August 23, 2019

Theater’s Hall of Fame Inducts L.A.’s Own

A few weeks ago, Gordon Davidson stood up in the Gershwin Theatre on New York’s Broadway and, amidst the plaudits of his peers, was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, in recognition of his lifetime achievement in the American theater.

As speakers lauded his 33-year tenure as the first and only artistic director of the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, Davidson might have flashed back to his very first production, which nearly spelled the end of his notable career in Los Angeles.

As the inaugural drama of the new theatrical venture, the young Davidson decided to stage, and direct “The Devils” by John Whiting, the tale of a libertine priest, a nun, and their sexual fantasies.

The Catholic Archdiocese and Davidson’s bosses at the County Board of Supervisors were suitably outraged and demanded the director’s scalp.

It was only through the intercession of Buffy Chandler, then the grande dame of Los Angeles society and culture, aided by Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, that Davidson and the theater group survived.

However, the supervisors slapped a tax on the theater and formed a committee to keep a watchful eye on the dangerous director.

Now nearing 67, the lean, handsome Davidson, with his distinctive shock of gray hair, thinks the lifetime achievement award may have been premature.

While he realizes that “the arc of life is getting shorter,” he has no thought of his retirement, because “I still have a lifetime of work to do.”

Davidson grew up in a mixed Brooklyn neighborhood of “Jews, Irish Catholics, Italian Catholics and one Protestant,” and as a member of a “prototypical American Jewish family.

“My grandfather was Orthodox, my father Conservative and I’m Reform,” he recalls, sitting in his modest, if not scruffy, office, formerly the administrative center of the Los Angeles County morgue, and cluttered with scripts, books and newspapers.

He arrived in Los Angeles in 1964 as the new managing director of the UCLA Theatre Group, which metamorphosed into the Center Theatre Group three-years later and moved from the Westwood campus to the downtown Music Center.

By most measures, Davidson’s tenure has been a success. The Taper Forum has spawned laboratories and programs to encourage theater appreciation and new talent among the city’s diverse Latino, black, Asian, disabled and high school populations.

The Taper’s trophy cabinet holds a 1977 special Tony for theatrical excellence. In the early ’90s, the Taper won back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes for “The Kentucky Cycle” and “Angels in America,” a first for plays produced outside New York. In fact in 1994, three out of four plays vying for the Tony were Taper productions.