John Watson: Treading the boards at the Nevada Theatre: 48 Years Later
On Sept. 10, the cast of Sierra Stages’ “You Can’t Take It with You” moved from a rehearsal hall to the stage of Nevada City’s historic Nevada Theatre in preparation for the show’s successful opening Sept. 22. At the top of that rehearsal, multi-talented director Scott Gilbert waxed poetic about how nostalgic it felt to be back on this stage after an absence of 10 years.
Just 10 years — that’s so cute, I thought to myself. Because that night marked the first time I myself had set foot on the Nevada Theatre stage in — count ’em — 48 years.
In 1970, when I was just a young whippersnapper in my early 20s, I starred in “The Apple Tree,” “The Private Ear” and “The Public Eye” at the Nevada Theatre. The program (which also included “I Do! I Do!”) was put together by a friend who, like me, was a recent San Francisco State University graduate, in cooperation with Grass Valley entrepreneur LeRoy Geist, who owned a warehouse construction business.
Mr. Geist and his family had purchased the former Jones Hospital, now known as the Swan Levine House, and were the first owners to begin converting the building to residential use. The Geist family backed the summer stock program and also housed the show’s cast and directors, all of us transplanted from San Francisco.
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To my knowledge, this project marked the first-ever use of the Nevada Theatre for live theater after it shut down as a movie house in the late ’60s.
In 1972, I was accepted into UCLA’s exclusive Master of Fine Arts acting program, but by 1973 I’d instead switched to the university’s MFA screenwriting program, graduating the following year and working during the ensuing 10 years behind the scenes in the network and cable television industries. From there, it was on to a successful marketing communications career, plying my trade for some 30 years in university and Silicon Valley environments until my semi-retirement last year.
All that time, I never forgot Nevada City. In 1970, locals who filled out our summer stock cast had introduced me to the area’s many swimming holes, and I found myself making summer swimming pilgrimages back to Nevada City year after year in the ensuing 40-plus years.
Year by year, I saw the region grow and change, but it wasn’t until I decided to leave the Bay Area and make a permanent move here last year that the 1970-to-2018 changes came into broad relief.
Nevada City was quaint enough back then, but today it’s much more of a heritage district and a tourist and artist draw, no doubt the result of strong civic leadership in the intervening years. We cast members were a novelty as Bay Area natives in Nevada City back then, but today every other person I meet is a Bay Area transplant. The then-new freeway between Grass Valley and Nevada City was always wide open back then but is much more congested today, and the locals’ driving habits seem far more aggressive today than ever before.
Throughout the years, I continued acting in community theater productions. And as I got older, a frightening phenomenon began to occur: I started forgetting my lines in mid-performance, a very disorienting occurrence for an actor who’d always nailed his lines. So I had some trepidation about taking on the role of Grandpa in this production, since he has so many lines. I’m glad to report I’ve had no problems so far! I’m still on this side of senility! Yay!
Since the ’70s, I’ve usually been cast in supporting character roles. Taking my curtain call on opening night as Grandpa, a leading character, it suddenly occurred to me that the last time I’d had such a featured role had been right on this very stage, when I took a bow for the roles of Adam, Sanjar, and Flip in “The Apple Tree” 48 years ago!
I guess I’ve come full circle. As my bio in the program for “You Can’t Take It with You” says, “John is glad to be back in Nevada City!”
John Watson lives in Nevada City and currently plays the role of “Grandpa Vanderhof” of Sierra Stages production of “You Can’t Take It with You,” which continues through Oct. 6 at the Nevada Theatre.
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