In 1986, Tim Busfield founded Fantasy Theatre as a long-held dream he had to create a children's theater.
In 1992, he and his brother, Buck, co-founded B Street Theatre. In the first production in February 1992, Tim and his college friend Ed Claudio starred in "Mass Appeal" under the direction of their former mentor, Bud Frank.
One company reorganization and many hundreds of plays later, B Street Theatre is an essential component of Sacramento cultural life.
The Bee asked some of the many people involved with the theater over the past 20 years for remembrances of time spent there. Some of those thoughts are edited and presented here in their own words.
The first 15 years ... were a blur (starting with my moving to Sacramento and starting Fantasy Theatre in 1986). A hundred plays we produced before I turned over the reins to Buck.
During that time, I had experiences you can't imagine. Being unable (as a working professional actor) to keep up with Kurt Johnson on stage will always haunt me. Buck's animated door sound effects (we didn't have sets) in the early days of the Fantasy Theatre were truly remarkable while always getting a laugh from the kids and teachers. And in 1987, when Buck emerged from his bedroom (in the house we shared at 20th and D) with an original, perfectly rhyming, "Romeo and Juliet," it was at that moment I remember thinking we had a theater company that could last.
My most favorite and grateful experience was when (Oscar and Emmy award winner) Aaron Sorkin wrote and starred in "Hidden in This Picture" for the B Street in the spring and summer of 1992. I'd done "A Few Good Men" (which Sorkin wrote) on Broadway, and Aaron came to see our inaugural production of "Mass Appeal" in Sacramento.
After the show, Aaron said he wanted to write a play for the theater and we did it. Buck and I immediately committed to Aaron's play, and Aaron went into the Clarion Hotel for four months. The B Street got 77 performances from a playwright who I consider the best writer of our time and enough money to keep going forward to another production.
Reflection: When I take time to add up the numbers of productions and performances, I am overwhelmed. Those numbers just crept up on us. It's really an accomplishment, on a national level.
My experience: Gratitude for the many, many hours spent laughing at some of the best actors in the country, and sharing that experience with our patrons.
Favorite shows: Too many to note. "(Around the World in) 80 Days," "Three Days of Rain," "Lobby Hero," "Anne Frank" and many others.
Moving forward: To continue to grow B Street into a regional theater similar to the Tony Award-winning Berkeley Repertory, while maintaining its trademark intimacy. The new B Street Theatre project is not only about providing better, more diverse, and compelling theater, it's about serving thousands more children, and economic stimulus for the city.
A few days before New Year's (1992), Tim Busfield bounced into my office (I was taking reservations for the Fantasy Theatre Christmas show) and announced his plans to produce "Mass Appeal" in the former tile factory across the driveway.
Time was crucial he was on a break from shooting a film ("Sneakers"). We would rehearse for a week and run for three to four weeks max.
Tim was always full of ideas; some great, some not, and often I would look over his shoulder to find Buck frantically signaling his rejection of Tim's latest enthusiasm.
After Tim bounced away, I went into Buck's office and asked, "Is this real?" and he said, "Yeah, I think maybe it is."
The show got a four-star review from The Bee. It ran for more than 10 weeks, and the B Street Theatre was born.
Actor and director
My first show was "Hidden in This Picture" by Aaron Sorkin with Timothy Busfield, and Aaron Sorkin acting opposite me as my boyfriend. I gotta say "Around the World" for my favorite show just 'cause I got the chance to play Passepartout. "Time-piss" (what Passepartout calls his pocket watch).
My first year on staff at the B Street was in 1994. I was lucky enough to be invited back right after my apprenticeship.
Now, the theater is always stretching every dollar, but things were really tight back then. They had just reorganized as a not-for-profit, and everyone in the building was wearing multiple hats and putting in extra-long hours.
On this particular morning I was doing an interview with Peter Haugen (then The Bee's theater critic) after working till 7 a.m. building the set, and before reporting to tech rehearsal for the show I was performing in ("Let's Play Two," with Jamie Jones). And, as Peter is asking me about the show and about how the reorganization is going, out of the men's bathroom comes the man himself, Buck Busfield, with a toilet bowl brush in his hand.
It was Tuesday and everyone (even the artistic director) had a rotation doing janitorial duties. Buck doesn't clean toilets very often anymore. But it's nice to work at a place where the man in charge knows every aspect of the business firsthand.
Actor and director
My first show at B Street was in 1993 "The Agent" by James McLure. It was a two-character comedy that Tim directed and Jim and I performed. It ran for months and Tim took over Jim's role.
I came from New York City and had never been to Sacramento, so had never experienced the torrential rains that went on almost without interruption for the entire months of January and February.
The theater's roof had no insulation back then, and the constant rain and frequent hailstorms sounded like bullets, loud and echoing.
Inevitably, whenever we got to the line, "I enjoy the quiet," a train would be blasting its whistle, its brakes would be squealing, rain would be pounding, we would be screaming our lines and the audience was laughing hysterically.
A few years later, I did "Criminal Hearts," which Tim directed and in which Buck and I had to kiss each other. Whenever we got to the kiss in rehearsal, Buck and I would say, "And then they kiss."
Finally, Tim said, "You can't just keep saying 'And then they kiss!' So just do it!"
I had never had to kiss anyone on stage before and to say that we were awkward was an understatement. But like anything, it always got better with rehearsal. Buck will always hold a special place in my heart. He was my first.
My first production was Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" with Tim Busfield late in 1992. Initially unaware of my theatrical background of some 30 years previous, Tim Busfield was impressed with my work during "Fool for Love" rehearsals, but afraid that I was one of those old reprobate hams who read well but crumble under pressure and turn up drunk just in time to ruin a show at the last critical moment. Happily, that didn't happen. So we all gave a sigh of relief, and I had a glass of wine after the opening.
Jerry (Montoya) adapted this awesome version of "Treasure Island" that we all had a ball doing. David Silberman played Billy Bones, Michael (Stevenson) was Long John Silver, Tony D. (Anthony D'Juan) played Randy. I was Black Dog. The usual suspects.
On the last performance of the run, myself and assorted pirates get to places anticipating our entrance into the tavern in pursuit of Bones and "the map" to discover the door will not open. We have enough time to alert Sara Newell (the stage manager) who basically gives us permission to literally tear the door down. We proceeded to make our entrance kicking, ripping, tearing and splintering the door to pieces. It was this insane entrance that blew the kids away, not to mention Silberman.
Writer and performer
What I recall is how welcoming they were to me when I first started writing my plays. When I wrote "Letters to Declan," I had no experience with that form.
I called Buck Busfield, whom I had never met, and asked if he'd take a look at it. He actually sat alone in the empty theater and watched me do the whole thing and then gave me notes. That was extremely generous.
I remember coming home from my very first dress rehearsal at B Street and telling my wife, Jean, "There's a person that escorts you to the stage with a headset! They talk to the person in the sound booth and tell them when you're in place and ready to go on stage!" A far cry from the world of stand-up.
Associate producer, director and writer
We were opening the first show at 7 p.m. in the B3 space, Jack Gallagher's "Just the Guy." We didn't have power to the building until 5 p.m.
Jack invented a tool to run speaker lines which we called "the Gallagher" because we didn't have a tall enough ladder. We got a final inspection. Power went on. We teched the show in an hour. Jack, Buck and I ran to the restroom to clean up and look presentable. Curtain went up. Jack killed 'em.
Actor, writer and director
While the cast and script was great, the real star of "80 Days" in my opinion was Willy Busfield (Tim's son). He was the Foley artist for the show, providing all of the sound effects live: glasses clinking, drinks pouring, gun shots, elephant footsteps, wind, waves, thunder, train whistles, train engines, etc, etc.
Before one Sunday matinee, Willy was in the dressing room lying on the sofa with a bucket next to him. He'd contracted food poisoning and wasn't keeping anything down. He looked awful, but wanted to do the show. That wasn't going to happen, so Buck volunteered to take his place.
All of Willy's cues were penciled into the prompt script he'd been using, so Buck would just work from that.
Early in the show, it was working pretty good, but as the things picked up momentum, it became really hysterical. There was one sequence that featured a runaway train heading toward a washed-out bridge, while horses road alongside the train mounted by Indians firing guns into the train. It was bedlam. Without Willy, it was like being in a bad dub of a foreign film everything was either off by a few seconds, or just didn't happen. It was really a lot of fun, and the audience of course loved it. When Willy returned the following Tuesday, we all had a much greater appreciation for his contribution, none more so than Buck.
Actor, writer and director
My favorite show, and this is tough, would have to be "Around the World in 80 Days."
When Buck asked me to read the script, I knew it was right up our alley. I had come back after being in New York, and with the exception of a glorified cameo in Buck's holiday show that year, I hadn't acted in almost five years. All of my pent-up creativity went into that performance. 19 characters. And the rest of the cast Mike Stevenson, Amy Resnick, Greg Alexander, and my oldest friend in the theater, Elisabeth Nunziato made it even more special.
The sheer amount of theater we produce at the B Street makes us pretty unsentimental and jaded sometimes, but that show had an energy, an electricity that has been unmatched in my experience. Plus we laughed our (butts) off every day. I think Jerry Montoya said, when he brought a box of props to one rehearsal, that he felt like he had walked into a cocktail party.
I was doing a Buck Busfield holiday show where I played the love interest of Janis Stevens. Janis at the time had an adorable pug that she brought everywhere, including the theater. Normally very well- behaved, one night her pug heard her master's voice from the stage and decided to come investigate. As I held Janis in a romantic embrace we both clearly heard the dog barking and running toward the stage. Janis was facing up stage, and I was facing down and I remember her eyes getting huge as I looked up and saw in silhouette Buck tackle the dog in the hallway and briefly wrestle it back to the dressing room. The audience never knew. Awesome.
Actor, writer and director
My first show came in the fall of 1994 H.G. Wells' "Time Machine," a Fantasy Theatre production where I played an evil developer who was trying to cut down the rain forest and build a shopping mall, much to the chagrin of a time-traveling monkey. As you can surmise, the play was very loosely based on its source material. And I use the term "loosely based" loosely.
Some of the best memories from performing a live play occur when things go wrong. During the first preview of Greg Alexander's "The Golden Harp," I had a particularly hectic quick change that I really hadn't been given enough time to rehearse. The change did not go well, and I had to scramble to make it on stage in time for my cue. My fellow actors were snickering at me during the scene, and I assumed they did so because of my disheveled appearance. It wasn't until after I had made my exit that I discovered I had done the scene without pants.
Actor and director
One of my favorite experiences was working with Buck on what was supposed to be an original script by a well-known, award-winning playwright, who shall remain nameless. The piece wasn't going to work, and at the last minute, we all switched gears. Buck wrote a new piece for us as we rehearsed and opened on time. It was my first time working opposite Jason Kuykendall. It must have gone well because he married me.