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Bellflower High theater program gets a boost from star alumni

Dismayed at the state of Bellflower's drama program, several alumni whose entertainment careers started there pitch in to raise funds, staging 'A Christmas Carol.'

December 15, 2012|By Dalina Castellanos, Los Angeles Times
  • Don Hahn, left, who executive produced Disney classics including "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," chats with Robert Newman and his wife, Tomi, at Bellflower High School. Alumni of the school are helping to raise money for the school's arts programs.
Don Hahn, left, who executive produced Disney classics including "Beauty… (Christina House / For the…)

Edgar Bullington stood with a slight hunch on the stage of Bellflower High School's Robert Newman Theater, slivers of gray hair peeking from under his top hat, and sneered, "Bah, humbug!"

His portrayal of Dickens' famous crotchety old man was all the more convincing for his graying beard.

But the beard was no prop. Bullington's drama career spans more than 50 years and started right here, at Bellflower High.

Bullington and other Bellflower alumni have returned this month to put their own spin on "A Christmas Carol." Their rendition features Bullington as Ebenezer Scrooge, with other former students making up the cast. The goal is to raise money for the school's arts programs.

The production is the brainchild of Harry Cason, a 1974 Bellflower graduate who was dismayed when he saw the theater's condition earlier this year.

"It's all aged out," the Juilliard-trained actor said of the facility, built in 1959. "The lights don't work, and they don't have a sound system. The school never had the funds to replace them."

Cason enlisted the support of former classmates, including Don Hahn, now an executive producer at Disney, and pulled their former drama teacher, Robert Newman, out of retirement. Newman gave up teaching drama a few years before retiring in 1982 because he was "burned out." But he said he could not pass up the opportunity to help the theater that bears his name.

The group produced H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" earlier this year and raised nearly $5,000. Cason said the effort went so well that they decided to follow it with "A Christmas Carol," this time with students performing too.

"When I hear that they are cutting out music and drama, I get really disgusted," said Newman, 90, after a recent rehearsal. "We need creativity. Providing kids with an outlet is important."

Cason, Bullington and Hahn all spoke of the director's influence on their lives.

Hahn, once a shy, introverted student, went on to produce Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King" and "Frankenweenie," among others.

"There was a sense of enthusiasm and a culture that showed us it was fun," Hahn said about Bellflower's drama program. "Teachers and parents would pack the theater. It showed us that it was important for us to be there."

This time around, "We're here to show kids, 'We were you,'" Hahn said.

The generationally diverse cast members read their lines and took direction from Newman and Eleanor Packwood, the school's current drama teacher.

Newman once ran four to five plays a year in the theater. Now, Packwood struggles for enough funds to produce three plays a year, she said.

What money she can scrape together "goes to everything not falling apart around me," she said.

Light bulbs are expensive, so some stage lights have not been replaced and spotlights are locked in storage until performances.

When she first got to Bellflower High 21 years ago, "We had the money to have a musical with musicians," Packwood said. "Now my kids have to raise the money for it."

Saturday's performance is at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for students.

Cason said the actors plan to give the performance their all, aiming to show Bellflower students that they, too, can succeed in the entertainment industry. "I want to give them an equal footing," he said. "At least let the lights work."

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