by Kim Taylor
MARIN COUNTY, CA – The Bay Area’s highest theatrical experience can be found at the Sidney B. Cushing Amphitheatre located a top Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley. Home venue for the Mountain Play Association, this beautiful outdoor amphitheater is located approximately 2,500 feet overlooking the Golden Gate and San Francisco skyline.
Since its official opening day on May 4, 1913, thousands have trekked up Mount Tamalpais for an afternoon of theatrical entertainment featuring jaw dropping surprises and special elements and effects including horses, stagecoaches, World War II planes and even the Wicked Witch flying overhead.
The location’s theatrical life began when San Francisco lawyer John C. Catlin, U.C. Berkeley drama professor Garnet Holme and experienced Mt. Tam hiker “Dad” O’Rourke were hiking on Mt. Tam and paused to take in the view. Holme saw what he said later was “the perfect place for an outdoor theater.”
The three made plans to produce and present a play. Catlin advanced the money, O’Rourke got the support of hiking clubs and Holme recruited a cast from his drama classes for a production of Abraham and Isaac. Twelve hundred people attended the opening performance, some hiking from Mill Valley and others riding the mountain railroad known as the “crookedest railway in the world.”
In 1914, The Mountain Play Association was established and a year later Congressman William Kent deeded the theater to the Mountain Play Association. The Cushing Memorial Theater was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The natural-stone amphitheater seats 3,750 people.
American playwright Dan Totheroh, who performed in Mountain Play productions as early as 1915, wrote Tamalpa which was presented in 1921. Totheroh eventually became director of the Mountain Plays and helped shape the destiny of the organization. Attendance had grown to the point that the 1961 production Robin Hood was presented on two successive Sundays; the first time a show had been performed in the mountain top venue more than once.
The sizable audience attendance was welcome, but it presented parking dilemma. In the 1970s members of the Mountain Play Association decided it was time for major changes for accommodating larger audiences and presenting more professional, profitable productions.
In 1977, Marilyn Smith was named producer. Smith transformed the Mountain Play Association establishing its annual outdoor presentation into a popular tradition by instituting shuttle bus service and presentations of popular and beloved Broadway musicals. In addition, Smith hired James Dunn, head of the College of Marin’s respected Drama Department, as Artistic Director. Production values improved and performances were presented over five week runs in late spring.
As it moves towards its 100th Anniversary, the Mountain Play Association is today an award-winning theater company featuring the Bay Area’s finest talent; dazzling sets, costumes, choreography and dramatic special effects and hosting 10,000 to 20,000 theatergoers each year.
The Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre is a Bay Area landmark where audiences of all ages enjoy memorable outdoor presentations of lavish Broadway shows in a beautiful outdoor setting.
A former entertainment calendar editor and features writer at the Marin Independent Journal, Kim Taylor, combined her media experience and appreciation for arts and entertainment and established herself as a successful and award-winning publicist.