“33 1/3: House of Dreams” at the San Diego Repertory Theatreby Pat Launer August 13, 2019
Shiny vinyl. Remember the excitement of bringing home a new album and
racing it onto your phonograph?
“33 1/3 – House of Dreams” pays homage to those feelings–and to the early days of rock ‘n roll.
The title has several layers of meaning. 33 1/3 was the rpm (revolutions per minute = speed of rotation) of 12” records (as opposed to 45 rpm, the small ones, or the old 78s). The House of Dreams was the legendary Gold Star Recording Studios in Los Angeles. 33 1/3 is also the number of years that Gold Star, and its two founders, Stan Ross and David S. Gold, were in business (1950-1984).
The world premiere musical was created by another two NJBs (Nice Jewish Boys): San Diegans Jonathan Rosenberg and Brad Ross. Brad is the son of Gold Star founder Stan Ross, the studio’s charismatic lead engineer and hit-maker. The name of their company was derived from their names: Gold (for David Gold) and Star for STAn Ross.
Brad grew up with the stories, but he wasn’t alive during the studio’s heyday in the late 1950s and ‘60s. But Sonny and Cher were at his brother’s bar mitzvah in 1966, at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where, four years later, he later became a bar mitzvah. Jon, a long-time music lover and aficionado, grew up in a Conservative kosher home in the Bronx, and lived next door to his grandparents, who spoke only Yiddish. He moved west at age 21, and is a member of Adat Shalom in Poway.
A Death Leads to the Birth of a Musical
When Brad’s father died in 2011, at age 82, he thought, “He knew a lot of famous people, and he was relatively famous himself. I wanted to do a legacy project, to learn more about him and Gold Star. My intention was just to document the story.”
Then, he spoke to his long-time dental patient, Jonathan.
“I’ve gone to Mission Trails Dentistry since 1989,” says Jonathan. “Brad sponsored my son’s t-ball team–they were ‘Dr. Ross’s Tooth-Fixers’. He knew I was interested in music. So, when I wrote the musical, ‘Long Way to Midnight’ (which broke attendance records at the San Diego International Fringe Festival in 2014), I invited him and his wife.”
Besides being a teacher and Ph.D. psychologist, Jonathan was, for years, an entertainment writer and radio personality. He was also lead singer/songwriter in a rock band, The Jackals (1999-2010), that often covered classic rock.
“I’m a little bit older than Brad,” says Jonathan, “so I knew all the songs recorded in the early to mid-‘60s that he wasn’t familiar with. I thought they were all recorded in New York. I didn’t realize that Phil Spector did his most famous ‘Wall of Sound’ recordings at Gold Star. But I knew that the music business in L.A. in the 1950s was almost all Jewish. Jews owned the independent recording companies and wrote most of the songs.”
“It wasn’t until I told Jon about my father’s death,” says Brad, “that the idea crystallized about interviewing people who had recorded at Gold Star.”
The co-creators started the interviews in 2013, and they’re still at it. When they mentioned the name Stan Ross, doors opened to them. They have hours and hours of audio interviews and video footage. Some quotes–from the likes of Herb Alpert (Tijuana Brass), Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), Bill Medley (The Righteous Brothers) and Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield)–made their way into the new musical. For the rest, a documentary is in the works.
“To be able to speak to these artists was a fantasy come true for me,” says Jonathan. “I
never got to meet Stan, but I did meet his wife, Vera. One of the benefits for me was meeting Brad’s family.”
Many others who used the studio for writing music or recording demos are no longer around for interviews. Frank Loesser wrote “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “The Most Happy Fella” there. Marlon Brando did a demo of “Luck Be A Lady” for Loesser’s “Guys and Dolls” at Gold Star. Phil Spector recorded the Teddy Bears singing “To Know Him is To Love Him” (a line taken from his father’s tombstone). Reportedly, Spector felt a connection to Stan, since both had attended Fairfax High School (at different times).
“We knew about all that great music, and now we had stories to go with it,” says Brad. “We came to realize that we had a show. I’d never written before, but I just had to start this. The concept was that Stan was reflecting on his life. We see him fresh out of high school, going to work for Electro-vox, an independent recording studio. He recorded radio shows, made 33 1/3 disks. He recorded work by Jack Benny and Burns and Allen.”
At Fairfax High, Stan had written a music column in the school paper. A guidance counselor told him about the job at Electro-Vox and that’s where he learned the trade.
“They realized he was a gifted engineer, a fast learner with a good ear,” says Brad. “When he was 20 years old, he decided to open his own studio. Stan Rosenthal (later Ross) met with David Goldstein (later, Gold), a friend of a friend who was mechanically inclined and could fix anything.”
They opened their studio, ironically, in an old dental building.
“Gold Star was modeled after Electro-Vox,” says Brad, “so the songwriters who were used to working with Stan would feel comfortable.”
“He was a charismatic, mensch-y guy,” says Jonathan. “He made everyone feel like
they could be a star.”
“And it was all colorblind,” adds Brad. “They’d do anything to help anyone who
had a great song.”
“They’d do anything to make a buck,” says Jonathan. “They recorded commercials, like Speedy Alka-Seltzer, jingles for Radio Shack and radio stations. They even recorded Reagan and Nixon. Also novelty songs, surf music, jazz, Hispanic, rockabilly, even a George Carlin comedy album and two by William Shatner. They did it all.
“The biggest studios were tied up with the Big Acts: Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra,” Brad continues. “But many artists would rent the room and an engineer for a demo and sound effects. Gold Star got paid by the hour, and never saw any more money for the hits than they did for the duds. Toward the end of their run, Gold Star bought mixing boards, but before that, they custom-made everything. They were innovators, pioneers. Their famous echo chamber was part of the Wall of Sound. That put them on the map. After that, West coast music blew up. Then all these independent studios started popping up. By the end of the ‘60s, the center of music had moved from New York and Detroit to L.A. The sound Gold Star was producing lured many acts, including Motown.”
“Mark Bell, from the Ramones,” reports Jonathan, “said that when he walked into Gold Star, it felt like hallowed ground. Everyone wanted the Gold Star magic. In the mid-‘60s, everyone recorded there, using studio musicians. By the end of the ’60s, bands began playing their own instruments instead. But Gold Star hung in until the ‘80s.”
Tweaks and Changes
The new musical took on two high-profile, veteran musical-makers, who have made valuable contributions: choreographer Javier Velasco and musical director/arranger Steve Gunderson.
“That was a fantastic addition,” says Jonathan. “Their wisdom, experience and pedigree, and their long-time relationship with the San Diego Rep, were integral to this production. They both had an impressive understanding of rock ‘n roll.”
Since 2017, the show has had six readings or workshops. Over time, the premise of the plot has changed.
“Our script was considered a rockumentary, but it needed more,” says Jonathan. “Now, it’s not just the music–though there are 30 songs. It has humor, love and family.”
The Rep is including this in their Xchange Xperience program, which has helped create large-scale summer productions. So, “33 1/3” is produced in partnership with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts (SDSCPA), a unique experience for a select group of public arts high school students who participate in every aspect of the production.
This allows for a huge cast (26) and an 18-piece orchestra. The talented singing/dancing/musical students are joined by nine professional adult actors.
“It’s gonna be huge,” says Jonathan. “The sound will be so full it will blow the roof off the Rep. The sound is very important to this show. The audience will hear the evolution
of the sound at Gold Star. The story reveals conflicts now: the different ideas Stan and Dave had about how to run a business, and where the business should go. Stan was the ‘feeling’ guy with great ears. Dave was the technical, bottom-line guy. And where do their wives come in? How does a workaholic like Stan balance work and a relationship? There was conflict about what the studio was in 1960 and how to stay relevant in a changing world, and stay in business as older men. The country and its music were changing fast.”
“The songs in the show are all interconnected because of Gold Star,” says Brad. “This is like the Who’s Who and the soundtrack of our lives. It explores the creation of the music and how these songs came about.”
“We’re showing the creative process of the music field,” says Jonathan. “But the insights could also apply in other areas, such as art.”
The show features 30 songs from 30 different artists, including classics like “Summertime Blues,” “La Bamba,” “Good Vibrations,” “Be My Baby,” “Unchained Melody,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “ This Guy’s in Love with You,” and even “In a Gadda da Vida.”
As Brad recalls, “My father said ‘I was just trying to make a living. But you know what? We made some music history.’ They did, and our musical is a way for us to honor Stan and Dave and Gold Star. But their story is our story. Everyone involved is doing this from the heart, just like Stan and Dave were. This is something special. The music stands the test of time. It’s all still relevant today.”
“The show is entertaining,” adds Jonathan. “There’s a lot to enjoy, but there are serious moments, too. If I see people’s heads bobbing, I’ll feel we succeeded.”