Orson Bean, “the Raconteur of the Venice Canals,” bares his soul on stage to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Pacific Resident Theatre
By Christina Campodonico
“Lies are called theatre,” quips Orson Bean on his way into rehearsal for his new one-man show, “Safe at Home,” which begins preview showings this week at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice.
While the dramatic arts may trade in tall tales, the 87-year-old actor and television personality promises an authentic account of his life story — highs and lows.
“I turn tragedy into comedy,” Bean, a 30-plus resident of the Venice Canals, says of his autobiography for the stage. In it, he surveys his life chronologically. Bean starts with his childhood, touching upon the time his dog was taken away from him and his mother’s suicide. He then moves from his early days of performing standup in New York to the end of a failed marriage, finding love again and finally a life-changing experience firewalking.
“I felt that I could do anything. I felt like I could walk on fire — oh wait, I did!” Bean jokes.
Though actually walking on fire may seem far-fetched, Bean promises that there are no “lies” in this production, based on his self-published memoir of the same title. (I am told, however, that there are some magic tricks and a paper eucalyptus tree involved.)
Bean says the show and the book are intended to verify as much as document his unusual life on and off stage and screen.
“I self-published this memoir because I just wanted to put everything in there, so when the great-grandchildren say, ‘Tell us about great-grandpa. Was he really that nuts?’ … they would be able to read about it,” Bean says.
The translation of material from page to stage was a natural one for the veteran entertainer. Bean has regaled audiences with trivia, jokes and stories on Broadway and on television, serving as Johnny Carson’s regular fill-in on “The Tonight Show” and in recurring appearances on “I’ve Got a Secret” and “To Tell the Truth.”
Even so, being candid on the page and stage is not something Bean takes lightly.
“I think that you have to pay a price if you’re going to be really honest as a writer. Eugene O’Neil exorcised his family demons when he wrote ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night.’ I’m not just willing, but happy to pay the price, even though it’s painful,” he says.
“Safe at Home” director Guillermo Cienfuegos says Bean’s honesty on stage almost doesn’t need direction or coaching.
“This guy is a raconteur. A conversationalist of the very first order,” says Cienfuegos (also known as actor Alex Fernandez), whom Bean recruited to direct the show after seeing Cienfuego’s critically acclaimed handling of “Henry V” at PRT last year.
As he leans back in an old movie theater chair in the Pacific Resident Theatre’s lobby, Bean’s éclat for storytelling extends into his account of how the PRT’s main stage, 703, almost didn’t happen. About 20 years ago, Bean and his wife, actress Alley Mills (“The Wonder Years” and “The Bold and the Beautiful”), worked with then-L.A. City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter to secure permits to establish a theatre in this space, once a nickelodeon. He takes us back to that moment in time when they were about to open the theatre’s doors.
“We gather together when the last of the permits had been gotten and my wife, who had been down at City Hall with Ruth Galanter’s help, seeing this person and that person and standing over an inspector to see if wheelchairs could get into the building, or if the seats were wide enough, or separated from each other or not too close — all of that stuff. And we finally finished and raised a glass of champagne, right in this lobby, and the door opened and a man came in and said, ‘I’m the toilet ceiling fan inspector.’ And our hearts sank.”
The build up to this ironic moment is so expertly executed that it elicits a good chuckle from this writer, rather than a sympathetic sigh.
“We can laugh about it now. At the time our hearts sank. Luckily the toilet ceiling fan worked,” Bean remarks wryly.
In many ways, Pacific Resident Theatre is the perfect place for Bean to weave his witty anecdotes. The company, along with its theatre and workshop spaces, is as much of a fixture in the Venice arts community as he is.
Now approaching its 30th anniversary, the PRT traces its roots to 1985, when a group of American Conservatory Theatre-trained actors headed south from San Francisco to found a theatre company in L.A.
PRT Artist Director Marilyn Fox, who joined the original group of transplants soon after they formed their ensemble, has been with the theatre ever since, whether acting, directing or administrating.
The company has garnered over 200 awards since its inception and continues to offer classes, workshops and a co-op space for actors to put on plays of their choosing, in addition to producing shows for the main stage.
Keeping the company going has been a labor of love for Fox, who has guided the nonprofit since 1995 with the help of stalwart supporters like Bean, Mills and Galanter.
Orson’s show, she says, was the best way to kick off the company’s 30th anniversary season and celebrate one of its major financial and creative backers.
“I thought, ‘What a way for us to give a gift to our community and honor Orson and do something beautiful and authentic and original,’” says Fox, who knew she wanted to produce “Safe at Home” the minute she heard Bean read it at a regular PRT play-reading workshop for seniors. “I got myself up and actually got here in nine in the morning, which is a big thing for me. And I watched it and tears were just rolling down my face and I was laughing so much and I was so moved.”
Fox emailed Bean soon after, expressing her enthusiasm for the show and eagerness to produce it at PRT. He immediately agreed.
This isn’t the first time that Bean and Fox have teamed up. They met when Fox was directing a PRT Co-op Space production of “The Seagull” and an actor fell through. A mutual friend recommended Bean for the role, so she sent him a script. Bean came to a rehearsal and asked Fox about her “concept.” Fox didn’t have one, but that didn’t seem to perturb the prospective PRT thespian.
“I said I just wanted to get some wonderful actors in a room and do this beautiful play,’” Fox recalls. “So he looked at me and he went, ‘I’ll do it.’ So see, it was a trick question. He wanted something that was just pure.”
Bean may be less wily in his latest role — playing himself — but may just have a few more tricks up his sleeve.
Catch a preview staging of “Safe at Home: An Evening with Orson Bean” at 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 3 or 8 p.m. Saturday at Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. $12.
The show officially opens at 8 p.m. next Thursday, Oct. 22, and runs through Nov. 29. $25 to $30. Call (310) 822-8392 or visit pacificresidenttheatre.com.