Remembering Louis Flynn, Pillar of East Bay Theater

Tuesday January 08, 2008

Actor, director, playwright, and pillar of the East Bay’s vibrant community theater scene for half a century, Louis Flynn is dead at the age of 86. Few individuals have touched so many others through the arts—not only participants in theatrical productions and other programs, but audience members as well. Flynn, or “Louie” as he was known affectionately to generations of theater people onstage, in the front of the house, and behind the scenes, died in El Cerrito on Jan. 4 following a brief illness. 

Flynn’s most visible legacy is Contra Costa Civic Theatre, which he co-founded with his late wife Bettianne in El Cerrito in 1959. Their vision and determination was enhanced by 20 local families who backed their belief in the dedicated husband-and-wife team with solid financial guarantees to remodel an old Boys Club and create a community theater in 1970. This dedication resulted in the theater’s home at 951 Pomona Avenue in El Cerrito. 

Louis Flynn was born in Edina, Miss., on Feb. 26, 1921. An accomplished pianist, Flynn would accompany his mother at singing recitals and church. A reluctant last-minute replacement in a school play at the age of 6, he would perform onstage for the next eight decades. Some of Flynn’s most memorable roles in his long career include Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, and Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. 

Entering military service during World War II, Flynn served in the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, 30th Infantry Regiment until 1945. Though he participated in significant and historic events, including landing at the beaches of Anzio in Italy, battles in Southern France, and entering Germany in 1945, battle-scene recollections were rare. It was the entertainers in touring USO shows that Flynn recalled fondly, among them Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontane, Jack Benny, and Ingrid Bergman along with Maurice Evans in G.I. Hamlet. 

Flynn received his bachelor’s degree from Seattle University in Seattle, Washington. There he met his future wife, Bettianne Foster, who was in the audience of a drama department production that she was reviewing for a Seattle newspaper. Graduate school followed at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where Flynn completed his master’s degree in playwriting. Samuel French published his master’s thesis project, The Orchid Sandwich, in 1976 under the title Madness on Madrona Drive. The play has been performed several times on Contra Costa Civic Theatre’s stage—most recently in 2006—and numerous times around the nation. 

Louis and Bettianne married June 11, 1949, in Seattle. They moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1955 and settled in El Cerrito in 1956. In 1959 they founded Contra Costa Civic Theatre, with Louis serving as artistic director, remaining in that role for the next 48 years. CCCT’s first curtain rose on Feb. 15, 1960, for the play Dear Ruth. Bettianne managed the administrative end of CCCT. During Louis’ run at CCCT, he served as director, producer, and, most prominently, as an actor in literally thousands of performances. His most recent appearance was as the trolley car driver in Meet Me in St. Louis in summer 2007. 

Outgoing and energetic, Flynn acted anywhere, anyplace, and in any medium including early Bay Area television. These appearances included background work in locally shot films and on other Bay Area stages with stars as varied as Glenn Ford, Luciano Pavarotti, Dan Dailey, and Giselle Mackenzie. In the 1970s he hosted the The Louis Flynn Show, interviewing local notables on a local cable access station. 

The Flynns envisioned a community theater that was a family affair. For almost 50 years, generations have come to participate both on- and offstage at CCCT. An enthusiastic supporter of arts education for all ages, Flynn could be found lending his support with brief appearances alongside young performers in student productions at CCCT. His most recent such appearance was as the Masked Avenger in CCCT’s 2007 Summer Drama Camp video. Flynn would often say, “It is ludicrous to think that only one person or family is responsible for Contra Costa Civic Theatre. It is an ensemble of very talented individuals with whom I was fortunate to have fallen in with … I fell in with the right crowd.” 

Louis lived a rich, full life right up until the end. He continued to play walk-on roles at CCCT, hosted cast parties, and enjoyed having friends over for dinner. He hosted the monthly CCCT Artistic Advisory Committee meetings at his home and was actively working on selecting productions for the upcoming 2008-09 season. Flynn invented and relished CCCT’s unique closing night ritual of presenting Saint Genesius medals to everyone involved in the production. His love of film made him a regular at the movies, and he was a card-carrying member of the Jeanette MacDonald Fan Club. 

According to Flynn’s daughter, Kathleen Ray, “Nothing made Louie happier than when complete strangers approached him on the street, at the grocery store, or while walking his dog Kelly, and telling him how much they had enjoyed a recent production at CCCT.” Kate Culbertson, CCCT’s current artistic director commented, “Louie’s youthful exuberance was infectious … people just loved being around him.” 

Louis Flynn received several proclamations and honors from the El Cerrito City Council, recognizing CCCT’s contribution to community theatre and acknowledging its commitment to volunteers. In 1978, the El Cerrito City Council named CCCT’s home on Pomona “The Flynn Building.” Additional honors include: 

• City of El Cerrito: El Cerrito Wall of Fame, 1991 (Louis & Bettianne). 

• Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors: Arts Recognition Award, 2002, honoring Louis Flynn for being a “…leader in the arts and having a significant impact on the arts of Contra Costa County.” 

• California State Senate: 2002, Certificate of Recognition acknowledging “outstanding achievements as artistic director and co-founder of Contra Costa Civic Theatre.” 

• Solano Stroll: 2000, a local “Living Legend.” 

Louis Flynn is survived by his daughter Kathleen Ray of Richmond, who runs the Drama Department at Head-Royce School in Oakland, son Matt Flynn of Los Angeles, art director on the television show “The Office,” son-in-law Ken Ray and grandson Alexander Ray, also of Richmond, and granddaughter Maureen Ray of Oakland. 

The Neptune Society handled cremation. Contributions in honor of Louis Flynn may be sent to the Flynn Memorial Fund, Contra Costa Civic Theatre, 951 Pomona Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530.  

A celebration of Louis’ life will be held at a later date in 2008. Details will be announced on CCCT’s website: www.ccct.org. For further information contact the CCCT office at 524-6654.