Whether we like to admit it or not, Santa Barbara has become a community of haves and have-nots. Thankfully, we’re also a very generous community — for more than 8,000 of our neighbors, the services provided by the nonprofit CommUnify represent the difference between living a life of stability and struggling with constant uncertainty.
Formed in 1964 as the Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County, and designed to address the causes and conditions of poverty, CommUnify is now one of the county’s largest nonprofits. They work mostly under the radar providing a myriad of services, the most recognizable of which is the Head Start and Early Head Start programs for low-income families.
These programs are sustained by a combination of grants from foundations and the government, and individual giving — which is where this inaugural fundraising event comes in.
Off the Record: An Intimate Conversation with Anthony Edwards and Cady Huffman promises to be an entertaining and inspiring night with two of Santa Barbara’s homegrown thespians. Edwards, whose list of screen credits is longer than a CVS receipt, is probably best known for playing Goose in the original Top Gun and starring in the long-running TV series ER; while Huffman won a Tony Award for her sexy role as Ulla in The Producers and was nominated for her role in The Will Rogers Follies on Broadway.
On Saturday, February 4, Dante Di Loreto (another local success story; he’s the producer of Glee and American Horror Story) will moderate a cozy conversation with Huffman and his pal Edwards (they met as kids, performing in a professional production of Our Town at the Lobero), followed by an even more intimate dinner for donors at the El Encanto.
Growing up as a “theater kid” in Santa Barbara in the 1970s gave Edwards lots of opportunities to perform and hone his craft. “I probably had done 25 shows by the time I got out of high school,” he says of his time at USC. “People were going to college as theater majors, having done two shows. That’s why I felt super fortunate to have come out of Santa Barbara.”
Huffman also says that by the time she got to Broadway, she knew everything she needed to be a professional performer. “Apparently, from the moment I exited the womb I was dancing around, and my mom put me into a workshop when I was 6.” She laughs, “We did The Pied Piper of Hamelin. I had one line; I think I said, ‘Here they come.’ And I got my picture in the newspaper. And I said, ‘Well, I think I want to do this.’”
At age 7, she started ballet classes, and she started training for opera at age 9. “It just sort of went on from there. I just found my people and found what I loved,” says Huffman. “And I was very fortunate to have teachers who saw something in me, and even when we couldn’t afford ballet classes, I would clean the studio to pay for them, and just made sure that I could always do it.”
There was so much great theater going on in town in those days. “If you grew up in Indiana, you were into basketball,” says Edwards. “When I was a kid in the ’70s in Santa Barbara, it was like theater central. There was so much going on with Youth Theater, and all the arts programs in junior high and high school. … I feel that I was just kind of like, in the right place at the right time. The theater was an incredible place of acceptance for everybody.”
It was Edwards, in fact, as the lead donor in the renovation of the theater at Santa Barbara Junior High, who named it the Marjorie Luke Theatre to honor the teacher who gave him such a great foundation. He also points to teachers like Jack Nakano and Rick Mokler as examples from that era. “Wherever you were in the community, you’ve had access to really great teachers.”
And when did he know that being an actor would become his career? “It actually started becoming a career at 16. I was obsessed with it; I just didn’t think that I would do anything else, because I just loved it so much,” says Edwards, who started booking commercials at that point. He hit the big screen in 1982 with a small role as one of Sean Penn’s stoner buddies in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (hilariously, Penn’s other stoner buddy in the movie is Edwards’s real-life San Marcos High School theater buddy Eric Stoltz).
It was another friend from San Marcos — CommUnify’s Chief Development Officer Julie Weiner — who got fellow Royals Edwards and Huffman to come home to support this worthy cause. “I think when you get to our age, you realize how important it is that you know that we are villages and these guys need help,” says Edwards, who spends much of his time as the board chair of the nonprofit 1in6, helping other survivors of male sexual abuse or assault. “We were served through the theater, but CommUnify is serving lower-income children and families with challenges economically, and medically, and all the things that go along with not being wealthy in this country. And it’s really important.”
“Part of being in the Broadway community is helping out; it’s just something we do,” says Huffman. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s a great organization. There’s no reason not to. And I love Santa Barbara and I love the community of Santa Barbara and I’d love to strengthen it in any way I can. These are the easy choices to make.”
Di Loreto, who recently moved back to town with his partner, Nathan, and twin sons, says, “As soon as I learned about the organization, I was really deeply moved. It’s a privilege to be able to live back in this community, and coming back here, the one thing I want to make sure I make a priority is finding ways to be supportive of the community. And particularly recognizing the range of needs here.”
Off the Record: An Intimate Conversation with Anthony Edwards and Cady Huffman promises to be a unique and lively evening — Huffman, who is currently performing as Mae West in the show Dirty Blonde, promises she’ll be “packing my ukulele and always eager to belt out a song.” Guests will hear about their career ups and downs and adventures in Hollywood and on Broadway, the challenges and joys of creating a life in the arts, and of course, the importance of community — all in the name of a very good cause.
“The idea, which is nice, is to bridge that gap, because we seem to be a society that is separating, and we need to do the opposite,” says Edwards. “But we can only do that by sharing stories and experiences, and that’s why it’s more than just writing a check — it’s actually participating.”
Off the Record: An Intimate Conversation with Anthony Edwards and Cady Huffman takes place on Saturday, February 4, at the Belmond El Encanto (800 Alvarado Pl.) and offers limited seating with two levels of tickets available: the conversation, including the moderated presentation and light refreshments beginning at 4 p.m.; and a private dinner with the stars, beginning at 6 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit communifysb.org.