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Carnett: Costa Mesa became Dogpatch for four nights in '61

August 06, 2012|By Jim Carnett

Fifty-one years ago, Orange Coast College staged its summer musical production, "Li'l Abner."

The show was performed before packed houses in OCC's 1,200-seat auditorium in August of 1961.

The college's theater department was the only game in town that summer for entertainment and culture. South Coast Repertory and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts were chimeras on a distant horizon.

Cartoonist and humorist Al Capp based the musical on his satirical comic strip, "Li'l Abner." The show spoofs hillbillies, government incompetence and standards of masculinity.

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Lyrics were by Johnny Mercer, music by Gene De Paul. The show ran on Broadway from 1956 to 1958, and a motion picture was released in 1959.

At the time of OCC's production I had just finished my junior year at Costa Mesa High School. Shortly before summer break, my drama instructor, Julie Hall Gill, announced in class that OCC would host auditions for its summer musical in late June.

I decided to try out. The experience changed my life.

The show, directed by OCC's superb young theater instructor, John Ford, featured a huge cast of more than a hundred actors, singers and dancers, plus a full orchestra. Cast members ranged in age from 7 to 70.

Vocal director was Walter Gleckler. Paul Cox conducted the orchestra. Both were longtime OCC music instructors.

Auditions took place in the auditorium over four nights — Monday through Thursday — and hundreds took part.

I actually landed a speaking role: Evil Eye Fleagle.

The cast had its initial script read-through Friday in the student center. Ford began blocking the show, or positioning the actors, the next Monday, and the crew commenced construction of the set on the auditorium stage.

Seven weeks later, voila! We opened.

In a nutshell, the musical tells the story of handsome, muscle-bound and muscle-brained hillbilly, Abner Yokum; his girlfriend, Daisy Mae Scragg; his family; and the residents of Dogpatch, USA — the "most useless" town in America.

My character worked for shifty corporate billionaire, Gen. Bullmoose. Evil Eye Fleagle placed debilitating "whammies" on people, including the aforementioned Abner, to further his boss' nefarious intentions.

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