'I always had a passion for play-making," says Robert Landis, co-founder of the legendary Footlights Theatre of San Diego (1947) and equally legendary Scripteasers (1948). "Theater has always been -- how to put this -- a source of decompression for me, something apart from the stress of business. I always loved to see a show, talk about theater, write plays, dream.
"Maybe," he adds, "that's why I got that assignment during the war. They needed people who could write fiction" -- the biggest fictional production, it turns out, of the 20th Century. The war was World War II. The assignment: construct an imaginary army to confuse the Nazis about Allied invasion plans for D-Day.
"It all started with a clerical error," says 86-year-old Landis, still tickled by the irony. He studied English and theater at DePauw University. During spring break of 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and received an on-the-spot commission. "Wasn't that unusual...they had jobs to fill, needed bodies fast. They called us 'Golden Boots' -- instant officers."
One hundred Golden Boots assembled for training at Newport, Rhode Island. Owing to a clerical error William deLannoy -- "should've been with the Ds, right?" -- got put next to Landis. DeLannoy was from San Diego. "I'd heard of the place," Landis chuckles, "but couldn't tell you precisely where it was."
They discovered a shared love. DeLannoy had an MA in theater arts from USC and, before enlisting, had taught drama at San Diego High.
Landis began writing and staging Sherlock Holmes mysteries when he was eight. Two years later he wrote, directed, and played the lead in a show about Tom Sawyer. "That was fun! I got to cast the prettiest girl in class -- and kiss her!"
Landis says he didn't do much writing at DePauw, but before the war broke out he planned to do graduate study at Yale School of Drama.
At Washington D.C, Landis and deLannoy worked communications -- 12-hours-on/24-off shifts -- in the Navy Department's top-secret BritCom room. They sent and received encrypted messages from Washington and the admiralty in London. During his stay in D.C., Landis wrote a drama about a task force in battle. "I hadn't even been on a warship and wrote the play anyway! What chutzpah, huh?"
The minute they got leave, Landis and deLannoy beelined to Broadway to see theater. Their first show, Thornton Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth, "knocked our socks off! It had Fredric March, Tallulah Bankhead, a young Monty Clift, and the production quality was unbelievable. I can't begin to tell you how thrilled we were!"
They got to see Mary Martin in One Touch of Venus from backstage. "We watched next to her suspicious husband, who was there every night keeping an eye on his wife. Even met her. Imagine that!"
Early in 1943, they shipped to London on the Queen Mary. It was more a barracks than a luxury liner, "just a troopship with all amenities removed. I came home on the Queen Elizabeth. Same deal."
His duty on the Queen Mary: watch for submarines and report anything that looked suspicious. "We sailed -- zigzagged, really -- crossing paths where German U-boats sunk ships left and right. So the Atlantic Ocean was a dump, with barrels, lumber, oil slicks, wooden cartons floating on the surface. I reported all of it, and they didn't mind, 'cause you just never knew."
Landis and deLannoy were members of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) assigned to Communications Central for Allied Forces in London ("Ike was our boss"). Their office was the basement of Selfridge's on Oxford Street. Above ground it was a prosperous, six-floor department store. Military personnel entered by a back door, got in an elevator, and went below. The elevator opened to a warehouse-citadel, the size of a city block, filled with the latest in communications equipment, wires, cables, and blinking lights secured against bombing by reinforced walls and ceilings. Winston Churchill's direct line to Washington, D.C., went from his Cabinet War Room through Selfridge's basement, where a computer scrambled his messages into code.
Landis and deLannoy became part of a joint task force. Along with cohorts from Britain, they created disinformation about D-Day.
"By spring of '44, everyone knew an invasion was coming. The build-up was obvious -- you got all kinds of troop and supply ships crossing the Atlantic. But the question was when Allied Forces would land -- and where?"
Hitler became convinced they'd choose the Pas de Calais, the shortest stretch across the English Channel from Dover. He believed it so strongly he kept several crack tank divisions in Paris. "Our job," says Landis, "was to keep him convinced and keep those Panzers in Pay-ree."
If the allies were attacking at Calais, they'd need an army in southeastern England. So the basement task force created one. They wrote "bogus communications" about a nonexistent base in Kent, where 28 imaginary divisions, allegedly led by General George S. Patton, prepared to make the major assault.
A London film company constructed false barracks, shells of buildings, aircraft, "even fake LSTs" [landing ship, tank] in the water. Large swaths of obvious camouflage concealed empty fields. The fictional messages and fake movie sets created the impression that the Allies had almost twice the strike force they actually did (for a full account, see Roger Hesketh's Fortitude: The D-Day Deception Campaign).
"When it comes to misinformation, the Brits were already masters," says Landis. "They taught us fast how to create coded tapes and radio them out to Patton's quote-unquote headquarters." Landis and others sent hundreds of urgent messages to Kent, and received hundreds back, building an entire fictional base, strategies, needs, imperatives.
"Another thing the Brits taught us: before an invasion, communications reach critical mass. Then, the day before, they drop off to nothing. That's a dead giveaway the Germans were alerted to." So instead, come the first week of June 1944, and even after D-Day, Selfridge's basement continued sending communiques: "No drop off, as if plans were still being made for the big one."
The continued disinformation helped construct one of the most life-saving fictions of the war: that D-Day was just a feint. The real attack was still scheduled for Calais. Hitler believed it and kept his main Panzer divisions in Paris.
"I hope it helped," says Landis, eyes watering, "and that we saved lives."
During the war, Landis and deLannoy attended many a West End show and got serious about starting a community theater. "Bill sold me on the allure of San Diego, even though they already had a theater there, the Old Globe. While I was in Indiana getting released from the service, Bill said 'Come visit.' You heard of love at first sight?" He beams. "Well, guess what...?"
In 1945, Landis crossed the country in a 1940 Buick sedan. He reached Los Angeles and turned left on the old El Camino Real. At South Del Mar, where the hill slopes down to Carmel Valley Road, he saw "Torrey Pines (state reserve), Sorrento Valley, whitecaps on a blue-blue ocean, and La Jolla off in the distance. God! It was gorgeous!
"I had no job waiting for me, just pure faith that something good would happen." Landis got work at the Union-Tribune and eventually became manager of advertising.
Landis, deLannoy, their wives Gini and Lois, and Norman Johnson founded the Footlights Theatre in 1947. For a while, it was the only local theater in San Diego, since the Navy requisitioned the Old Globe as a hospital annex and wouldn't remove the clinic and cots for some time.
Footlights produced seven shows a year, for seven years, in the 700-seat Roosevelt School Auditorium north of the zoo on Park. Their inaugural show commemorated their first Broadway experience: Wilder's Skin of Our Teeth. Since there were no national touring productions in those days, Broadway released the rights to plays one year after they opened. "We did them as soon as we could, and the New York promotion helped sell tickets."
Ask people who saw Footlights to name their favorite show, and two things happen: five-decade-old memories spring to life, and few can choose one. Candidates include Dark of the Moon, Joan of Lorraine, Pygmalion, or The Man Who Came to Dinner.
In the early '50s, Landis and deLannoy dreamed of buying an acre in Mission Valley and a Quonset hut -- "a big one, seat 200, maybe 250" -- at war surplus. They'd open a theater amid the dairy farms. But in 1953, a new summer company in San Diego -- the La Jolla Playhouse -- acquired the latest Broadway releases. "Our source dried up. In essence, the La Jolla Playhouse put us out of business. I don't blame them. We were worn out, and it was time to fold our tents."
Along with being a loyal Charger fan -- do NOT speak ill of the Bolts in his presence! -- Robert Landis remains an unconditional lover of theater. When he retired from the Union in 1982, he joined Project Vanguard in Point Loma, where he directed, acted, and had five of his plays produced. His subjects range from Chekhov (Anton's Lovers) to presidential dirty tricks (The Illusion Factory). The Canaris Enigma, about spymasters in London and Berlin in WWII, came from his experiences in the war.
In February 2007, Landis expressed his passion for play-making once again. Vanguard staged his Au Revoir, Cyrano, a Play with Music -- 60 years, almost to the day, after the founding of Footlights Theatre.