El Cajon Historical Society

El Cajon’s Home-Grown Theatre

By G. Carroll Rice

In the summer of 1947, a group of Grossmont High School students decided that El Cajon needed a theatre program of its own. The San Diego area had a half dozen excellent amateur theatres; La Mesa was well represented, but El Cajon had nothing to compare. The first seeds of the concept grew out of a group of us who had gathered about every two weeks at the home of Charles Lentz at his home off Chase Avenue to listen to music. Initially, the group consisted of Charlie, who had an excellent collection of classical records, Ralph Peterson and me. We were joined by Charlie's sister Barbara and several of her friends who also enjoyed the music.

We hit upon the name Spotlighters for our little troupe, and we went to work at once. I had written a play presenting the Rumpelstiltskin story and suggested that we perform it for the children of El Cajon. From there the idea grew, and Charlie even composed music to accompany the play. We invited friends to join us and Mr. John Montgomery, the School Superintendent, was kind enough to allow us to use the Cajon Valley Elementary School auditorium and the scenery.

Almost everyone has heard the story of the miller who brags that his daughter can spin straw into gold. You'll recall that the king hears of it and puts the girl to the test. She is apparently rescued by a dwarf who spins gold three times, but demands payment each time. The ultimate payment is to be her firstborn child. It seems a safe bet, but the king is so delighted that he marries the girl and sure enough she has a little boy. The dwarf returns and demands the baby, after many tears, he agrees if she can guess his name...you know the rest. His name is Rumpelstiltskin, etc., etc.

The play was too short so we also made arrangements to also present The Ugly Duckling by A.A. Milne.

The cast was quickly assembled and went into rehearsal. Ralph Peterson played the Miller, Brenda Peterson, the Miller's Daughter, Ray Gastil, Rumpelstiltskin, and John Springer, the stranger who discovers the dwarf's real name. After all these years, the production still stands out in my mind. Adrianna Jones as the Jester, Ralph Brown as the King, and the soldiers, townspeople, courtiers, etc. were played by a group of loyal friends. Anne Geiberger and I played the Princess and Prince in the Milne play and Grossmont drama teacher, Ray Kniss, helped with the directing and technical assistance. Many of the community businesses encouraged us by buying advertising on the program.

The plays were presented three times, with only a few glitches. Glitches? Well, one evening a soldier's sword poked through a 'rock' wall;' on another, the lights went out during The Ugly Duckling, and my father and others shined flashlights on the stage so we could continue. The children never noticed and nobody called the cops, but on opening night, Rumpelstiltskin's costume failed and created an exposure bordering on the indecent. Visible to only the first three rows, the potential disaster caused a few parental gasps, more after-performance chuckles, and some significant costume changes. All in all it was a success. The children of the audience were delighted and their parents were amused, it was theatre, it was live and it was an experience.

As a group, we offered our services to other theatres as ushers, making ourselves known and seeing the best shows that came to San Diego at no charge.

The following year, we decided to do it again, without the emphasis on children's plays. Some of the original group dropped out, but their places were filled by an influx of theatrically inclined Grossmont alumni and students in a production of The Saturday Evening Ghost; Wilde's Canterville Ghost as adapted by Tom Taggart. The play went well; Clifton Kirk, who later had a TV career, played the ghost who is redeemed by the love of Virginia, played by Valerie Thorne. The word of the quality of the play spread, and the Altar Society at St. Louise de Merrilac Catholic Church asked us to play as a fund-raiser at the Crest Community Center. [This involved the discreet borrowing of the curtains out of one church to be used for the benefit of another. The pastor was a good friend and co-conspirator who endorsed a bit of quiet ecumenism!]

The photographs and programs have long since been lost, but I recall especially the dedicated performances of Clifton and Valerie as well as those of Everett Mann, Dick Dunlop, Kathleen Walker, and Carolyn Walters.

The following year, I was deeply involved in the joint San Diego State College/Globe Theatre Shakespearian program, and the left the Spotlighters in the capable hands of Everett Mann. Their production of Sidney Howard's The Late Christopher Bean was also successful, but school commitments and the usual attritions of youth marked the end of the Spotlighters.

The members of that theatrical effort went on to excel in other fields. Of those whose careers I am aware; Clifton Kirk was a noted television personality until his early death. Dick Dunlop taught at Grossmont High School, directing the Christmas Pageant and three original plays before moving on to get his Ed.D and teaching at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Everett Mann became in officer in the army and followed it with a teaching career. Ray Gastil is an internationally recognized sociologist, working for freedom, democracy, and human rights, worldwide. John Springer taught for many years in the Lutheran school system and became a Lutheran Pastor in Minnesota. Ralph Peterson taught history in the Sweetwater school system, and I pursued a spotted career of presenting school assemblies and technical writing. Dorothy Madden, whose sword went through the 'rock' wall, became a surgeon at Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital in Chicago. The other women too, went on to serve as teachers and career business women as well as wives and mothers.

For three summers, the Spotlighters contributed to the arts and culture of El Cajon as well as providing a constructive theatrical outlet for some talented young men and women. It would be a shame if it were forgotten.

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