The theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive. —John Steinbeck
By Brian Hitsky
Bill Bushnell, known in Cuenca as Bush, is one of those people who was instrumental in keeping theater alive throughout the United States.
The 81-year-old Bush can list numerous credits to a glamorous resume that saved or revitalized some of the most famous U.S. non-profit theater companies. He used a no nonsense, at times strident and demanding approach to deal with various administrators and authority theater figures, while artfully selling his ideas and passions to wealthy patrons of the arts and the general public.
The Center Stage in Baltimore, Maryland; The American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco; the Los Angeles Actor’s Theater, and the Los Angeles Theater Center are the institutions where he had a profound operational and creative influence. He literally strategized, organized, managed and produced to bail them out when they were floundering.
Bill obtained his undergraduate degree in theater arts from Denison University in Ohio and went on to the University of Kansas to grad school. He started the first community theater in Eldorado, Kansas in 1959.
“I remember the first day I arrived it snowed almost two feet and I had to learn to walk on snow shoes,” he said.
His luck didn’t change before his first production. “I had to fire the lead actor three days before the opening because he failed to learn his lines. The lady who I was renting from was the actor’s best friend and I found my suitcase sitting outside in the snow when I returned home,” he said.
Bush continued his provocative ways. He cast black actor Moses Gunn as Othello and performed before 1,000 convicts at Leavenworth Prison. When Othello strangled Desdemona, the convicts erupted egging on the killing scene. It drew national attention when CBS TV newscaster Walter Cronkite featured the story.
Bush left the University of Kansas for Ohio State University for his a master’s degree in theater management and theater history. He later was hired at the Cleveland Playhouse to run the publicity department.
Under the tutelage of managing director K. Elmo Lowe, Bush was told he was never going to manage the playhouse, but Lowe was going to nominate him for a Ford Foundation grant. That led Bush on a journey into foundation politics and some intriguing associations.
He met Eugene Black, an American banker and diplomat, who was Ford Foundation’s chairman of the economic development committee, and was president of the Stratford, Connecticut Shakespeare Festival. He requested Bush write a $300,000 program grant to advance Shakespeare and promote the Stratford Shakespeare Theater.
Bushnell devised a program that placed a tourism booklet on most foreign inbound airline flights into the United States that listed the schedule of every Shakespeare play performance from all over the country, and he generated the idea of bringing United Nations delegates, including the Russians (during the Cold War), to Stratford to view the festival. Afterwards, the officials were invited to view snippets of the plays with President Lyndon Johnson in the East Room.
In the midst of this success, Bush received a call that his skill was needed as executive director at Baltimore’s Center Stage, which lacked a firm financial base and was plagued by poor attendance.
Working from his coat room office, Bush was able to sell 8,000 season ticket subscriptions, form a new board of directors and generate enough interest to build a new theater. In addition, he began planning for a new inner harbor theater.
However, his Baltimore plans abruptly changed when he learned that the Ford Foundation wanted him to take over the management reigns of the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) and move it from its New York City studios to San Francisco.
“You have to understand that if you turn down the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, they will all forget how to spell your name,” he was told.
A.C.T. was backed by well-connected supporters and Bush guided the theater in selling 32,000 season tickets the first year.
A.C.T. opened with “Tartuffe” starring Rene Auberjonois. When opening night concluded, Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “The applause roared on and on. The actors on stage, having done all their curtain call tricks, finally just stood, many with damp eyes.”
“We had three crazy years,” Bush recalls. “However, with success came personal and management issues.” Eventually, in 1969 Bush was asked to seek other opportunities.
He started an advertising and marketing company that independently produced plays. He also took a vacation to Maui, where he happened to spot a book, “The Prisoners of Quai Dong,” the first novel about the Vietnam War.
“It was one of those life-changing moments,” Bush said. “I asked my partner if he wanted to buy the book’s rights or purchase a rock and roll bar and five acres of prime marijuana farm land I had found in Maui. We decided to buy the book.”
Bushnell co-wrote the script for the book with John Marley, the actor in “The Godfather,” in whose bed the horse’s head was found. But the movie, called “Prisoners,” was considered too controversial because of the graphic depiction of the horrors in Vietnam.This was not something the American public was ready for at the time.
The film was blacklisted in the United States by the major studios. It did, however, win a Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival and a prize at the Festival of Festivals in Belgrave, Yugoslavia.
Bush also directed another film, “The Four Deuces,” a comedy film starring Jack Palance, Carol Lynley and Adam Roarke.
By being involved in Hollywood and Los Angeles, Bush was readily available for a stint with the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre when founder Ralph Waite asked him to take over administration of the company. With Bush’s participation, the theatre was a success and he eventually turned it into the Los Angeles Theater Center.
He sold thousands of tickets, but several years later an 8 to 7 city council vote to cut off $2 million in funds, forced Bush had to close up shop
Bush started his theater career as an actor-director. Working at the Cleveland Playhouse and the Ford Foundation thrust him into producing and managing Center Stage and A.C.T. Hooking up with the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre and creating the four-theater Los Angeles Theatre Center allowed him to return to directing as well as producing.
In his 14 years in Los Angeles he won six DramaLogue directing awards. He also won the DramaLogue Award for “Exceptional Achievement in Theater” and three Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards including the critics’ highest award, The Margaret Harford Award “For Consistent High Standards, its Commitment to Adventurous Theatre and to Community Involvement.” Also, he is most proud of winning the national Margo Jones Award “For the Production of Original Plays.”
In 1989 Bill traveled to the Virgin Islands to hang out with his brother, who was a professor at the local university and buy, with his brother, a sail boat. Later that year, Bush was in the United States when Hurricane Marilyn decimated the islands and severely damaged the boat.
His brother’s call told him the bad news, but he also learned from the conversation that FEMA was seeking locals to help with the recovery. Bill was hired, and used his management experience to set up a disaster film series for islanders.
FEMA extended Bill’s responsibilities and sent him to Albany, New York in the winter, which took him from walking the island’s sunny shores in a tank top, shorts and flip flops, to plodding through deep snow.
In 1999 Hurricane Floyd hit the east coast and Bush was assigned to Piscataway, New Jersey serving as executive assistant to the head of mitigation. It was there that he met Disaster Assistance Employee Leita Hulmes, who later became his wife. They both continued to work as contractors with FEMA until February of this year, when they retired.
In Cuenca, Bush and Leita are actively involved in educating children. They are paying for four children to go to college and another to attend advanced art class, raised funds for a Turi School to purchase 12 computers, a copy machine and a printer, and are sponsoring two other youngsters to participate in CETAP Lucy school programs.
“Part of our objective when we came here was to give back,” explained Leita. “Education is what will give kids the opportunity to open doors.”
They also are strong advocates for the Cuenca Hearts of Gold foundation. Bush has been chairman of the advisory committee, while Leita sells tickets to functions and volunteers in the office. “We are physically, financially and emotionally involved with Hearts of Gold,” she said.
Trying to help educate youngsters didn’t come without learning some hard lessons about Ecuadorian bureaucracy. They tried to establish a foundation — the South American Fund for Education — but officials said they needed to have a school if the word “education” was part of the name. They said they’d change the word ”education” to ”enlightenment.” The authorities inquired as to how the electricity was to be obtained.
With Leita’s help, Bush found a practical way around the problem — they paid to educate kids directly. With Leita at his side, his down-to-earth, straight forward, feisty, blunt approach that served him countless times in his theater and FEMA days, is also working in Cuenca too.