23 February 2003
What does a theatre critic do on her day off? She goes to the theatre, of course.
Why in the world would we want to drive an hour and a half to see a community theatre
production of Pirates of Penzance, which I've seen bazillions of times, and which
isn't even my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan operetta?
Well, because it was directed by Ann MacNab.
Back in 1952, when she was Ann Pool, Ann got together with a (then) young tenor named
Orva Hoskinson and over hamburgers at the now defunct Hippo restaurant in San Francisco,
they decided to gather some friends together and put on a show. Not quite Mickey and Judy,
but kinda the same idea.
Out of that fateful dinner was born The
Lamplighters, a musical theatre company which recently celebrated its 50th
anniversary, and which is now considered to be of semi-professional quality (meaning
professional quality unpaid performances, I think!)
Ann left the company in the 60s, after her marriage to Lamplighter tenor Adrian MacNab and about the time of the birth of
her first child. She and her husband eventually settled in Southern California and began
to raise their family.
I met her when my friend Alison and I were working on writing The Lamplighters:
Twenty-Five Years of Gilbert & Sullivan in San Francisco in the mid 1970s. An
interview with Ann was obviously very important for understanding the roots of the company
and all those funny things that happened in the early days.
I can't say that Ann and I hit it off right away. She kind of scared me. I was still
somewhat starstruck by meeting these people I'd been watching from the audience side of
the stage and Ann, of course, had been the heart and soul of the company for so many
years. It was her lifesblood, her child.
I don't really remember a lot about the first meeting, but I found her kind of abrupt
and perhaps stand-offish. I don't think I was in on her interview; I think it was a
subsequent meeting that I attended. But it was not one of those instant bonding things.
As I don't remember our first meeting clearly, I also don't remember the sequence of
events that led to our friendship. Mostly, I suppose, it grew out of the fact that we both
are letter writers. We both express ourselves more easily on paper than we do in person
(at least to each other).
What began as an exchange of letters about the book soon grew into a getting to know
you series of letters and before long, we had forged a strong friendship. I always joked
with her that we still had difficulty communicating face to face (though we once spent a
weekend together just to prove that we really COULD talk to each other without a piece of
paper in front of us).
She started another Gilbert & Sullivan company in La Caņada, where she lived, and
we flew there many years ago to see a production of Ruddygore. I remember two
things about that performance: first, that Bill Scott, the voice of Bullwinkle, was
playing the lead (how many people can boast of meeting Bullwinkle in person?) and that the
staging for the show was the same staging that Ann had used years before when directing
shows for the Lamplighter stage....and how much fun it was to see it again.
In subsequent years, we cried together over the death of Gilbert Russak, who had been my
best friend and who had worked with Ann for many years, when The Lamplighters was coming
into prominence in San Francisco.
We developed in-jokes between us. I don't know how we got onto potatoes, but we began
sending each other potato cards, cartoons, and funny gifts (I hit my peak when I found a
potato clock to send her one Christmas).
Ann and her husband lost their middle son several years later and I ached for her and
tried to do what little I could to help, not knowing then what someone could do. She told
me months (or maybe years) later that my letters at that time were very helpful.
She was one of the people I called when David died. I knew she'd been there and I
needed to touch bases with someone who understood.
There came a period of time when we began drifting away from each other and a space of
about 3 years when we didn't write at all. Several months ago, I mentioned to a mutual
friend, Ken Malucelli, who
had joined the Lamplighters in the 70s and is still involved, that I didn't know what
happened between us. "She says the same thing," he said. "Why don't you
write to her?"
I did, and we rapidly picked up where we left off.
She and Adrian are retired now and live northern California and,
in her 70s, she's still directing Gilbert & Sullivan. I had to giggle when I received
the card which announced the upcoming production. The graphic was the very same one that
had been used on the Lamplighters posters decades before.
How could we pass up the chance to see another Ann-directed show. We made arrangements
to meet Ken for dinner and then the three of us went to the show.
I'd like to say it was outstanding, but it was community theatre. Amateur theatre in
the truest sense: people doing things for the love of it. There were some excellent
performances and there were some pretty bad performances, but the fun was in seeing all
those old Ann touches and watching her sit there conducting the choruses. The choreography
and the bits are just as fresh today as they were 40 years ago when I first saw them. I
remember talking once with Orva, the co-founder of the Lamplighters, about a production he
was directing and commenting on how I recognized some of Ann's choreography.
"It was perfect then, and it's perfect now. I wouldn't change a step of it,"
It's still perfect.