On Sunday, February 7, parishioners lost their church, and local theater lost a space. After a farewell service in the sanctuary, where each member signed the paper of dissolution, the Swedenborgian Church of San Diego and the Swedenborgian Hall closed their doors.
The mission-style structure, at the corner of Campus and Tyler Avenue in University Heights, was built in 1905. Along with a famous rock and rose garden, it enjoyed a continuous congregation, making it among San Diego’s oldest functioning churches. Since 1927, it was the place of worship for the Swedenborgian Society.
The hall, attached to the main church on 1531 Tyler Avenue, served as an all-purpose venue for just about every imaginable event: a voting site, socials, theater, AA meetings, San Diego Symphony string quartets, one-night rentals, comedy groups, poetry readings. Gatherings often exceeded its seating capacity of 80. In effect, the hall was a spiritual, educational, and cultural magnet for the University Heights community.
In 1946, about 25 parishioners formed the Alpha Omega Society. They took trips to the mountains and beaches; they held dances, and the students even studied together. At a meeting two years later, Glen Henstrand made a motion to put on a play. They elected Betsy Young, wife of pastor Robert L. Young, to direct.
“Nobody thought of doing more than one, maybe two plays,” wrote original member Henry Swanton in 1986. Instead they did two shows a year for four decades. “In all those years we never disbanded, reorganized, or missed a calendar year of production.”
Betsy Young had previous experience with the Palos Verdes Players. Unafraid to be stern, from the start she demanded full commitment. The first production was Lynn Riggs’s Green Grow the Lilacs.
Dorothy Haven — who will turn 102 next month — was in the cast. “It wasn’t a speaking part,” she recalls, “because I wasn’t in the church group.” For years, she had been touring in one-woman shows, among them as Queen Victoria and the Virgin Mary (“imagine me as the mother of Jesus!” she giggles). In Lilacs she “did a square dance and was just part of the crowd.”
Except for Haven, the other actors came from the society. “Betsy didn’t care if they had acting experience,” says Haven. Instead, she looked for theatrical instincts. “She said, ‘You’ll get experience doing the play.’”
Community theater is theater done by the community for the community. Everyone pitches in, painting flats, selling tickets, sweeping floors. For that first show, the costumes were “bring what you can that looks 1930,” says Haven. Betsy said “yes or no,” and collected the keepers. Henry Swanton designed the set, a cozy living room with dark brown molding.
Lilacs was such a success, six months later they staged Patterson Greene’s folk comedy, Papa Is All. When the female lead developed “a case of nerves,” Betsy asked Haven to step in. She had less than a week to learn the lines, the blocking, and “tricky Pennsylvania Dutch vocal rhythms.” And she did.
After that first season, they called themselves the Alpha Omega Players. Two founding members, Henry and Ethel Swanton, were mainstays of the company. Ethel directed, acted, coordinated costumes, and even was rehearsal secretary. Henry designed sets and lighting.
“He was something,” says Tom Kilroy, who acted in six shows at the hall (his first in 1964) and directed two others. “He got great results from simple lighting and a limited budget.”
And this in a space not designed for theater. Swedenborgian Hall was an all-purpose assembly room with a raised stage. The house floor was flat, which made sightlines a problem (“get there early,” a constant a war-cry), and people sat on uncomfortable folding chairs.
The hall could have passed for a small grammar-school auditorium. “But Henry flourished under these conditions,” says Kilroy.
Dorothy Haven remembers a special instance in the fall of 1950. Ruth Gordon’s Years Ago calls for a cat in several scenes. Haven’s beloved Seamus got the part. But how to keep him in one spot? Henry Swanton put an electric heater near the edge of a flat. Every night without fail, Seamus entered and headed straight for the warmest spot in the house. He’d sit and watch in toasty comfort — “and got better reviews than I did,” Haven mock-complains.
For A View from the Bridge, Tom Kilroy recalls, Swanton “made an outdoor ‘paid telephone booth’ in which you could hear the coins drop. Don’t ask me how he did this. The man was a genius!”
“If the script called for something cooked,” says Haven, “you saw steam coming from the pot, heard pancakes on the grill, or smelled the coffee in the back row.”
In the mid-1950s, San Diego had six “community” theaters. Except for the Old Globe’s summer season, all were non-professional: the Globe, Starlight Bowl, Lamplighters, Mission Playhouse, Coronado Playhouse, and Alpha Omega.
“The Lamplighters were way out in La Mesa,” says Kilroy. “Until 1969 you had to take the ferry to Coronado,” which narrowed possible venues for non-professional actors (the Coronado Playhouse eventually gave actors “bridge chits” so they wouldn’t have to pay the toll). “It was pretty much this way until the late ’70s,” says Kilroy.
Alpha Omega did two shows a year and held open auditions for each. Almost every nonprofessional actor in the county tried out.
DJ Sullivan came to town in 1956. She saw a notice in the Union and auditioned for All About Agatha, a mystery based on Agatha Christie’s novels. When she arrived at the hall, Sullivan was amazed: “Scads and scads of actors showed up, and kept coming all afternoon!” When she asked why, one told her that Craig Noel, artistic director of the Old Globe — and father of San Diego theater — sometimes went to Alpha Omega shows; and that the Globe’s press agent, the soft-spoken Bill Eaton — the father of San Diego press contacts — attended every one and would report back to Noel about potential talent.
Sullivan got cast for Agatha. She performed often and eventually shared directing duties with Ethel Swanton and Jack G. White. Sullivan later became president of Alpha Omega and had another surprise when she saw the books: “Their budget was only $100 a show — including royalties! I couldn’t believe it!”
From the start, the parish board demanded that plays be “clean” and family-friendly. “They were all ‘safe’ shows,” says Kilroy, “after all, we did them in a church hall.”
Sullivan, however, made a dicey choice. In Jay Presson Allen’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a teacher has an affair with a young student, and there’s a semi-nude scene. “We were almost ready to open, and the board had a fit.” The Swantons came to her defense. Prime went on and swept the Aubrey Awards for that season. After the accolades, says Sullivan, the board “finally cooled down.”
Patty McCune played Miss Jean. Craig Noel was so impressed he cast her and Tom Kilroy for an experimental project at the Globe: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible mounted in the Falstaff Tavern, next door to the main stage. This was the Globe’s first in-the-round production and led to the creation of the Cassius Carter Centre Stage — and also to other roles for Noel’s latest discovery, Patty McCune.
In another exchange, Carnell Kirkeeng, one of the Globe’s most popular comedic actors, always wanted to play a “serious” part. In the spring of 1951, Haven gave him his wish in John Patrick’s The Willow and I at Alpha Omega. “He had a wonderful time,” says Haven. “He said he will be forever grateful.” And was: for the rest of his life, Kirkeeng gave Alpha Omega full use of the extensive costume collection at his Fallbrook home.
In 1986, after 38 years, the Alpha Omega Players performed their 76th and final show, The Curious Savage. For the next 30 years, Sullivan ran a workshop on stage- and film-acting three nights a week at the hall. And many companies rented the space: among them the Sullivan Players, Vantage Theatre, Talent to aMuse, and Different Stages.
The fee was $100 per night, one of the — if not the — lowest in San Diego. Many years ago, Sullivan told the board: “You will keep it full if you always keep that price.”
And they did, until February 7, 2016.