In an effort to get Emory students out of their comfort zones and into Atlanta’s vibrant arts scene, Christopher Manos, the longtime executive producer of Theater of the Stars, highlighted his company’s six-decade impact on Atlanta, what it’s like to work with the Fox Theatre and why we should all see The King and I on Sept. 5.
Theater of the Stars – formerly Theater Under the Stars – was enthusiastically founded in 1953 as a non-profit organization (with the support of Mayor Hartsfield, I might add), though seven years in, the small company badly needed direction and star power.
By 1960, Manos had been cavorting around the Big Apple for nearly a decade, working for the Theater Guild and forming his own theater production business, known as M and M Theater Company.
While in New York City, Manos transitioned from producing plays to putting on musicals. So when Manos met and married Atlanta ballerina Glen Ryman, and they subsequently moved to Georgia, Theater of the Stars snatched him up.
“At that time, Theater of the Stars needed a producer. So we got together, and I’ve been there ever since,” Manos said. “The fit seemed to work very well, and we’ve been producing musicals and plays and operas and ballets.”
Manos attracted a star-studded cast, including – but not limited to – Robert Goulet (Camelot), Madeline Kahn (Hello Dolly!) and Debbie Reynolds (The Unsinkable Molly Brown). But some of Manos’ other Theater of the Stars endeavors had a more enduring impact on Atlanta.
In 1964, Manos formed the Grand Opera in the Park after the New York City Opera, which used to come to Atlanta every year, decided the annual journey down South was too expensive. Performing in Chastain Park, the Grand Opera featured 11 operas from ’64 to ’70.
Allegedly, Grand Opera in the Park paved the way for the Atlanta Opera, though, according to Manos, “Atlanta opera has a complicated early life,” he said.
Ten years after Theater of the Stars dabbled in opera, the theater company capitalized on another Atlanta shortcoming: the absence of black theater companies.
In 1974, Manos formed Just Us, the city’s first-ever black theater group.
“We had a wonderful run,” Manos said. “But then in the 80s, we turned [Just Us] over to a group that was African American because we started to get problems, what with a white organization producing a black theater company.”
Zaron Burnett, who has worked for Just Us since it severed ties with Theater of the Stars, claimed that Manos created the black theater group for funding reasons.
Worried about Maynard Jackson’s new role as the first African American mayor of Atlanta, Manos founded Just Us to keep government funds flowing to Theater of the Stars, according to Burnett.
Beyond the historical impact Theater of the Stars had on Atlanta, Manos touched on his company’s transition – due to sound issues – from the Atlanta Civic Center to the Fox Theatre in 1988 and the need to “balance out” each season with a variety of shows.
“We’re a family-oriented company, so you want a children’s show. You want a show that’s just off Broadway,” Manos said. “You want a classic that’s considered one of the 20 or 30 great musicals of all time, and you try to put all of that together.”
Theater of the Stars’ production of The King and I, featuring Victoria Mallory and Ronobir Lahiri, is one of those all-time greats.
From Sept. 5 to Sept. 11, this production of one of Roger and Hammerstein’s most famous musicals will offer Atlanta theatergoers both youthful energy and classic romance.
So why should Emory students venture away from Clifton, Clairmont and North Decatur to revel in the dizzying grandeur of the Fox or the courtly life of Siam recreated by Theater of the Stars?
“Because if they weren’t taken to a musical by their mothers or grandmothers when they were young, then it’s very difficult to get someone once they’ve grown up to take on new tastes,” Manos implored. “If I get a kid in my theater that 11 or 12-years-old, I’ve got ’em for life. And, you know, musical theater is a distinct American tradition.”
Perhaps you’ve already surpassed the child-like wonder you might’ve experienced at your first musical, but it’s never too late to get lost in someone else’s story. And it’s never too late to explore a city brimming with history … just don’t get lost in it!
– By Stephanie Minor