73 years and still following OSF

Vivian Nininger has a thing about Shakespeare going way back. Her husband, Logan Nininger, played Romeo in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 1936 production of "Romeo and Juliet."

"Logan was a friend of Angus'," Nininger says.

That would be Angus Bowmer. In summer 1935, Bowmer, a young, theater-loving English instructor at Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University), put on a couple of plays in what he rather optimistically called the First Annual Shakespearean Festival. With the help of students and friends, he mounted two performances of "Twelfth Night" and one of "The Merchant of Venice" on July 2, 3 and 4 on the site of an old chautauqua structure in Ashland.

The plays surprised the city fathers by actually making a little money, and in 1936 Bowmer was back with the same two plays plus "Romeo and Juliet," directing and acting in all three. Such was the birth of one of the nation's largest and most prestigious regional theaters. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Having seen the 1936 "Romeo" and last year's "All's Well That Ends Well," Nininger can claim the unusual distinction of having seen OSF productions 73 years apart.

Wearing a trim turtleneck and seated at a dining table she sometimes uses as a desk, with shafts of sunlight piercing the patio doors of her Ashland apartment, she remembers the details of things that happened long ago.

She had come from rural Klamath County to study at Ashland's Normal School when she met Logan. They were married in 1935 and became friends of the Bowmers, Angus and his first wife, Lois Muzzall, who served as art director for the festival's early plays.

"She created all the costumes," Nininger remembers.

She loved seeing Logan as Romeo, even watching him make love to Juliet, who was played by Marjorie McNair.

"I thought it was a good thing for him to do," she says. "There was no romance between them in real life."

Nininger says Bowmer talked about being surprised at the resemblance between the roofless walls of the old chautauqua structure above today's Lithia Park and sketches he'd seen of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. He would write in his autobiography, "As I Remember, Adam," that the resemblance "stimulated the germinal idea of a Shakespearean Festival."

"The stage had a back wall with a door," Nininger says. "They had to go through the door and change costumes. There were no dressing rooms."

At the time Logan played Romeo, his father ran a downtown Ashland cafe and bus stop with, Nininger recalls, a juke box where students hung out and danced. Logan had gone to the University of Oregon and wasn't interested in the family business, to the chagrin of his father.

"I said to him, 'What do you really want to do?'" Nininger remembers. "He said he wanted to be in radio."

The young couple moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and settled in Marin County. Logan, who had worked briefly in radio, became an administrator in the California court system, and Vivian worked in the bond business.

Meanwhile, back in Oregon, the upstart festival was growing. In 1939 it sent 40 actors to the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. They did "The Taming of the Shrew" at the exposition and a one-hour adaptation of the play on NBC radio in those days of live radio.

Bowmer took a leave of absence from the festival for military service in 1940, and a year later it went dark for six years because of the nation's World War II effort. In 1947 Bowmer was invited to re-start the festival with a new, improved stage based on London's 1599 Fortune Theatre.

Nininger, who was in Ashland with her husband at the time, says Bowmer was wavering.

"I don't know whether I'll start it again or not," she remembers him saying one night over dinner.

At that, her husband became so excited he pounded the table.

"You've gotta do it, Gus," Nininger recalls him saying. "It's your life."

It was, and he did, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The OSF grew into a behemoth, today presenting nearly 800 performances of 11 plays in repertory on three stages in an eight-month season that sells about 400,000 tickets annually. Logan Nininger's ongoing success eventually enabled Vivian to quit her job and watch Marin County change from a tranquil refuge to a busy bedroom for San Francisco. After her husband's death a few years ago, she returned to Ashland.

She still enjoys the theater. And has definite ideas about Shakespeare. She calls the OSF's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" of 2008 "a little different." The production featured fairies with high leather boots in a disco-like environment.

"When they get too far from the old costumes, I don't know," she says.

She liked 2009's "All's' Well That Ends Well," which had a fairy tale design, a bit better.

"It was kind of cute," she says.

She's enjoyed plays at Camelot Theatre in nearby Talent ("They do a good job"), and loved the recent production of Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" that was Oregon Stage Works' swan song in its erstwhile A Street Market Place home.

She hasn't seen this year's Danish modern "Hamlet" at OSF but may consider "Twelfth Night," "Henry IV, Part One" or "The Merchant of Venice," which are coming up this summer.

"Shakespeare knew what he was writing about," she says. "Doing it in modern dress I just don't like. They should do it in the old dress."

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Share This Story