who had seen MARY, MARY by Jean Kerr, thought that would be fun to do. Betty’s other friends, tiring of cocktail hour, were now up for a second play. They staged it sometime in October of that same year, as I remember. It too was a huge hit. With two successes under their belts, they started to take this theatre thing seriously.
The train station wasn't available anymore because of some government regulation. So they went to the Banealerio in San Juan Cosala. It was a great venue and all went well in 1966. Then the rains came and washed them out completely. From then on they started working in various other locations. Luckily, their adoring audiences followed them where ever they played.
When I arrived in 1985 they were performing upstairs in the club house of the Chula Vista Country Club. The first show I saw was another original musical, Musical on the Bounty. I must admit, I was not overwhelmed. But still, we had a ball.
Kate and Rocky Karns were here by then. He was best known for his role as Jimmy Stewart's military brother in It’s A Wonderful Life. Katy had been under contract to Paramount Studios and was a member of the Golden Circle of Players on their studio lot. In fact, professional performers from all over the world were now making Lake Chapala their home. Reg and Mickey Church came from Great Britain, along with Angela and Albert Rouse from the same London theatre. Roland Varno, who had been a leading man in films, and a co-star with Greta Garbo, came down to direct. Jack and Gerda Kelly, she a famous runway model, and Jack a writer for the New York Times, and a novelist, were among the local residents.
There were so many great people around then like Richard and Joyce Vath. Richard had directed almost every major Hollywood star as well touring shows for the Neiderlander Theatre Organization. Joyce was well-known in theatre circles as well. There was my partner Ektor Carranza, who came from one of Mexico’s great families. He was the nephew of the great Mexican President Venustiana Carranza, also known as the George Washington of Mexico. His cousins included Emilio Carranza Rodriquez, who was the Charles A. Lindbergh of Mexico, dramatically killed in 1928 when his plane was struck by lightening, the great bull-fighter Manoleto, and Miguel, who was Chief of the Navy.
Ektor and I had worked for almost 20 years in documentary films, making 12 in all. Together we went on to create 51 sets for plays in 25 years, and we both often acted. Sadly, Ektor has now passed on.
People flocked in from all over to experience the personalities that came through Ajijic. Many of them stayed, like the runway model Anita Lomax, Katy Lawrence, a fabulous personality who just died last year, and Phyllis White, Dean of an important school in Washington, DC, and a great poetess and actress.
Oh gosh, there were so many ... April Watts, who was one of the great photo fashion models. Jerry and Lila Allen - Jerry was President of LLT once, and his wife still lives at Lakeside. Charlotte MacNamara, the editor of Vogue, Bride, Bride Today, Teen and 17, as well as other Conde Nast publications.
I know that I must have forgotten some great people, but hey, I am 82 so cut me some slack. I do hope I have conveyed some of the richness of our history to the current lakeside community. How we have been blessed with so many great talents over the years. And how people of great talent and spirit, who worked hard and played hard, came together to create the most enduring cultural legacy of the lakeside expat community - Lakeside Little Theatre.
LLT: Wow! a pretty impressive act for the rest of us to follow. Thanks for taking the time to share a part of the LLT's history.