SAN DIEGO — The normally shy and reserved Craig Noel burst into gales of uncontrollable laughter.
It was his answer to a simple question. I had asked the impish, silver-haired executive producer of the Old Globe what it had been like to run the nation's oldest regional theater for almost half a century. (Noel's handpicked successor, Jack O'Brien, took over the job in 1982.)
With his outburst, the spry, 72-year-old, 5-foot-3 Noel had neatly answered the question.
Today he celebrates those 50 years at this theater in idyllic Balboa Park where, since 1937, he's weathered a World War and two major fires (1978 and 1984). Noel, born in New Mexico but reared in San Diego, started acting his career early--in kindergarden. ("I played the mean, bad troll; I became more troll-like as the years went by.") He first joined the Globe fresh out of high school, on his return from a Shakespearean tour with Patia Power, Tyrone Power's mother.
"The Globe players were here," he said in his unpretentious office overlooking the park. "The (1936 International) exposition was here. I came back to go to State College. I worked at the exposition and auditioned for the Globe Players."
Built for the exposition, the original Globe (which burned down in an arson fire in 1978) was made of beaverboard placed on the ground.
"It was going to be torn down," Noel said. "But people who saw the Shakespeare that was done there by the Globe Players decided they wanted to save it. The city put up $10,000, the theater raised $10,000. Another $20,000 came from WPA labor and the federal government and for $40,000 they put in foundations, reinforced concrete and a stage house. I auditioned for the first show ("The Distaff Side," 1937), played the lead in it, acted, stage-managed and by 1939, I started directing workshops."
But the war interrupted all that. Noel went off to fulfill his dream of working in Hollywood--and the Navy hospital across Park Boulevard took over the theater:
"Navy boys were sleeping on cots on the green. The theater was an orientation center. They showed films about VD. The Falstaff Tavern was a USO canteen and the curio store became a barbershop."
From 1944-46, Noel served on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff, directing at the Ernie Pyle Theater in Tokyo ("the Radio City of Tokyo"). In 1947, Lowell Davies, president of the board, asked Noel to come back and take over the Globe. The town had changed.
"It hadn't gained any particular sophistication," he reflected, "but the numbers had doubled." It was then he decided to make it his own.
"I could see that we had to organize in a much different fashion," he said. "We weren't doing Shakespeare at that time--it was a winter season of recent Broadway hits, popular comedies, the sort of thing that the La Jolla Playhouse was doing in the summers."
Things really changed in 1949 when the Globe hooked up with (the then) San Diego State College and actor/director/teacher B. Iden Payne and began to do the Bard.
"It was the beginning of what we called the San Diego National Shakespeare Festival. Coming out of those exposition years (1935-36), San Diego had fallen in love with Shakespeare."
Noel, however, was not in love with the quality of the acting. He backed off when he discovered that "Mr. Roberts" was available and, in this Navy town, cast the comedy with real sailors and Marines.
"We got more publicity by not doing Shakespeare than by doing it: letters to the editor, editorials, a UPI article that went all over the country with a picture of 'Mr. Roberts' and a caption that said ' "Mr. Roberts" Makes Shakespeare Walk the Plank at the Old Globe.' "
This widespread indignation made Noel rethink and regroup.
"If you want Shakespeare," he concluded, "we'll organize." It was a turning point. "We made $70,000 off 'Mr. Roberts.' In those days it was like $700,000. A lot of money. We'd never before started a new season with a bank account, but the Globe from that time on never really had to worry."
The Old Globe is the oldest ongoing Equity theater on the West Coast. What John Houseman and Gordon Davidson did later for Los Angeles, Noel believes he did for San Diego.
"We predate all of the '60s regional movement," he said. "One of the things I feel was responsible for that was the presidency of John Kennedy, a young President who believed art was the way to make a more healthy and interesting climate for citizens. It added a whole new dimension.
"And San Diego started changing. I'd wanted to do more experimental theater. I'd gone to La Jolla and worked with the museum doing a series of plays, the type of thing old La Jolla didn't like: Albee, Ionesco. If I could have held on for a couple more years and if the university had been there a little earlier. . . .
"Even in those early days I did two all-black shows in one season ("Raisin in the Sun" and "Take a Giant Step") and I did Beah Richards' 'One Is a Crowd.'