By JOYELL NEVINS | Mission Times Courier
It started as an interview project in a late father’s memory, sidestepped as a jukebox musical revue, and emerged as a celebration of both a man and the musical era his studio helped usher in.
Meet “33 1/3 – House of Dreams,” the world premiere musical performed by the San Diego Repertory Theatre, in partnership with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts and R&R Productions, LLC. The show runs from Aug. 1-25 at the Lyceum Stage Theatre.
“33 1/3 – House of Dreams” tells the story of Hollywood’s Gold Star Recording Studios: both the hit-making musicians in front of the mic and the crew behind it, including co-founder and lead engineer Stan Ross. The story is told to a tonal backdrop that samples from the more than 120 Top 40 hits and iconic songs the studio produced. The playlist includes such classics as “Summertime Blues,” “La Bamba,” “Be My Baby,” “Unchained Melody,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
In its 33 1/3-year run — the title references both the number of years the studio was open and the RPMs on a record — Gold Star worked with just about every musical genre you can imagine. From Iron Butterfly to Ritchie Valens and The Beach Boys to Ike and Tina Turner, Gold Star produced it all. Legends like The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles all made trips to Gold Star to experience its magic.
“Gold Star was the mecca — the place to go to in the ’60s,” said co-writer Dr. Brad Ross. In later decades, even after it lost its commercial standing, the studio would still be a musical pilgrimage (The Ramones referred to it as “hallowed ground” — their own Abbey Road).
But this rock ‘n’ roll show didn’t start (or end) as a compilation of some of the best-loved songs of the last century. It started as a way for a son to discover more about his father.
Brad Ross is the son of Stan and Vera Ross. Even though Brad grew up while Stan was still working in the recording studio, he was less starstruck and more just doing his own thing (although Brad admitted that having Sonny and Cher at his brother’s bat mitzvah was quite the coup!). Although Brad played the drums and was part of a cover band, his main career had always been dentistry.
“My father said, listen, the music business is really tough,” Brad recalled, referencing some of the great drummers his dad saw and what they had to go through. “I decided to do music as a hobby and pursue a different career.”
The choice paid off, as Brad established Mission Trails Dentistry located in San Carlos in 1988. It remains a thriving practice, employing two other doctors and a full staff.
“He is meticulous, he is caring, and has great attention to detail,” bragged “33 1/3 – House of Dreams” co-writer and patient Jonathan “Jon” Rosenberg.
You read that right — the writing team first met in the dental chair. Actually, they first met on the Little League field, when Jon’s son played T-ball as a “Dr. Ross Tooth Fixer!” Long after his son had graduated into other sports, Jon kept coming back to Brad for his dental needs.
When Stan passed away in 2011, Brad decided that he wanted to learn more about the man behind the legend. He planned to interview some of the surviving and close-by musicians Stan worked with. Brad recruited Jon to be his road trip and interview partner, due to Jon’s radio and musical background, which included disc jockeying in Michigan and interviewing for KPBS.
“Jon came in for a typical dental visit, and was my captive audience,” joked Brad.
They started traveling to Los Angeles and Palm Springs in 2012, meeting with titans such as Brian Wilson and Bill Medley. The more people they talked to, the more the pair discovered just how well-loved Stan was. He treated people as individuals, with integrity and respect.
“Mentioning Stan’s name was like opening the keys to the kingdom,” Jon said in regard to getting time with musical icons.
“People loved him, and he loved them,” Brad said.
But about six months into their road trip, the men realized that this was more than just a collection of stories for Brad’s family.
“The message kept being, ‘Gold Star and your father and Dave [Gold; Gold Star partner] were a game-changer,’” Brad recalled. “But I’m a dentist — I knew I had a story to share, and I knew I needed teammates. I could not do this by myself.”
Enter the experts
Jon and Brad wrote the first script together, and chose 30 different songs to represent Gold Star’s progression. But through readings in Jon’s apartment building and the Lamplighter’s Theatre in La Mesa, the reaction was consistently, “We love the music — work on the story.”
So, they did. At the urging of Jon’s wife, he reached out to Javier Velasco, the artistic director of San Diego Ballet and choreographer and playwright as well. The trio officially met at a piece that Steve Gunderson and Javier had conceived and mounted at the San Diego Rep as “Everybody’s Talkin’: The Music of Harry Nilsson.”
Javier was immediately drawn to the potential the show offered.
“The show was attractive to me on two fronts. First, this piece is about the creation of an artistic ‘space.’ Not a single artist’s story, but a crucible for artists,” he explained. “The second thing is that it dealt with regular ‘ordinary’ people: the regular people who supported the artists, and the people who supported the people who supported the artists.”
“33 1/3 – House of Dreams” doesn’t just tell the story of Gold Star; it tells the love story of Stan and Vera. It tells of the deep friendship between Stan and Dave.
“Stan was the persona of Gold Star, but there would be no Gold Star without Dave,” declared Brad.
Dave was actually responsible for helping create and build all of Gold Star’s equipment. This includes the echo chamber that helped create the “Wall of Sound” production style made famous by Phil Specter, Larry Levine, and their team of studio musicians famously dubbed “The Wrecking Crew” (who were also profiled in a critically acclaimed 2008 documentary film). Although Dave is not directly involved in the show due to health reasons, Brad stressed that they are trying to honor him in the musical as well.
Leave the quarters at home
Although “33 1/3 – House of Dreams” features many of the storylines and songs in Gold Star’s history, what it doesn’t do is become a musical revue. This was Brad and Jon’s vision from the start, and Javier picked up the charge.
“No matter how good it is, I don’t know that the world needs one more jukebox musical,” said Javier. He said what it does need is what the show provides, “a celebration of good deeds and the bonds of friendships and love we make during our lives.”
Javier agreed to direct and choreograph the production. He brought in Steve, one of his long-time creative partners, to serve as musical director, arranger, and script contributor.
Steve was also nervous about doing a “jukebox musical,” especially after his success on one of the original music compilation shows, “Suds.” But he was drawn in by the incredible history of Gold Star.
“’33 1/3 – House of Dreams’ is such a unique opportunity to dive into a real-life history, and also to delve into the nature of creativity,” Steve said.
And with that, aided by the business assistance of Michael Kruke and the incredible support of their families, Brad and Jon had found the teammates they needed to take “33 1/3 – House of Dreams” from a dream to reality.
“It’s a match made in heaven,” gushed Jon. “They’re local boys, and the crème de la crème of San Diego theater.”
The four still have almost daily conversations — and Jon notes it will probably be that way until the end of the show’s run.
“Each one of has a seat at the creative table, and I think we challenge each other, and in the end, bring out the best in each other,” explained Steve.
The show also brings out the best in the San Diego Rep, fitting in perfectly with its mission of providing work that is intimate and sometimes provocative, and focusing on stories that highlight California’s rich culture.
A portion of actors and musicians are also students from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Art’s Xchange Xperience program, which allows a select group to participate in a Repertory Theatre production from rehearsals through public performances.
For more information or to purchase tickets to “33 1/3 – House of Dreams,” visit sdrep.org or call 619-544-1000.