John Schlenker of Arroyo Grande grew up in eastern New Mexico and West Texas, surrounded by ranches and involved with livestock. With his father as a rancher and his mother into theater, as a boy Schlenker was milking cows on one hand and acting in plays on the other.
“Mother loved the theater and raised her kids to love the theater. She had us kids playing theater games and telling stories,” he said.
Schlenker, 71, thought that he would be a dairy man. He milked cows through his college years but also acted in summer stock. He majored in theater arts, began teaching in Colorado, and eventually was hired at Righetti High School in Santa Maria to teach theater arts, English and speech.
In 1975, Schlenker decided to buy an old abandoned drugstore on Highway 1 in Oceano and make it into a theater. He asked Annette Gillespie to be his business partner. He later bought her out.
“We jerry-rigged the building the first summer,” he said.
They had little money, but everything came together amazingly well. A local church donated wooden pews. However, they were upstairs in the second story and had to be removed through the upstairs window and carted by truck to the theater.
The pews were damaged, so Schlenker and his crew rebuilt them and added upholstery. These benches still seat theater-goers today.
Schlenker built 50 small round tables to give the place a cabaret feeling. A construction guy told him how to pour cement to make the bases. Table legs were old pipes from a nearby second-hand store. The table tops were donated plywood. Covered with a blue tablecloth, the tables still serve the patrons today.
They just needed a name.
Schlenker and Gillespie had eaten one night at a place in Los Angeles called the Great American Food and Beverage Co. The next day Gillespie suggested they use the name. Thus, The Great American Melodrama was born.
“It caught on so fast,” Schlenker said.
They began doing just melodrama. The first play that summer was “Sweeney Todd.” Schlenker performed as the villain Harvey Green in the second play, “Ten Nights in a Barroom.”
Inside the theater are showcases on the walls of actors who excelled there. Several have gone on to Broadway, professional touring companies and major theaters around the country.
John’s wife, Lynne Schlenker, became involved about seven years ago. John Schlenker calls her “the heart and soul of the business. She’s a great costumer and set builder, a great business person and is sensational working with people.”
A few years ago, they expanded the stage so they can present more variety. They added the popular musical revue at the end of each play. A new foyer is being built.
Outside, new glassed-in showcases will present playbills of past and present shows. They now do traditional Victorian melodrama, original plays, Gilbert and Sullivan and the musical revues.
“The Medicine Man” is playing currently, loosely based on Moliere’s “The Doctor in Spite of Himself.”
For more information, contact the melodrama at 489-2499 or www.americanmelodrama.com.