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Meat cutter – Marine on Iwo Jima – Actor performing Shakespeare – Director staging Children’s Theatre … he was many things … but foremost he was a man who inspired, encouraged and educated a multitude of children and adults for 30 years as the primary director and manager of the theatre programs in the City of Downey. To this day, there are parents and grandparents who as children were motivated to excel in their lives because of the life skills that were forged from the theatrical training they received from him. Some continued in the entertainment industry … but most became architects, engineers, teachers or homemakers. But, all of them were instilled with the drive to succeed and to be good human beings by this one very special and unique individual … Mr. Hume.
John Griffth Hume was born in Oakland on December 15, 1921, and grew up in the capital of California. His first job was working for his father at Hume & Sons, a meat market; but John was not destined to become a meat cutter. He left Sacramento to attend San Jose State University and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre with a minor in Philosophy.
While at San Jose State, John joined the Marine Corps but deferred enlistment until finishing college. After boot camp at Paris Island came Officers Training (OTC) at Quantico, then Camp Pendleton. Special training in Hawaii prepared him for the historic assault of Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945. Captain Hume was honorably discharged in 1946 and attended Stanford University on the GI Bill, receiving a Masters of Arts degree. John moved to Oregon for a summer, laboring as a lumberjack and radio announcer while performing for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as Othello opposite his new bride, Katherine, as Desdemona.
Returning to California, John was hired as Manager of the Sacramento Civic Repertory Theatre enterprises that included a full season of plays at the Eaglet Theater; an Arm Chair Cruise Series; a series of children’s plays; drama and stagecraft classes; and the famous Sacramento Music Circus. He made his way down to the Los Angeles/Hollywood area during the infancy of the television industry and appeared on live programs such as “Playhouse 90,” “Hallmark Hall of Fame” and commercials while working for the Post Office in Downey.
In the early 1950’s, John captured the lead role in the play “Harvey” with the Downey Community Players at the Encore Playhouse (on Downey Avenue) and his performance was favorably compared to Jimmy Stewart. Mr. Dan Furman then offered him an opportunity to present a children’s play (“Heidi”) to be performed at Downey High School. This was followed by a proposal to develop a program of children’s plays on the stage at the Rio Hondo Elementary School. “Hansel & Gretel” was the maiden offering of the Downey Children’s Theatre.
In 1955 over 200 children turned out to audition for “Hansel & Gretel” and John was prompted to initiate a policy of double casting his shows. The following year, the Downey Children’s Theatre was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit and an Administrative Council was established in order to co-sponsor the productions with the Downey Recreation & Parks District. Now having attained the distinction of being called “Mister Hume” by both children and adults, he rallied an army of parents and volunteers to watch over the young actors backstage, to make costumes, build scenery, create props, apply make-up, sell tickets, serve punch and wrangle animals. His wife, Katherine, joined their children, Griffith and Margery on stage from time to time. With hundreds clamoring to be cast, he established the Drama Workshop Program conducted at local elementary schools to accommodate all of the children interested in performing.
When he was cast in a production of T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party” at the famed Pasadena Playhouse, he arranged for a performance to be done in Downey as a benefit for the Downey Children’s Theatre. The response was so positive that in 1960, the Downey Adult Theatre (later, Downey Theatre Guild) was established and joined the roster of children’s shows presented on the Rio Hondo Elementary School stage. In no time, the operations expanded to include: The Proscenium Club, The Arm Chair Cruises programs, The Downey Teen Theatre, The Downey Reader’s Theatre (later The Downey Experimental Theatre), The Downey Marionette Theatre — and ultimately the Downey Civic Light Opera. In 1963 the Downey Adult Theatre and the Downey Children’s Theatre joined forces to present their first musical: “The Wizard of Oz.”
During the 1963-1964 Season, 75,000 participated in 71 performances of 7 plays and this caught the attention of National publications and the Los Angeles Junior Programs, who arranged tours of the shows on college campuses from Cerritos to UCLA. They were particularly impressed that Mr. Hume did plays for children with children, selecting scripts which told stories that illustrated how to be a better person and utilized young performers in leading roles and large ensembles of youngsters.
The success of the all these programs was unquestionable. Mr. Hume and the community felt that the Downey Children’s Theatre, Inc. should have a permanent home. In 1964, following a production of “The Music Man,” a building fund was finally initiated with the support of film star Shirley Jones and the backing of City Council member and local attorney, Priscilla Dunnum. After almost a decade of different concepts and possible locations, the City of Downey used funds from a “sin tax” on cigarettes and hotel rooms to build the Downey Theatre, winning National recognition for a design that had been carefully researched by Mr. Hume. Dedicated in April of 1970, the theatre opened its doors on June 11, 1970, with The Downey Teen Theatre production of “Guys and Dolls.” The Downey Theatre Guild presented the Official Premiere when “The Sound of Music” inaugurated the 1970-1971 Season that Fall. And after 15 years of successful productions in a lunch room with folding chairs and only the “Girls” and “Boys” bathrooms as dressing rooms, the dream of Mr. Hume and the community was realized.
For the next decade, Mr. Hume managed the Downey Theatre and produced and directed memorable, entertaining productions as he continued to influence a new generation of eager young children. However, change for the better and for the worse, would be inevitable. In 1972, Mr. Hume changed leading ladies in his life and married the frequent Leading Lady in his shows, Pauline. The following year, a full season of musicals was presented under the new banner of the Downey Civic Light Opera Association. But after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the City withdrew its support of all the theatre programs and the Board of Directors of the Downey Children’s Theatre, Inc. reluctantly was forced to suspend operations of everything except the financially successful Downey Civic Light Opera.
Mr. Hume retired in 1979, as the longest serving City of Downey employee. He produced one additional season for the Downey CLO Board and then returned once more to direct his final production in Downey, “The Music Man” … his favorite musical. He filled his years of retirement with writing, attending local theatre productions and fishing at his favorite vacation spot in Idaho. He had been introduced to the wilds of Idaho by his father; and, in turn, shared his favorite lakes and mountains with his children, grandchildren and Pauline and her children. His last challenge was a devastating battle with cancer. Mr. Hume passed away on September 12, 2003.
Those who knew him … those trained by him … those encouraged by him … and those challenged by him have become better and more successful in life because of him. As a result of the generosity of his time, efforts, talent and his dedication to the children of Downey for over 30 years, his former protÃ©gÃ©s and supporters strive to keep his memory alive. They communicate to share stories and remembrances via the “Downey Childrens Theatre” group on Facebook. It is their desire to continue his philosophies and teachings and to open the curtain of opportunity for others through the Arts … as Mr. Hume opened for them.
Source: “A History of the Downey Theatre,” curator Larry Dusich; and the UCLA Master Thesis “A Historical Study of the Formation, Growth and Development of the Downey Children’s Theatre” by Tom Fitzgerald.
Published: Sept. 12, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 22