Some say you can never go back. But many of us who grew up in Santa Barbara and were involved in the performing arts continue to make pilgrimages to the place where it all started for us. Now as our hair is thinner and grayer, and as we bring new generations of fresh, bright-eyed faces into the hallowed walls of our Marjorie Luke Theatre, we feel a sense of making a full circle. We recently paid our final respects to Mama Luke, where she made her final appearance in the theater that was dedicated in her name by one of her loyal students, Anthony Edwards.
Though bittersweet, this final farewell was a celebration of a woman who was a mother to not only her own loving family, but to so many students she taught, inspired, and mentored during her more than 40-year career as an educator. And how fitting that we gave Marjorie Luke her final tribute in the theater named in her honor. Marj, and the wonderful team of educators she always was quick to acknowledge, set the bar high for students at Santa Barbara Junior High, and then at San Marcos High. She was responsible for introducing the magic of theater to countless young people-many of whom made careers in the arts. In this very auditorium, many of us were bitten by the theater “bug” and our lives were changed forever.
Thanks to an outpouring of generous community support, Measure V funds, foundations, and state and federal support, today the Marjorie Luke Theatre is a state-of-the-art, youth-friendly performing arts venue that has been utilized by more than 130 local arts and education organizations. As the Renovation Campaign Director for the Luke, I have never experienced a more graceful effort to raise funds for a project locally. Much of this is due to the legacy of arts programs at Santa Barbara Junior High. Marj was a key part of creating this rich legacy and instilled pride and long-term respect for the arts in her students. That is why we keep coming back. We know now, if we did not fully realize it then, what a precious gift we were given. The dedication and love from Marj and the team of teachers who guided us through every aspect of production was beyond compare.
As an alum of Santa Barbara Junior High School, I can never walk down the aisle or stand on the stage of the Luke without hearing Marj’s voice, or vividly remembering rehearsing for The Wizard of Oz, Half a Sixpence, and Li’l Abner-my first three stage experiences. We worked hard, and it showed.
On the opening night of The Wizard of Oz (I played the Munchkin Coroner), a homemade flash pot that was filled with a bit too much gunpowder shot flames instead of smoke for the Wicked Witch of the North’s entrance. The flames ignited the set as I watched in horror from the stage left wing. I ran back to the scene shop, filled a bucket with water, and doused the flames as I ran onto the set. I put the fire out, but I missed my musical cue for my one line in the show. But, hey! I may have saved the theater from burning down.
During rehearsals of Oz, I did get to sing my one line in the show: “As coroner, I must aver, I thoroughly examined her. And she’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead.” I had a huge crush on Kim Thomas, the ninth-grade girl playing Dorothy. Marj once stopped the rehearsal after I sang my line and explained I needed to be examining the dead witch-not Dorothy. But she did it with love, and although my cheeks were apple red, this oversized munchkin still knew he was having the time of his life onstage. In my third year at Santa Barbara Junior High School, I landed the lead role and played Abner, played many years earlier by Tim Bottoms under Marj’s direction.
Marj embraced and nurtured the singers, dancers, and actors, as well as the kids who did not want to be in the spotlight and found a safe haven in her technical theater classes. Her stage crew students were often the real stars, creating elaborate sets, effects, and costumes. Although it was strictly forbidden, they made sure their names were painted on the stage walls or in the attic.
Much of this historical “graffiti” that reads like a who’s who of Santa Barbara arts history still remains. The names that were painted over during the renovation were preserved in a photographic installation in the scene shop. Many of Marj’s “boys” found their names before the service and the memories poured out. When a group of eighth- and ninth-grade friends get together, it doesn’t matter if they are 14 or 50-the laughs and camaraderie come right back.
I am continually reminded of how wonderful it was for Marj to be here to see the renovation of the theater in progress, to be able to attend the Opening Gala and host the two-year anniversary celebration at the Luke. May we all be so lucky to be honored for our gifts and contributions before we pass. In February 2004, after the Opening Gala of the Luke, Marj ventured down into the basement under the stage and, for the first time, added her signature to the building. She wrote, “Mama Luke was here.” Indeed, she was. And the world is a much better place because of it.