Family History

Family History

Remembering legendary teacher Helmuth Hormann in the Pasadena Playhouse’s 90th year

By Matt Hormann 06/18/2014

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At its best, teaching is much more than the imparting of knowledge. It can be an art form, even a performance. My great-uncle Helmuth Hormann was living proof. For him, teaching was a passionate mode of self-expression.

And, of course, you needed passion to teach at the world-class Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts, where he served as associate director and later dean of faculty, from 1949 until 1967. 

The theater school, which once occupied the six-story building behind the main Playhouse facility, is long gone. But at one time it was considered the best in the country, turning out actors like Victor Mature, Raymond Burr, Leonard Nimoy, Harry Dean Stanton, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Sally Struthers. 
 
There’s a reason it gained such a reputation: it was highly selective and not a school for wimps. “You didn’t just go in and say, ‘Yeah, I want to be in the Playhouse,’” recalls Jim Edwards, one of my great-uncle’s former students, who attended the school from 1963 to 1964. “You had to have three character references before they ever let you in the building. They didn’t want you wasting your parents’ money when you went there.”

As part of this indoctrination into the theater world, Helmuth made sure his students — some of whom envisioned a quick road to movie stardom — also familiarized themselves with the classics: Greek drama, Corneille, Ibsen, Racine and Chekhov. 

“In those days we were influenced by Brando and Dean and we wanted to do that kind of acting,” recalls actor and former student Keone Young. “Everybody was thinking, ‘Hell, I’m going to make it, I’m going to be a star. I want an agent!’ But [the Playhouse teachers] were kind of stressing the old school, you know, speech, movement, the craft itself, the knowledge and the history.”

While my great-uncle was rigorous with his grading, Young also recalls that he was “kind of a hippie” who “did his own thing” and “was his own kind of character.”

Born Helmuth Winfrid Hormann in Watertown, Wis., in 1908, he was raised mostly in Hawaii, along with siblings Irmgard and Bernhard, my grandfather. He studied theater at the Max Reinhardt school in Germany, got a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii, and received his PhD in drama from Cornell University. 

During World War II, he supervised a group of Hawaiian lei-sellers on O’ahu to make camouflage for the US Army. After the war ended, he taught drama at a small college in Texas before joining the Playhouse faculty in 1949.

At the time, the Playhouse drama school was not only considered the best theater-training program in the country, but the cultural nexus of Pasadena.
 
“There was a real artsy kind of feeling about [it],” recalls Harriet Bronson, whose husband — screen actor Charles Bronson — attended the Playhouse from 1949 to 1950. “Everything centered in Pasadena around the Playhouse. It was like everything else was incidental. The Playhouse was the focus of Pasadena at that time.”

Bronson was just one of my great-uncle’s well-known students. Others over the years included Hoffman, Hackman and Japanese-American actor Mako.
 
To this day, former students and faculty remember him fondly. “His classes were ones that we all looked forward to,” says Edwards. “Some of the teachers — well, they did what they did—but he had this wild sense of humor and we never knew what to expect.”

“He was a doll. He was just great,” adds Gail Shoup, who taught at the Playhouse from 1955 to 1969.

Helmuth was, indeed, a quirky and wonderful mix of things. Frugal to a fault, he lived in a rented room on South Euclid Avenue, rode his bike to work, and did his laundry in the bathtub.

Hawaii, where he spent his early years and later retired, was very much a part of his personality. He would often jokingly introduce himself as “Helemoku Holumanu,” which he told strangers was his Hawaiian name.

Over the years, he developed an interest in Asian cultures. When he would return to Hawaii for the summer, he would direct Chinese opera at the Chinese Civic Association, and in 1960, he helped establish the Pacificulture Foundation — the forerunner of Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum. 

The Pasadena Playhouse struggled financially in the 1960s, and in 1967, my great-uncle returned to Hawaii, where he taught world literature and drama at several community colleges before retiring in the 1970s.

He passed away in 2001 at the age of 92, and with him, regrettably, went a lot of great stories of the Playhouse’s glory days. 

I’m not sure if my great-uncle ever had aspirations to act professionally, but I get the sense he didn’t care much about becoming a star. He was simply there to do his job and help keep the beating heart of the Playhouse alive. As Young puts it, “He was just a teacher. And he loved teaching. And he was fun.” 

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