So it comes as no surprise to discover his family history has deep roots in African American theater. It is a delightful surprise to find that his own roots are deep in our community.
As a boy, Wren often walked past the famous Ebony Showcase, at Harcort and Washington Blvd. When the Ebony, a critical player in the support and development of black theatre in Los Angeles, gave way to the current Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, Wren was an adult with a history of theatrical experience. He knew he was destined to make some kind of substantial contribution to the performing arts and when he saw the Center, with its multi-use 399 seat house and all the amenities of a world class professional theater, he knew what to do.
In 2007, partnering with the late, great Israel Hicks and with the assistance of Councilman Herb Wesson, they were able to secure leadership of the Center and establish the Ebony Repertory Theatre to fulfill his and Israel’s dream “to bring diverse, high standard, professional performing arts to the Mid-City community, as well as the greater Los Angeles area”. He has more than lived up to the vision with award winning productions and prestigious events. Their revival of A Raisin In the Sun directed by the extraordinary Phylicia Rashad was picked up by the Kirk Douglas Theater for a second run. It also picked up an Ovation Award for best play in a large theatre in Los Angeles and several Drama Critics Circle awards.
WREN T. BROWN: I am really, really honored to be here with you, Dianne. We have been working together -- we are neighborhood companions -- but it is a real pleasure to be here with you.
TNN: Thank you so much -- I appreciate that and I appreciate you doing this for us. Tell us about growing up in this historic community.
WREN T. BROWN: I was born and raised 150 yards from the front door of this theater -- 1926 Rimpau Blvd -- and I live presently in Lafayette Square, a three-minute drive away. This neighborhood means more to me than any community I have ever been a part of or contributed to. Finding myself in a role of cultural leadership within a community that nurtured and informed my life is a joy unspeakable for me.
First of all, we had everything. Within a short walking distance, right at the corner of Orange Drive and Washington Blvd, we had a wonderful drive-thru where you could get fresh eggs and fresh squeezed orange juice and things of that nature. Culturally, we had the Parisian room -- one of the greatest jazz rooms in west coast history -- right at La Brea and Washington. On Highland Ave and Washington was Tommy Tucker’s Playroom, a supper club, where wonderful artists came and where you always saw a huge presence of people dressed well and from all over this city. Coming down Washington Blvd east now from Highland, we had wonderful banks that were right on Washington Blvd. I remember the name Crocker Citizen’s Bank and Bank of America and Security Pacific. Coming down here to Harcourt was the It Club, a tremendous jazz room, where one of the finest remote recordings in the history of jazz was recorded, “Thelonious Monk Live at the It Club,” in 1964, the year of my birth.
On the south side of Washington Blvd, between Harcourt and Palm Grove, you had the Ebony Showcase Theater, founded in 1950 by Nick and Edna Stewart. I think they opened their doors here in ’65 or ’66. Because this was my neighborhood, I would walk past this venerable theater in my formative childhood years and see people who had made great inroads on Broadway and in television and on film, those who did voice-over work for Hollywood Studios; to see African American stars and stars of all ethnicities and hues come through these doors was not at all unusual for my childhood. Mr. Nick Stewart had played Lightning on Amos and Andy. He and my grandfather, Troy Brown Sr., were in “Swinging in the Dream” on Broadway in 1939. I would talk with Mr. Stewart about knowing my grandfather, who had died in 1944. It was wonderful to hear about him from someone who had worked with him.
Next to the It Club was Ms. Waverly, who is still alive. She had a wonderful little eatery there and made the finest hamburger I have ever eaten. Her family grew up very near here.
Savinar Luggage has been here all of my life, but also the parking lot for the employees here at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center was a cleaners called ABC Cleaners. ABC Cleaners was owned by one of the nicest men God ever put breath in, Mr. Irving Berman. Mr. Berman was a Jewish man, and the woman who pressed there was one of the great joys and lights of my life, Ms. Sally Gonzalez. I remember her with such distinction. Going back the other way on the corner of my street, was Mr. Darling, with Darling cleaners, which is now on Harcourt and Adams. A wonderful, wonderful man, an inviting man. His children and I grew up together. Then there were Dr. and Mrs. Lee, two extraordinary people, who ran our neighborhood pharmacy. Laiken Drugs is still there with all of its signage, but hasn’t been open for many years. These were two extraordinary people. Dr. and Mrs. Lee were just wonderful, wonderful people who welcomed us like you couldn’t imagine into their hearts.
At Tenth Avenue and Washington we had a Ralphs Supermarket. Just past that we had a See’s Candy on Washington Blvd. On Vineyard and Washington we had a Five and Dime. We had a real, real community with a variety of goods and services. Prior to Willing Workers being on the corner of Rimpau and Washington, there was Shop Rite Supermarket, brought to our community by Mr. Ted Watkins, one of the seminal civic and social activists in this city.
TNN: What happened to the community?
WREN T. BROWN: Many things happened. During the late seventies and early eighties, we had the unfortunate rise of gang presence and we had a lot of flight from the neighborhood. I remember the Helms Bakery truck used to travel throughout these communities but there was a lot of robbery of many of the drivers so that really curtailed that presence. Additionally, the eventual crack epidemic devastated Washington Blvd, which was one of our huge arteries.
TNN: What years was the devastation happening?
WREN T. BROWN: Moving toward the late seventies, early eighties. Between the drug scene and the rampant prostitution along Washington Blvd and the goods and services going away. Certainly we always had other goods and services that were fairly close, if you went to Venice Boulevard and the Midtown Shopping Center, but there were a lot of reasons for what became, for a time, the devastation of a community I love most. This artery that I grew up on had such a brilliant diversity of people.
Every one of the shop owners of my youth possessed a kindness that I don’t see in the world today. There was a gentleman who had a shoe shine shop and his name was Papa and he always smoked very stubby cigars but was so large of personality. There was a gentleman here, Mr. John, who had been a pugilist, a fighter and he was what people would call a hobo or a wino; he had lost one eye. He could not have been kinder to the children of this community. Always had a word of wisdom, always was a supporter, always was an encourager.
TNN: Where did you go to school?
WREN T. BROWN: I went to all the schools around here. I walked to school every single day to Alta Loma Elementary, at 1745 Vineyard, and then to Mount Vernon Junior High which is now Johnnie L. Cochran Junior Middle School, and then went on to Hamilton High School. But the primary and junior high school of this community are the two schools that shaped my life.
TNN: Now, how did you come to the theater world?
WREN T. BROWN: It was something that had been in my bloodstream from the very beginning of my life. All four of my grandparents were theatricals. My maternal great-grandfather had his own theatrical troupe at the turn of the twentieth century called the New Orleans Strutters. His three children, his wife, his nephews and cousins, were all a part of his Vaudeville Show. My grandfather, his son, Lee Young Sr., was my living hero. He was a dancer and a comic on Vaudeville. As a child, he worked in blackface. He eventually was the first black staff musician in the history of Hollywood at Columbia Pictures in 1943. For many, many years he was the drummer and musical director for Nat King Cole. His sister, Irma Young, was also a dancer and singer and their brother, Lester Young, became the seminal and great tenor saxophonist, most prominently with the Count Basie Orchestra and then as a soloist. This is the man who named Billie Holiday ‘Lady Day’.
My mother’s mother was here at the Club Alabam and she was a torch singer in the clubs and big theaters here and in San Diego as a young performer. In addition, she worked for many years as a dancer and bit player in many Hollywood films. My mother’s mother was Ruth Givens.
On my father’s side, my grandfather, Troy Brown Sr., was the fifth black actor in Screen Actors Guild. He was from Memphis, Tennessee. He played Broadway; he played the London Palladium; he traveled the world as a comic and eventually as an actor in film and the theater and he worked in blackface as well. My father’s mother was from Mobile, Alabama; her maiden name was Bertha McElroy. She was a Cotton Club dancer and a chorus girl. Strangely enough, I was born into a very, very strong theatrical legacy. I knew at the age of five years old that I had an ability to communicate in a way that set me apart, seemingly, from other children my age. I felt that I had a calling on my life at five years old to be a communicator; I didn’t know if I was going to be an actor, broadcast journalist, or a minister, but I felt that tug on me as early as five years old.
WREN T. BROWN: Then of course, as you grow, and I have always been a reader, I walked to grammar school and junior high school every day with a newspaper, every day of my life from first grade forward. I was always a reader, but I really learned about my family at seven and eight years old and I began to see photographs of their wonderful and illustrious careers.
TNN: When did you start acting?
WREN T. BROWN: I acted in my first play in grammar school at Alta Loma Elementary, right on Vineyard -- 1745 Vineyard Ave. There was always something greatly satisfying and gratifying about the expression of myself as an actor. When I was in the sixth grade, a very dear friend of my father’s heard that the Commercials Unlimited Talent Agency was looking for new faces and she thought I would be a great candidate. A man named Mr. Jerry, as I called him, took a photograph of me (headshot) at Queen Anne Park, which is on West Boulevard just south of Los Angeles High School. I did my first commercial during this period for a product called Funny Face.
I also had my first television appearance with my sixth grade class. The greatest teacher I ever had in my life, Mrs. Aladean Markham, passed away two years ago. She was a folk singer, a lover of literature and poetry; she taught us folk dancing. We went to Willoughby and La Brea to the now recently razed KCOP Channel 13 building, across the street from the Bargain Circus. We danced a routine to the song, The Hustle.
TNN: Then it just continued?
WREN T. BROWN: I went through my pre-teen and then teen years as an athlete, not interested with any specificity on being in the performing arts at that time, although I was always a great lover of the arts. The theater was always a very moving reality in my life. I rekindled my personal involvement as an actor in high school, at Hamilton High School, and it was there that I made the decision to make this my career of choice. I think when people talk about an acting bug, that’s too frivolous when you are really, really compelled to do something. You know, a bug is something we think of in temporal terms, you know, I have a little bug; you want to get rid of that. I know it’s a real play on words and I understand that, but it’s really something much more profound than a bug.
One day I was in the school auditorium rehearsing Oklahoma. I was not on stage at the time and had noticed a man who was new to our environment so I said, “Hello, my name is Wren Brown, welcome, and your name?” He said, “My name is Bob Preston.” I said, “Well welcome, I hope you enjoy yourself." The next day, one of the greatest teachers in Hamilton High School history, Dr. William Teaford, who is unfortunately no longer with us, said to me, “Wren, did you meet a man named Bob Preston yesterday?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well he’s an agent at the William Cunningham Agency on Robertson close to Wilshire Blvd. He’s very interested in meeting you if you are interested.” I went in, I took the meeting after school, like within the next week, I started cold reading a piece of script for his assistant Dinah and he said, “Dinah, have you given him any notes or was he reading like this by himself?” She says, “No, he was reading like this.” He said, “Let’s sign him.” That’s how the first agent at that time in my life came to be.
On the 17th of March 1982, 30 years ago now, I did my first professional job as a young adult, and consider this the beginning of my career. I got the first-ever national Chicken McNuggets campaign, with the Leo Burnett Agency out of Chicago IL. So I had my first agents when I was in the sixth grade when I did the Funny Face commercial, but the agency that launched my career was the William Cunningham Agency and Mr. Bob Preston.
TNN: How old were you?
WREN T. BROWN: I was seventeen when I did that first job. I then went to the Inner City Cultural Center, which was located at 1308 S. New Hampshire -- New Hampshire and Pico. At the Inner City Cultural Center, I met everybody in the industry who had set a real strong example for me -- actresses and actors of all colors-- but particularly the strong working and star presence of the black acting community. They all came to the Inner City Cultural Center.
TNN: What was that?
WREN BROWN: The Inner City Cultural Center was founded by a Dr. Alfred Cannon and the seminal Mr. C. Bernard Jackson, born out of the devastation from the 1965 Watts riots. So out of the ashes, that phoenix rose, one of the first intentional multicultural performing arts centers in the country. It was first on Washington Blvd before it went up to New Hampshire and Pico, but that place changed my life forever.
TNN: Okay. Now we’re talking late teens? How old are you today?
WREN T. BROWN: I am 48 today. That’s the beginning of my career. Being represented by the William Cunningham commercial agency, doing commercials, finding theatrical agents who would handle television and film, and perhaps what we call the legitimate theater. Finding and navigating, learning about all of the trade magazines, trying to be in the right place at the right time, studying acting, studying voice, working on the stage to cultivate the instrument that I thought was there, that’s what it was about.
But this neighborhood, these streets, these personalities, absolutely shaped and then formed my life in a way that I can never be separate from. The beauty of the homes of West Adam Historic, the architecture of a Golden State Mutual Life, the Craftsman Homes, the Californian Prairies, the diversity of architecture, Lafayette Square, Victoria Park Circle, Wellington Square, and the diversity of those homes. I grew up in a very large Craftsman Home built in the early twenties. From that aesthetic to the soul of the people, the neighborhood and the kids that I played and grew up with and the laughter in the summers in the streets, and football in the streets, and a real community with camaraderie, where you did not sass adult people, that the other adults on your street were an extension of your home, if you misbehaved, those reports would come back to your home. It was a community, and this is a line borrowed from the brilliant playwright Jeff Stetson, who said, “I am not for you because you are for me. I am for you because you are me.” That’s the community we had. That is the community we had.
TNN: That’s fantastic. You speak so beautifully. Do you write?
WREN T. BROWN: Thank you for your acknowledgement. No, I don’t write formally, but I certainly have begun over the last several years with the founding of Ebony Repertory Theatre. My wife is my chief encourager and other very dear friends have always been encouragers of my writing. Conveying my thoughts and conveying my heart, means a great deal, so in the last decade and a half I’ve begun to write more, not in a formal way, but certainly the most formal reality is the founding of Ebony Repertory Theatre. I began by writing a proposal, trying to write a vision down on paper. I write something for every program, so there is a public presence of my writing now.
TNN: I would imagine you are a shoe-in for playwriting.
WREN T. BROWN: Well, I don’t know. That’s something you have to study in a really earnest way and I don’t have that time at this point. Thank you for acknowledging that you think that I might do that well.
TNN: How did you find your way to the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center and back to the neighborhood, and what happened?
WREN BROWN: I left Rimpau Boulevard to be married, I was married in Washington D.C., but when I returned home it was this neighborhood. I lived for a very short period just north of here, then for the last 20 ½ years it has been Lafayette Square, a five to seven minute walk from the street where I was born and raised. I have never left this community. I earnestly believe in giving forward. I think a lot of times we have heard in the nomenclature of the world, giving back, but I think giving forward is really what it is.
Walking past this building, driving past this building as it was being built, watching the foundation being poured, watching the cornerstone being poured, and knowing that this terra firma, this earth here at 4718 West Washington Boulevard had been theatrical terra firma since 1924. This was once the Rimpau Theater and then it became Jazz at the Metro, this was an Art Deco 750 seat single screen movie theater in the twenties, silent movie house of course, the transition to talkies didn’t happen until 1929. Knowing that history and knowing all of the personalities and all of the art and creativity that had come from this ground, I refer to it as theatrical terra firma.
Certainly from 1966 forward and all of the glorious years of the Ebony Showcase Theater, so many wonderful artists, seeing it and walking past it every single day of your life, knowing there was a dance studio here, there was a theater here, there was a print shop here, Mr. Stewart and Mrs. Stewart had film cameras, and film technique and camera classes were taught here. But seeing this new building being erected, I always said that I really, really hope that it doesn’t become a white elephant, I really, really hope that there is a vision because it was so beautiful as it was being constructed, and it was so massive, it was the largest thing built and the newest thing built in this neighborhood in my entire life. Nothing had been built of this magnitude or at all really from the time of my birth to this new edifice.
TNN: Yeah, it was a shocker.
WREN T. BROWN: It would become The Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. This level of investment had never come. I looked at it with great pride and great joy, but with great hopefulness that it would be well utilized, and I have always had a personal vision that this community; this neighborhood deserved high standard professional performing arts. We always had to go to Hollywood; we always had to go to downtown Los Angeles, to Culver City, maybe to Wilshire Boulevard close to Beverly Hills where there were some legitimate theaters. Certainly, there were movie houses along Crenshaw, La Brea, and some on Adams, but where was the Mid-City wonderful, beautiful place to come to with high standard performing arts being presented? There were always things presented on Wilshire Boulevard at the Masonic Temple, but again, that was the Masonic Temple, and its beautiful theater.
I always had a vision. The Wilshire Ebell was another one, but it was a rental house in that way, but I always had a vision of wanting to occupy this theater with a resident company and to give this community the best of what I had learned from around the world, the best of what my life had garnered, I wanted to give it to this community at a professional standard, and so that became the genesis for the formation of Ebony Repertory Theatre.
TNN: You were looking at the building going, 'well look at this'.
WREN T. BROWN: Yes. At the time, I was very much in the throes of a successful acting career, thank God a successful marriage, and raising children. Going into the theater business specific was not a goal of mine, as producer, founder of a theater company, per se, in the immediate sense. I was an actor in the theater, but this property and the possibility here moved me very deeply, and so I thought about it often.
That was the genesis of my thoughts.
TNN: How did you come in here?
WREN T. BROWN: The CRA built the building and ran it for a very short period, it was then transferred to the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles, and the first five years of its presence from 2003 until 2008, it was run as a rental house. Of course the Cultural Affairs department and their budget had been slashed dramatically, then, I began to hear that an RFP was to go out for the managing and operating of the theater and that is the process that I became a part of.
Writing a white paper that would really articulate a vision for a high standard professional performing arts center, that would produce professional theater like the things that you would see at the Mark Taper Forum, the Kirk Douglas Theatre, the Ahmanson Theatre, The Huntington Hartford Theatre, now the Montalban Theatre, the Old Westwood Playhouse, now the Geffen Theater. The standard you would get at those venues is what I always felt this community deserved, so from a production perspective, that was a vision of mine to bring that high standard right into this building, to present the finest theater, the finest actors, the finest music, the finest lecturers, and the finest dance, so that’s what the vision was for this building where the founding of Ebony Repertory Theatre was concerned. To have a resident theater company both be the resident company and operator of this facility to work assiduously to bring all those things articulated in that proposal to this community.
TNN: Who did you propose it to?
WREN T. BROWN: We proposed it to Councilman Herb Wesson. Councilman Herb Wesson got behind this vision in a real tremendous way. He really embraced my personal narrative being so directly tied to this community, one who knew this community as well as I know this community. My knowledge of this community is not a superior ethic to anyone else’s knowledge, but I have a lot of knowledge, and I have a lot of love and I have a lot of sweat equity in this community. I have abraded my arms, legs and head in this community. He really was ensnared that someone so homegrown would have done as well as I have been blessed to do in the arts, along with our late founding artistic director, Israel Hicks, who was just a seminal and giant man. Councilman Wesson was very impacted by the fact that we had someone in the philanthropic arena, who was a part of my core kitchen cabinet of persons, someone who worked in the political world, and also someone who worked in social justice and civic engagement. He was very proud of Israel, with his huge directing resume in the regional theater, Broadway Theater, and being one of the finest educators and administrators in the conservatories of America, he loved that component, and also that we had someone who had been trained at the Yale School of Drama in theater management. These individuals were all eventually part of the core team that we presented. It went through that process and it was decided that Ebony Repertory Theatre possessed the components to come and be a resident company and the operator of this facility, and that’s how it transpired.
TNN: That’s fantastic. How long have you been here now?
WREN T. BROWN: We took over in February of 2008. Four years.
TNN: That’s when the Neighborhood News started. We are about to have our fourth year anniversary this August. Well Wren thank you so much for sharing this story and bringing the history of our community's theatrical roots, so tied in with your own, to our readers. We are lucky to have you and The Ebony Repertory Theatre.