Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland is one of the Eastbay's crowning glories, featuring cascades, a reflecting pool and the jewel in the crown, the Woodminster Amphitheater, a beautiful open-air facility with spectacular views and a woodsy environment that was built as a WPA project during the Great Depression.
For the last 50 years Harriet Schlader and her late husband Jim, who passed away in 2010, have been delighting local theater fans by presenting some of Broadway's best musicals under the stars at Woodminster. Their first production was South Pacific, followed by Paint Your Wagon, Kiss Me Kate and The Music Man. This year it starts with Shrek: The Musical, which opens July 8, followed by Chicago in August and La Cage Aux Folles in September.
For many East Bay families, it's a longstanding tradition to enjoy a picnic in the park and then see a musical at Woodminster. Some season ticket holders have been sitting in the same seats for three generations.
And they can always count on two things: a highly professional production and a fast-moving show that ends no later than 10:30.
For years, I heard different stories about the reason why. Some said it's the law in Oakland; others said it's in Woodminster's contract with the musicians' union. But Harriet says it's a lot simpler: concern for the audience's rear ends.
"It's stadium seating," she says. "That can be hard on your butt, so we keep the shows down to 2½ hours. As my Jim used to say, 'Get out before they catch on.'"
Jim and Harriet were already Broadway veterans when they began producing musicals at Woodminster. He was a singer whose opera-trained tenor voice made him a favorite with producers - he was never out of work longer than two months for more than 20 years - and she was a dancer who performed with the Radio City Music Hall corps de ballet and on The Jackie Gleason Show as a member of the June Taylor Dancers.
And while they always tried to choose shows for Woodminster that would entertain an audience, they chose shows that elevated the audience, too.
For instance, back in the 1970s segregation was still a way of life in Oakland, but the Schladers fought that attitude with art, presenting No Strings (about an interracial romance) and an Oklahoma with African American actors in the leading roles.
"When the curtain raised, you could see people in the audience elbowing each other, like the wave," says Harriet. "When Curly came out, they sat there with their arms folded. But within 15 minutes they forgot about it and were totally into the show.
"But we still got calls afterward. 'Are you going to do the next show the way you did with Oklahoma?' 'What do you mean?' 'You know, with black people in the cast?' It made me so mad! I mean, it's entertainment! And now here we are years later with Hamilton. It goes to show that anybody can play any role if you engage the audience. That's what theater is all about."
Happy anniversary, Woodminster. May it prosper for another 50 years. And it probably will, because waiting in the wings as Harriet's eventual successor is the Schladers' son Joel, who will direct all three shows this year. And they have lots of grandkids, too.