HomeArtsHistoric Golden Bough Playhouse to reopen this summer after renovations

Historic Golden Bough Playhouse to reopen this summer after renovations

Published May 9, 2024

BY ANNA PRESCOTT

A notable and storied theater located in Carmel-By-The-Sea, the Golden Bough Playhouse is set to reopen its doors with the musical “9 to 5” in late June or early July after being under renovation since 2021. 

Owned by Pacific Repertory Theater, a nonprofit organization that has brought professional theatrical productions to the Monterey Peninsula for decades, the Golden Bough on Monte Verde Street has undergone a major, multi-stage renovation.

The first part of the improvement project was completed in 2011 and saw the installation of a double turntable on the stage, allowing sections of the stage to rotate. Performances continued at the venue after the conclusion of the first phase of renovation until the COVID-19 pandemic saw a halt to many indoor theater productions. The second and current stage of renovation for the Golden Bough commenced in 2021.

The original Theater of the Golden Bough, located on Ocean Avenue and Monte Verde Street, was constructed in 1923. (courtesy of HENRY WILLIAMS LOCAL HISTORY DEPARTMENT, HARRISON MEMORIAL LIBRARY)

“This phase now, which is bigger by far, is a complete renovation of the seating area and the creation of a second lobby,” explains John Newkirk, PacRep’s development and marketing executive. According to him, the most recent improvements focus on the audience’s experience, including adjusting the rake, or slope, of the house. 

This renovation is not the first transformation made to the Golden Bough Playhouse and the space it occupies on Monte Verde Street, as the theater and its location have a long history dating back to the dawn of the 20th century. A theater with “Golden Bough” in its name first appeared in Carmel in the 1920s, when Los Angeles attorney Edward Kuster relocated to Carmel and constructed the Theater of the Golden Bough on the southeast intersection of Ocean Avenue and Monte Verde Street, about a block away from where the current Golden Bough Playhouse stands. 

In the recorded talk “Edward G. Kuster Reminisces” that took place at the Carmel Woman’s Club on May 31, 1960, a year before his death at 83, Kuster discusses the theaters he constructed in Carmel and the community that grew from it. He explains that the reason he chose to construct a theater in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a village that he describes as being “rough and ready and unkempt” in 1920, was because the small city had a “theater consciousness.” 

“I had determined to build in Carmel a theater so beautiful that the town could not help trying to measure up to it with their plays,” says Kuster, who set out on a mission to improve and pioneer theater in Carmel. “I named it the Theater of the Golden Bough after that aged old classical symbol of imagination and recurring light.” 

The Golden Bough was completed and first opened its doors in June 1924. In the same year, the Carmel Club of Arts and Crafts constructed a second theater on Monte Verde Street, where the Golden Bough Playhouse can currently be found, and the two theaters developed a rivalry. 

Though the schedule remains flexible to accommodate for the unpredictability of construction, the Golden Bough Playhouse is anticipated to reopen towards the end of June or early July. (photo by ANNA PRESCOTT)

“Those of you who never saw the Golden Bough must realize that in it, Carmel had something to be proud of,” adds Kuster solemnly, as the original theater on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Monte Verde Street burned down in 1935. 

During the Great Depression, Kuster purchased what previously were the properties of the Carmel Club of Arts and Crafts. He used the two new auditoriums to stage live performances, naming it the Studio Theater of the Golden Bough, meanwhile renting out the Theater of the Golden Bough on Ocean Avenue to a movie chain. 

After an alteration to the lease with the movie chain, the Theater of the Golden Bough was able to stage one live play per month starting in 1935. The first play to debut in the theater under this new lease was “By Candlelight,” which opened May 17, 1935. 

“It was the first staged play for years in that lovely theater,” reminisces Kuster. Two days after the first performance of “By Candlelight,” a fire broke out, destroying the entire theater except the lobby. The small insurance money Kuster received after the tragedy was used for improvements to his second theater on Monte Verde Street, which he then renamed the Filmarte as both plays and movies were presented at the location. 

After a period of time spent directing plays in Hollywood, Kuster returned to Carmel and gave the theater on Monte Verde Street its current name of the Golden Bough Playhouse, and produced plays as well as showing films. Coincidentally, during a 1949 revival of the play “By Candlelight,” the Golden Bough Playhouse again went up in flames like its predecessor the Theater of the Golden Bough. After a monumental fundraising effort, the Golden Bough Playhouse reopened in 1952. But as production costs increased, Kuster was forced to lease the larger auditorium to United Artists Cinema, which used the space to show movies.

According to PacRep, after Kuster’s death, the Golden Bough was sold to the movie chain. Still, a group called the Golden Bough Players’ Circle continued to produce plays in the Circle Theater, leasing it from the cinema until 1972, when the group became unable to stage productions. From 1972 to 1992, the Circle Theater was left empty while the main auditorium of the Golden Bough Playhouse continued as a movie theater run by the United Artists Cinema. When the company intended to sell the property to allow for the creation of residential lots in its place in 1993, Pacific Repertory Theater, which was then called GroveMont Theater, launched a campaign that received large community support to save the Golden Bough Playhouse and the Circle Theater. 

The playhouse reopened Sept. 22, 1994, and the following year saw performances in both the larger Golden Bough Playhouse and the Circle Theater, where plays were produced until the pandemic and the subsequent renovation.

Because renovations commenced in 2021, the Golden Bough Playhouse has been closed to the public and has not showcased any plays or musicals since before the COVID-19 Pandemic. Nevertheless, PacRep has continued staging theatrical productions at the Outdoor Forest Theater.

Even with the imminent return of the Golden Bough Playhouse, Newkirk explains that many large productions will still additionally take place at the Outdoor Forest Theater. 

As a nonprofit organization, PacRep finds much of its funding from show revenue, as well as from generous donations and grants. Additional information about performances and events can be found at https://www.pacrep.org/.\

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  • Great article. It’s wonderful to learn the fascinating history. Thank you. Much appreciation to Stephen Moorer for his foresight, effectiveness, and creativity in saving the Golden Bough many years and ago… and to all who have grown and supported this gem. Looking forward to the reopening with great anticipation.

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