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Old Town, as a cultural center (repost)

August 28, 2012

Old Town Theater

I originally posted this in April.  In collecting stories for a new book, some of the stuff seemed good enough to give it one more viewing.  I hope you agree.  `Ed

Old Town, on University Avenue, was originally called the “Old Town Shopping and Cultural Center” and it opened in 1966, the year I graduated from high school and started college at San Jose State.  Within a few years of Old Town’s opening the California Shakespeare Festival moved from the Life Boat Theater near Santa Clara University into the Old Town Theater (if you are a more recent LG resident, you would know it as the newly closed Border’s Book Store).

Though the exact year is hard to tie down, a back yard amphitheater was opened behind the main Old Town building, between it and Highway 17.  It was designed to appear similar to the Shakespearean era Globe Theater in London.  Inside of the main building, the old school, there would be one, two and sometimes even three concurrent venues for the more popular rock groups that were flourishing in the nearby mountain sides or up from the down hill flat lands.   In a back corner was a large, eclectic and ultra comfortable privately owned book store, Walden Pond.  There were several jewelry shops, an art shop specializing on limited run original prints.  Unlike most shopping “malls” of the day,  Old Town housed numerous potters, hand made leather goods and in the upstairs terraces, was Mimi’s Rooftop Cafe, which sometimes hosted poetry readings and classical guitarists.  On any warm weekend afternoon, all of these different places; theaters, shops and stores, would be oozing out enough culture and entertainment for the whole county to come by and get their fill.

Me and my young friends went to Old Town at every opportunity.  No place could compare with it.  The variety and extent of the “creative spark” was well afire here, in Old Town, and the spark’s beacon shined far afield and beckoned more artists and craftsmen from near and far to join in at this growing cultural Mecca.   However, Old Town, just like Los Gatos itself, was a social entity yet trying to gain concordance between its old self and its new self, re-establish a reliable balance of basic elements.

A view of Mimi’s Rooftop Cafe

It was during this era that I was married to a ravishing beauty of an artist.  During her last two years of high school, her parents worked in Europe and she was exposed to European art culture to an extent which all of us envied.  She had seen the best of the best, then the parents moved her back to Los Gatos.   Together, we relished the activities so immediate and amply available at Old Town.  We would easily forgo milk money to make sure we got to the Wednesday matinee at the Shakespeare Festival in Old Town.

At times, though, the discordance sometimes still evident at these brand new venues, still setting their foundations,  would pop up and frustrate and grind on the nerves of us who thought we already had it together.  One night, Angela and I dressed up and we went to a late performance of MacBeth.  As we got the tickets just before the presentation started, we sat in the back of the balcony.  Even at 22, I had seen enough productions of Shakespeare that I was becoming somewhat of a snit about what I would watch.   At this point, I refused to sit through any sort of an amateurish production, I did have my standards after all.  It didn’t take long to realize that this was, truly, a very professional company, doing a very professional job.  I settled into my chair and opened up my ears.  Angela, as well, relaxed for a good show.

It was about near the end of the first act when one of the most nasty little devices of the emerging telecommunications industry raised its ugly screech into our mutual consciousness, one of those vicious little beepers went off.   The actors dutifully froze in position, in character, and waited for the beeping to cease.  Instead, more beepers chimed in, more and more.  The house must have been filled up with doctors and there must have been a national disaster.  Men in sports jackets and suit coats were all wrenching around in the dark trying to shut the infernal things off.

The eyes of the frozen actors were all darting from one of themselves to another on the stage.  At the same instant they all broke character and stood straight and erect with their hands on their hips and a scowl on their brows.   The “MacBeth” character crossed his arms as he scanned the audience, “Come on, guys.  Give us a break here!”   The entire audience was stone silent, frozen with embarrassment and shame.   When the last jacket was smoothed down and the last suit coat came to rest and the entire audience took one huge, deep breath, the glaring actors asked if we were ready?  They picked up right exactly where they left off.  Nothing more was said about the entire incident.  Nothing, that is, but Angela’s parting shot as we left the lobby, “That would never happen in Frankfurt!”

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California Shakespeare Festival, 1967

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(photos of Old Town are from the Los Gatos Library’s Historical Collection)

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