James Gruessing, Jr., Artistic Director of Palos Verdes Performing Arts Photo by Gloria Plascencia
James W. Gruessing, Jr., the artistic director of Palos Verdes Performing Arts, though most of us still think of as simply “the Norris,” comes across as self-assured and commanding. And so, when asked about his initial interest in theater, his answer is surprising.
“I was always a very shy kid,” he says. “I never wanted to be in the spotlight. Actually, growing up, I wanted to be a puppeteer.”
Gruessing got his first whiff of things to come when he was 13, when he appeared in “A Christmas Carol” in his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
By his mid-teen years Gruessing’s passion for theater was set in stone: “And I said, Yeah, I want to do this forever.”
Looking for greener pastures, Gruessing moved to Southern California 14 years ago. He took a job as the box office manager for the Coronet Theatre, then as an assistant treasurer at the Hollywood Bowl, and then spent three years as the artistic director of the Huntington Beach Playhouse. Then he came to the Norris, (newly renamed the Palos Verdes Performing Arts). where he’s been for a decade.
During this period, he performed minor roles in a handful of movies and appeared in several musicals as well, such as “Guys and Dolls,” “Les Misérables,” “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and “42nd Street.”
His acting experience came in handy last season when the Norris presented “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Gruessing also wore the director’s hat for the remarkable show.
“I love directing, I love producing, I love artistic directing, and I still love performing,” Gruessing says. “Performing will always be my first love.”
If you’ve been to Disneyland this century, you may have seen him onstage: He’s been performing there for 14 years.
“I portray the genie in ‘Aladdin’ at California Adventure,” he says, “I’ve been doing that for six years.” He’s also taken part in the Magic Kingdom’s other shows, special events, and parades.
It’s part-time work and best during summer when the demands of running a theater aren’t as pressing. As with most theater companies, the season kicks off in the fall and books a name act for the season opener. This season opens September 13 with a concert by Michael Feinstein founder of the Great American Songbook Foundation.
Throughout the year, Gruessing is in touch with talent agencies and booking companies. When November rolls around he meets with a few members of the board and they review the various proposals and select the contenders.
As for the three-play series, which enjoys a longer run of at least two weekends and half a dozen performances, the recommendations are largely Gruessing’s.
The choices are intended to make audiences laugh rather than brood over life’s dilemmas.
“Through the 10 years that I’ve been producing the three-play series,” Gruessing says, “a lot of people have asked about drama, what about more dramatic works.
“We have done a handful, but the problem is they’re never as successful as the comedies or musicals. People have said, I’m so glad to have an escape from the television or the newspaper (and) to have a little levity and entertainment.”
Gruessing is especially excited about the upcoming three-play series, beginning with next month’s production (Sept. 19-Oct.5) of “The Full Monty,” one of two shows in the season that he’ll direct himself.
“It’s a big musical and everybody knows the title for what it is. The automatic thing that comes to mind is, Oh, it’s men taking their clothes off — which has very little to do with it. It’s the last three minutes of the show. The real story is the relationship these guys have with themselves, with their friends, and with their wives.
“And then the biggie for us is ‘Cats.’ We’ve applied for the rights to ‘Cats’ for the last five years and we finally got it.”
The third piece in the three-play series is the comedy ‘Love, Sex, and the I.R.S.” Lest there actually be too much levity, however, the season also includes a Journey tribute band and five performances of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in the 100-seat Norris Pavilion.
The productions are created in-house, and are not touring shows. “We have the actors, the directors, the creative team, the designers, the set designers, the costume people,” Gruessing says. “We hold auditions here locally.”
The biggest challenge is to attract a younger audience. As Gruessing points out, “The average age of a theatergoer is 60-plus. For the long-term, I must work to create a new generation of theatergoers.” At the same time, of course, he doesn’t want to alienate the old-timers – 80 percent of whom live on the peninsula. This summer, in an effort to reach an even greater clientele, 30,000 brochures were mailed to residents in surrounding communities, and already there have been good responses.