ESCONDIDO — Pat White is an institution in San Diego musical theater.
"Yes, I've been at it a long time," she acknowledged after a recent performance of "High Button Shoes" at the Lawrence Welk Village Theater. "I started in 1952, right after I graduated from high school. I worked in the Starlight chorus, doing illustrious shows like 'Robin Hood' that first season," White said with a chuckle. "They're pieces of fluff (the old musicals), I know, but people have smiles on their faces when they leave, and that makes it all worthwhile.
"I don't know how many musicals I did for Starlight--although I counted them up one time-- but I did four shows a season. It was different in those days. It was community theater, not professional."
Although the lively, blonde San Diegan is partial to musical comedy, she has accumulated credits in other areas of local theater as well during her marathon run on San Diego stages.
"I did 'The Fourposter' with Ole Kittleson, and I even got an award from Dramalogue for 'Last of the Red Hot Lovers,' but I like to sing. I trained in college for an operatic career--and then I heard the call of the theater, and that was it for opera."
Kittleson is now directing White's performance as the eccentric Victorian mother in "High Button Shoes," so for the next few weeks, White will be immersed in the old-fashioned charm of that show.
"It's a crazy show with an 18-member cast, and all 18 members are in every scene," White said. "We all dance as an ensemble. There's really no star (role) for an actress, but I do a soft-shoe with David Schrage." He's the "Papa" in her big "Papa Won't You Dance With Me" number.
Like most musical comedy personalities these days, White is a triple threat: singer, dancer and actress.
"I'm a singer who dances, not a dancer, even though this show is very dancey," White said. "The ensemble girls do a wonderful castle walk in the show."
After she completes her monthlong stint at the Welk on Nov. 23, White will dive into rehearsals for Starlight's holiday production of "Annie," which opens at the Spreckels Theater on Dec. 11 for a run through Christmas Day. White will repeat her popular and critically acclaimed performance as the nasty Miss Hannigan, perennial nemesis of comic strip character, Little Orphan Annie.
"It's a completely different role than I'm playing here in Lawrence Welk," White said. "And it will look a lot different than it did when I performed it at the Starlight Bowl.
"You have to play to the middle of the house, and at Starlight, that seems like miles . I'm delighted to play it at the Spreckels. I won't have to play it so broad, so (the enactment) will be more natural. Of course, I'll be happy to act in a beautiful theater like the Spreckels, without having to worry about stopping for the planes. I never performed in the Spreckels before, so I can't wait to really get into it."
White has not been seen on a San Diego stage since she played Anna in "The King and I" for Starlight during the summer of 1985.
"I've been laying low," she said, "timing things, because I wasn't sure whether my theater would be ready or not. I'm planning to build a dinner theater out in Carlsbad, and I had hoped to start building a year ago. But a lot of people didn't come through. Now, we hope to start the actual building, and I'll be the general manager when it's ready."
White is bursting with enthusiasm about that project, even though it means putting her musical comedy career on hold so that she can assume administrative responsibilities.
"What we'd like to do, is to do one big comedy--a smashing comedy--and then a serious play. We'll do musicals for 12 weeks, and (straight) plays for eight weeks. We feel that way we can spend more time and money mounting a show. Then we can keep (the big musicals) going long enough to recoup the investment. Fiesta has done a few serious plays, and we feel it can be done (profitably)."
Does that mean White will be singing her swan song when the Carlsbad Dinner Theater makes its debut?
"Oh, of course, when good roles come along, I'll consider them--especially if they ask me," White quipped. "(Local troupes) are still pulling out those old chestnuts (musical comedy classics), and if they have good songs and naturally good stories, people will want to keep seeing them. That's why Shakespeare survived."