Is there a theatre law of thermodynamics that says that every hit has to be followed by a flop? The Back Alley reopened after being shut down in 1981 after 13 visits to city hall, 4 visits to the Van Nuys district office, 4 sets of blueprints, 5 work permits, 8 inspections, and the indispensable help of Lee Ramer, who worked for City Councilmember’s Joel Wachs (now of Licorice Pizza fame).

The production was TRES SOMBREROS DE COPA or THREE TOP HATS by the Spanish playwright, screenwriter and journalist Miguel Mihura (1905-1977). Although written by Mihura in 1932, THREE TOP HATS wasn’t published until 1947, had its first staging was in 1952, and was finally translated into English in 1968.

Essentially about the conflict between the desire for a more ordinary planned existence and the perceived wild life of an artist (don’t we all want both?) our protagonist, brilliantly played as always by Jeff Goldblum, finds himself in a seedy hotel on the eve of a wedding he’s dreading. Luckily there’s a travelling circus also staying at the hotel, and one of the dancing girls, played by Blair Tefkin, mistakes him for a juggler as he’s trying on—yes, three top hats—for the wedding. He wants to run away with the circus; she wants a staid respectable life. We were hoping that hilarity, as they say, would ensue.

The rest of the great 14-member cast included Patti Mariano, who also did the choreography, Daryl Roach, and Allan, who in addition to directing, took on the role of the Odious Man at the last minute after Robert Mandan, Allen Garfield and Dick McKenzie each took on the part and departed in succession. Looking at all the names crossed out and replaced on the contact sheet, this production leaked actors like a sieve, but this wasn’t entirely unusual for small theatres in LA as people got jobs.

Ionesco said he was greatly influenced by Mihura’s work and I think in retrospect that absurdist theatre was too big a stylistic stretch for us (Stages, helmed by Paul Verdier, was brilliant at it and had that territory covered in LA).

By the time we reopened in 1982, the Back Alley had incorporated as a nonprofit and we had a great small board of trusted advisors that included Susie Schwarz, Allan’s agent, entertainment lawyer Stuart Berton, the great casting director Pam Dixon, and playwright Oliver Hailey (much more about him in the intro to 24 HOURS). The board, all of whom saw the production in previews, basically begged us not to open, so it must have been quite the mess. There are no reviews in the file, which means we opened and they were all terrible, or we didn’t open at all, nobody seems to remember which.

THREE TOP HATS lives on, however. A new opera by Ricardo Llorca based on the play was commissioned by The New York Opera Society, premiered by Teatro Sergio Cardoso in Sao Paulo in 2017 and received its European premiere at Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid on November 12, 2019, just before the world shut down for the pandemic.

– Laura Zucker


Three Top Hats Set Design