“Alas, poor Yorick!” Drehner performs to his audience of one.
“See you at the Nudist Colony,” says John.
This rainy Saturday afternoon happened in the last days of the lockdown. Still no gatherings allowed. John Drehner and I were so bored, we came up with this brilliant idea: “Let’s do Shakespeare in the Park!” I suggested. He’d do the acting, I’d be his audience of one. The governor couldn’t object to a crowd of one.
Drehner’s a retired mail carrier whom friends know for playing bit parts in a ton of Shakespeare plays right here in Balboa Park, ever since the 1990s. His more famous portrayals include the gravedigger in Hamlet and the porter in Macbeth, small but funny roles to relieve the tensions of the plots.
“I started off being hired as a spear-carrier, but if you hang around long enough, you can end up being a star,” says John, “just because other actors don’t turn up.”
So here we are where he acted, in the sunken dell behind the Fleet Science Center in a deserted Balboa Park. Today, it looks unused, but intact, like a classical Greek stage in the round, with galleries climbing up towards the Prado.
But our crazy Shakespeare idea also reveals another secret of the park to me. It turns out this was also, in its day, a full-fledged — unfledged? — naturist demonstration park. “The garden got its name during the 1935-36 International Exposition when it housed a nudist colony exhibit called “Zoro Gardens,” explains a sign erected by Friends of Balboa Park. “Several times a day, the mostly female troupe conducted rituals to the Sun God. To enter, visitors were charged 25 cents, later raised to 75 cents, for unlimited observation time.”
Drehner’s Macbeth copy to help him remember his lines.
Today, the only audience apart from me is a four-strong wedding party trying to set up a canopy to hold a ceremony, not strictly legit under lockdown rules, but who’s noticing? That doesn’t bother John either. He stands right in the middle, and takes a deep breath. His normally hard-to-hear voice booms up out of the dell. “Come out, damned spot! I command you!” he booms, playing Lady Macbeth. “The Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now? What? Will my hands never be clean?”
Now, he’s Hamlet: “Alas! Poor Yorick! I knew him well. A fellow of infinite jest!”
Somehow, John gains power from the isolation of the stage. He transforms into Richard III. “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Then ends up the porter in Macbeth. “What three things does drink especially provoke? Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes. It provokes the desire, but takes away the performance.”
It’s quite a performance in itself. Two in the wedding party join me in enthusiastic clapping. But now I want to know more about what happened down here in 1935. “Between shows,” says the sign, “the nudists played games, read, cooked, and lounged amidst lush vegetation and a running brook.... A small Maya-style building provided a kitchen and bathroom. Animal skin rugs and a fire pit were used for chilly evenings. Conveniently-placed knot-holes in a wooden fence surrounding the upper rim of the garden provided a free peek inside. Despite several public attempts to close it down, the nudist attraction was hugely popular, and kept long hours during the exposition. According to historians of the naturist movement, Zoro Gardens was the only known nudist colony in the world to sell tickets to spectators.”
Right next to the zoo: coincidence?