The information for this story comes from press clippings from the Monterey Peninsula Herald, from a 1950 article from Game And Gossip magazine, and from an interview with Angelo Di Girolamo.
The story of the Wharf Theater may be said to have started right after the end of World War II. Bruce Ariss, who had moved to the Peninsula to become a part of the local art and literary colony, did a wartime stint of operating heavy machinery at his father's construction company in the East Bay and now had returned and was walking on Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf. He ran into Yanko Varda, a friend and colorful artist who lived in New Monterey. Yanko was supposed to make a restaurant for Angelo Di Girolamo out of an old warehouse and needed some help. So Bruce met Angelo, one of 13 children of a Sicilian fisherman.
It was Andrew Di Girolamo, one of Angelo's six brothers, who first proposed the idea of a theater on Fisherman's Wharf. Andrew, a talented young actor with both local and New York experience, had worked as assistant to director Dan Totheroh during the spectacular 1949 Monterey Historical Pageant which marked the 1949 Centennial. When that show was over, Andy invited Totheroh and Kenn Smith, a well-known Carmel realtor and actor, to check out the Di Girolamo fish-packing shed for possible use as a theater. The cost of remodeling the shed seemed prohibitive, but the dream of a theater on the wharf was saved by Virginia and Barbara Blair. These sisters offered to sublease a more suitable warehouse behind their new ceramic jewelry studios (on the east side of Fisherman's Wharf facing the water - between what is now the Red Snapper Restaurant and the Wharf General Store) and to allow the theater to use their studios as a foyer.
Opening night was May 18, 1950, and the play was HAPPY BIRTHDAY starring Ruth Marion McElroy. The set designer and builder for the production was Bruce Ariss and he also did sets and played lead in the second production, Eugene O'Neill's four one-act sea plays, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME. Towards the end of 1950 Kenn Smith, who had carried the organizational and financial load of the Wharf Theater almost single-handed, offered the theater for sale. A group of actors and friends of the theater formed a corporation, The Wharf Players, Inc. in February of 1951 and became the lessee of the theater. One of the plays presented in 1951 was Bruce Ariss' POINT OF DEPARTURE based on an incident involving a sex cult, supposedly created by Henry Miller in Big Sur. POINT OF DEPARTURE was so successful that MGM scouted and lured Bruce to Hollywood where he worked for the next five years, commuting from Monterey. Dan Totheroh directed all the productions except one from HAPPY BIRTHDAY through POINT OF DEPARTURE.
In late 1951 Thomas Brock and Robert Carson came in with their Pacific Stock Company and arranged to put on plays. Additional series of warehouse storage rooms (facing the middle of the wharf) adjoining the theatre were secured from Virginia Blair to construct a new "green room" and a school building where drama classes could be taught for children and adults. Executive powers and direction eventually passed on to Brock and Carson with the addition of partner Jane E. Parker in 1958. Brock and Carson directed the majority of the plays from mid 1951 through the end of 1959. Dale Leffler became choreographer for most of the musical productions beginning with PAL JOEY in October of 1954. Other directors during this time period included Morgan Stock and Cole Weston. On December 31, 1959 the Wharf Theater was destroyed by a major fire which erupted at 1:31 am. Brock and Carson were vacationing at that time in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and Parker was left to deal with the cancellation of the New Year's Eve performance of OKLAHOMA.
The Wharf Theatre re-opened in a new location as "The Wharf Theatre and Opera House" - in a refurbished, 800-seat playhouse on Alvarado Street - 100 yards from Fisherman's Wharf near what is now the Doubletree Inn parking garage. It was formerly called "The Monterey Theater" and had been the center of Monterey's legitimate theater from 1905 until 1930 and then became a movie theater. The theater continued being under the direction of Thomas Brock and Robert Carson and opened in June of 1960 with WEST SIDE STORY. It continued with productions featuring local thespians and "show-biz names" including John Kerr, Joe E. Brown, Ethel Waters, Gypsy Rose Lee, Zazu Pitts and Dame Judith Anderson. In July of 1963 it was re-christened "The Old Monterey Opera House" and productions continued until the theater was eventually leveled during Monterey's urban renewal in the mid 1960s. After that there was no Wharf Theater until the mid 1970s.
In the early 1970s Angelo started talking to Bruce Ariss about the possibility of building a new Wharf Theatre opposite Angelo's Restaurant, near the end of the wharf. Angelo owned a site on the west side of the pier. Bruce told him the space was not large enough, so Angelo got permission from the Monterey City Council to increase the space. A bank had given Angelo a verbal commitment to finance the project and later withdrew approval of the loan. So the Di Girolamo brothers mortgaged their homes and Angelo went back before the City Council and was given approval to build the theatre.
ANNIE - 1996
At about the same time Bruce was up at the Presidio of Monterey negotiating the purchase of three barracks buildings (purchased for $600) to provide the building material for the structure. The Di Girolamo family and Bruce dismantled the barracks board by board and used it to build the new theater. Material from an old redwood barn (built in 1870) was used as lining for the theater - after being scraped and disinfected. The theater would have 160 seats. The interior walls were designed with almost no right angles, so there would be no sound traps. Good visibility was created by having the stage at the lowest level with the seats rising in front of it. Two small balconies were added - one provided enough space for a 4-piece orchestra, and the other could be a stage space for balcony scenes. The stairway to the stage door, visible from the outside, was patterned after the companionways in old sailing vessels. Off the lobby would be an art gallery that Angelo would operate, and there would also be an office for Morgan Stock and Sam and Edith Karas who would operate the theater. Downstairs from the theater would be housed a marine supply store, a gift shop, a fish market, and an art gallery. The new Wharf Theater opened in December 3, 1976 with a production of GUYS AND DOLLS directed by Morgan Stock.
On January 1 of 1980 Angelo purchased the theatre from Fisherman's Wharf Theatre Corp. which had operated the playhouse for the last three years. The corporation had consisted of Sam and Edith Karas, and Louisa and Morgan Stock. Next Angelo leased the theatre to Al and Sherry Berkes who were doing business as the Monterey Bay Theater Company. They said they had been managers of theater companies in Alaska for 12 years followed by a touring theater company in Florida. They told Angelo they would employ a staff of directors, designers, and management personnel from a variety of theatres around the country and open an apprenticeship program for local actors interested in professional careers in theatre. Their plan was to open with FALLEN ANGELS on February 29, 1980 and operate a two-season year with five productions per season. Season tickets were sold and printers were engaged to advertise the theater. But Monterey Bay Theater Company never put on a show. The Berkeses skipped town, leaving a pile of unpaid bills and apparently taking cash from season tickets revenues. A subsequent investigation showed they were wanted on a felony warrant for allegedly doing the same thing in Oregon; similar incidents involving small theaters and the Berkeses had been reported in Minnesota and New Hampshire. There they had been arrested and subsequently jumped bail. So Angelo went ahead and organized a theater season honoring the season tickets sold by the Berkeses; since the Berkses at taken the money from the sale of season tickets, this provided no revenue for the theater.
Angelo continued producing plays at the theater for the next seven years. In 1981 Gina Welch-Hagen, who had been an actress in Wharf Theater productions, directed CARNIVAL, and Gina has been directing the majority of the Wharf Theater productions ever since. In 1987 Angelo became ill with peritonitis, and during the recovery period the Frohman Academy leased the space. In 1987 - 1990 the Frohman Academy and Angelo equally shared production time at the theater. Then, in February of 1990, Frohman decided on cutting back on the number of productions and concentrate more on its educational programs at Monterey County schools. Angelo would produce four shows through October and then Frohman would take over for three months beginning in November. Eventually Frohman left the Wharf Theater and Angelo continued producing plays to the present date. Gina has been the managing director, and often Gloria Elber has been the choreographer.
Angelo talks about his actors and his theater with pride. He says that some of the best actors from the Peninsula have been in Wharf Theater productions over the years. And he takes a special pride in Erin Helm, his granddaughter. Erin has been in Wharf Theater productions for the past four summers, playing Annie in ANNIE, Mary in THE SECRET GARDEN, Peter in PETER PAN, and Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. This year she will play Eliza Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY. About his theater he tells a great story, "Greer Garson and I go way back. She lived in Pebble Beach and would come to my restaurant. In fact, her husband proposed to her in my restaurant; that was in the 1940s. So now, about 35 years later, she was eating at Angelo's and telling me about this beautiful theater she had just built in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She hadn't been to my restaurant for four or five years. So I said, 'Before you have your coffee, just come across the street. I want to show you something.' So she comes to my theatre, looks the whole thing up and down, and says 'Angelo, you have the most beautiful theater in America!'"
Financially things are always tight for the theater. Gina and Angelo usually are the ones who decide on the productions they will present. Primarily they do musicals because these bring in the largest audiences. Sometimes they do "reviews," partly to showcase local talent, but also because for reviews the don't have to pay royalties. Recent reviews they have presented are THE BEST OF BROADWAY made up of skits from different Broadway shows and, most recently, ON THE AIR which was a recreation of a 1940s radio show. Three years ago the theater received non-profit status and has since then been applying for grants. But, as Angelo explains, "I didn't receive one penny. I had a person tell me, straight in my face, 'Angelo, they're not giving you money; it's because you're on the Wharf!'"
Bruce Ariss died in September of 1994. On January 11, 1997 the theater was renamed the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theater. A special evening was held to honor Bruce Ariss and raise money for the theater. For the future, Angelo wants to keep ownership of theatre in the family but would like to lease it. He explains, "Because of my age and everything, I'd welcome someone to come and run this theater - to keep the Bruce Ariss Theater alive."