With the June 12 to 14 production of Tom Stoppard’s comedy “The Real Inspector Hound,” the JCC of San Francisco revives an 89-year-old adult amateur theater group.
The JCCSF Community Players Theater Company was established in 1926 by members of congregations Emanu-El, Sherith Israel and other organizations, performing during the ’20s and ’30s as a program of the Young Men’s-Young Women’s Hebrew Association (YM-YWHA), which became the JCC in 1932.
The group had 75 members and performed in downtown San Francisco theaters, according to a JCCSF publication titled “3 Generations of Service to the Community: 1877-1954.”
While the actors were largely amateurs, the group often brought in professionals to play lead roles and worked under noteworthy guest directors, including Ralph Freud, Philip Matthias and Jess Oppenheimer, who later became a writer for “I Love Lucy.”
The group gradually stopped performing in the early 1940s, probably because of upheaval caused by World War II, speculated Nathaniel Bergson-Michelson, JCCSF director of strategic marketing and communications.
He and other staffers discovered JCCSF’s community theater history almost by accident. In 2014, in preparation for the 10th anniversary of JCCSF’s new building, they were searching through archives at U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, seeking interesting historical tidbits. In doing so, they uncovered information about past Community Players’ productions.
At that time, former board member Laura Klapper had recently started a talent show for adults and was already planning to create an adult community theater group.
“There was a gap or rather an opportunity in San Francisco amateur theater,” Klapper said. “It seemed like it was something people wanted and needed.”
Once she heard about the Community Players, she decided to keep with tradition and call the new theater group by the old name.
It seemed like a perfect next step for JCCSF’s expanding adult programming, according to Jackie Lewis, JCCSF’s recreation department director.
Lewis, the play’s producer, and Klapper, the artistic director, read through about 25 plays before choosing “The Real Inspector Hound.” The satirical mystery stars rival theater critics Birdboot and Moon, who mistakenly implicate themselves in the activities of a madman. Like other Stoppard plays, the show features a play within a play and light-heartedly explores the themes of fate and free will.
After “The Real Inspector Hound,” the revived theater group hopes to continue with productions every spring. Eventually, plans are to offer at least two shows a year, Klapper said.
But for now, the Community Players’ backstage volunteers and 10-person cast are working hard on their big premiere. In recent weeks, they were rehearsing three to five times a week.
Volunteers “have been a part of the lifeblood of this organization since the beginning,” Bergson-Michelson said, and the comeback of the Community Players reveals that little has changed.
“The Real Inspector Hound” runs 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 12 and 13, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 14, at the JCCSF, 3200 California St. $10, 18 and under free. (415) 292-1233 or www.jccsf.org/communityplayers