Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera: How the Dreams Came True

by Mary Brignano, 182 pp.

Sewickley, PA: White Oak Publishing, 1996. $50.00


by David Newell

One of my first assignments in 1964 as an assistant to two stage managers of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera was to pick up Ginger Rogers at her hotel and drive her to the Civic Arena for a rehearsal. She was in town for the Civic Light Opera production of the musical Tovarich. As a movie buff, I was nervous at the prospect of meeting a motion picture legend whose movies were some of my favorites. Like Babe Ruth, Frank Lloyd Wright and Arturo Toscanini, Ginger Rogers fit into the "no need to explain what they do" category.

Suppressing my temptation to ask her about every film she had made and whether she enjoyed working with Fred, I decided instead to give her a brief tour of Pittsburgh en route to the arena. She was impressed with the Pittsburgh architecture, especially the county courthouse and jail, and apologized for not knowing much about Pittsburgh except that it was located at a point where two rivers form the Ohio. Her only other knowledge of Pittsburgh was that she had heard that the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera was one of the best summer musical theater companies in the country. She said, "When I agreed to a summer tour of Tovarich, I insisted that the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera be included on the schedule." Although I was delighted to hear her confirm the status of the CLO, it was something that I already knew. I grew up attending the CLO with my parents, beginning with the 1949 production of The Wizard of Oz at the Pitt Stadium.

If some Pittsburghers don't realize how fortunate we are to have had the CLO producing Broadway- quality musicals for the last 50 summers, then they should read Mary Brignano's affectionate celebration entitled Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera: How the Dreams Came True.

"If ever a city needed to sing," she writes, "that city was Pittsburgh in 1945." Brignano skillfully weaves the story of how the famous Pittsburgh Renaissance coincided with the dreams of city councilman A. L. Wolk and "Merchant Prince" Edgar Kaufmann to offer Pittsburghers the best in summer musical theater. The Renaissance transformed Pittsburgh from a declining mill town into a clean, thriving center for business, industry, education, transportation, recreation and "light opera under the stars."

This lushly produced coffee-table book is divided into four "acts." The first includes the decision to use the Pitt Stadium as the first home of the CLO. Each act describes the highs and lows of producing the CLO, beginning with the stadium years through the decades of the Melody Tent, the Civic Arena, Heinz Hall and finally the Benedum Center. I read the book in one sitting, savoring every performer's memories, every technician's nightmares, or critic's raves, dancer's dilemmas, accountant's worries, tenor's tantrums, nature's storms and audience's bravos.

For me, the book is a time capsule. It returned me to a balmy summer evening in August of 1949, when my parents took me to a performance of The Wizard of Oz. I was about seven years old and had been to the Pitt Stadium with my father for a football game. It was confusing to be going there to see The Wizard of Oz. How could a movie be shown in that big stadium? Well, I soon discovered that Oz was being performed right there on stage in front of me with the moon and stars overhead, an orchestra playing, the Cowardly Lion singing, and my parents on either side of me. What a glorious introduction to the CLO! The Oz program is still in my collection. It is not a coincidence that my own son's introduction to musical theater was the 1988 production of The Wizard of Oz.

Mary Brignano includes in her tribute an impressive array of black-and-white and color photos from many of the productions over the years, including rare photos of Jackie Gleason and Zero Mostel as supporting players in early CLO productions. From the very beginning, Edgar Kaufmann said that he "simply wanted the best" for Pittsburgh audiences. William Wymetal, managing director from 1947 through 1968, followed this directive to the letter by recognizing and hiring talent the caliber of Gleason and Mostel for small and supporting parts.

My tenure at the CLO was a mere three summers, but what an education it was. Those summers were during the Wymetal years. He was a director from the old school. According to Brignano, Wymetal was a successful Viennese Opera director whose credits ran the gamut from Venice to New York to Hollywood. During rehearsals, there was never any doubt who was in charge. I saw him scold Ginger Rogers for adding something to a dance routine. He told a prominent leading man not to smile so much when he sang because smiling made his diction sloppy. "You are in an ice arena, not a Hollywood studio! The audience pays to hear you sing, not smile!"

During a rehearsal for Top Banana, he stopped Phil Silvers and his burlesque cronies mid-scene, complaining that they were talking too fast and could not be heard in the vast Civic Arena. Silvers walked over to an onstage desk and with his fingers began to tap out a certain rhythm. He said to his fellow actors (with whom he had worked for years), "Okay, boys, this is the pace we will use for the dialogue." He demonstrated the beat several more times, and the other actors picked up the beat and continued with the scene. Wymetal applauded, I'm sure, not only because the problem of understanding the dialogue had been corrected but also because it was clear that he was in the company of consummate professionals. Just by watching from the wings, I learned more in those three summers than I did in several semesters of college.

Rehearsals began daily at 10:00 a.m. and continued until 5:00 p.m. After a dinner break, preparations began for an 8:30 curtain of the current week's production. The day was over about 11:30 p.m. Interspersed during the week were costume fittings, orchestra and dress rehearsals. Sometimes there was a chance to take a quick break at everyone's favorite deli, Bubbles and Sherman. The miracle of producing a full-scale musical in just one week is best described in the book by former CLO president and current board member Bill Copeland: "On Broadway they spent months doing what CLO was able to do in a week."

Thanks to Mary Brignano for writing How the Dreams Came True. It is a perfect gift for fans of the theater and Pittsburgh history. The Chamber of Commerce should use it as a calling card to tell the world about one of the many jewels in Pittsburgh's cultural crown.

David Newell plays "Mr. McFeely" on Mister Rogers'Neighborhood and is also director of public relations for Family Communications, Inc., which produces the show.