The number 33 1/3 tallies how many times a long-playing record spins every minute. It also defines the life span, in years, of an L.A. studio that turned out many of the most cherished LPs in pop-music history.
Probably no single number, though, can really sum up the lasting impact of Gold Star Recording Studio, the onetime record-biz mecca whose legacy is about to be celebrated in San Diego Rep’s world-premiere musical “33 1/3: House of Dreams.”
Forget 33 1/3: The story of Gold Star sounds like the soundtrack to one big cultural revolution, from the studio’s hosting of such early rock stars as Ritchie Valens and Eddie Cochran, to the glory days of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and producer Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, to the advent of punk and new wave with the Ramones and the Go-Go’s.
And to help tell that story, the musical has someone who was right there through a good part of the place’s history: San Diego’s Brad Ross, son of the late Gold Star co-founder Stan Ross, an audio engineer who teamed with David S. Gold to build and run the studio from October 1950 to its closing in early 1984.
For Ross, the show is a chance both to tell Gold Star’s relatively little-known story and to close a circle like the spin of a record for his dad, who had dreamed of a project about the studio — a movie, a documentary film, maybe a play — but could never quite get it off the ground.
“He was disappointed, because he was hoping it would be something he’d be involved in doing,” Brad Ross says now.
So after the elder Ross died in 2011 at age 82, “I had some time to think about things,” his son says. “And I just felt I wanted to learn more. I knew about my father, but I wanted to learn about who he was.
“I felt it was on my shoulders to do a project.”
What has come of that is a major stage production that takes in 32 songs (although you kind of have to hope the creators can work in just 1 1/3 more), a sprawling cast and a full orchestra — both of those bolstered by the Rep’s latest partnership with the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts.
The show also has a seasoned team of collaborators in director-choreographer Javier Velasco and musical director-arranger Steve Gunderson — longtime creative partners and versatile artists who have helped shape the piece over the past couple of years of development and workshopping.
Still, “House of Dreams” might not have evolved the way it has without a quirk of fate that eventually led to the show’s other key collaboration.
Brad Ross is a dentist with a longtime practice in San Carlos, and 30 years ago he sponsored a local T-ball team. Among its young players was one whose dad was a writer-musician as well as a psychologist and teacher.
Decades later, Jonathan Rosenberg would become the co-creator of “House of Dreams.” But initially, he and Ross only “collaborated on my teeth,” he jokes now.
The pair’s teaming for the Rep musical came about after Rosenberg decided to venture into playwriting, and Ross saw an early version of his work “Long Way to Midnight,” which would become a San Diego International Fringe Festival hit in 2014.
“He spoke to me at that time about the legacy project he was doing for his dad,” Rosenberg recalls. “But I had never heard of Gold Star Recording Studio. And I know a lot about music.
“So I googled it, and I was stunned — first of all by the number of songs (recorded there) that I owned, from being a kid buying 45s. But also by the breadth of music that was done at Gold Star. I mean, everything from easy-listening music to the beginnings of rock and roll, with Eddie Cochran, to the beginnings of surf music with Duane Eddy, to the Beach Boys, to the Righteous Brothers.
“Once I saw that, I said, holy crap! This is exciting. Just as a music guy, this is exciting.
“So we hit the road, and we started interviewing people. And the way we got to do these interviews, with people like Herb Alpert and Brian Wilson, is that we mentioned the name Stan Ross. So we knew this was a special man.
“And that’s when we said to ourselves, ‘I think we’ve got a musical here.’”
Making it happen
As described by Velasco (the longtime artistic director of San Diego Ballet) and Gunderson (a playwright-actor-music ace and one of San Diego’s most esteemed theater artists), “House of Dreams” unfolds as a memory play, stepping back into different eras from the perspective of Stan Ross, who’s portrayed by Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper. (Gold is played by Jacob Caltrider.)
That wasn’t how the piece initially was structured, though. As Rosenberg recalls it, “We did a couple of readings before introducing it to Javier and Steve. And “the feedback we got was: ‘God, this is great, but it feels like a documentary.’
“And we didn’t want a documentary. We wanted a story that was going to be compelling.
“So when we brought Javier and Steve into the mix, with their incredible talent and experience, they really took it and moved the story to the next level.”
Velasco and Gunderson most recently teamed at the Rep for the 2015 world-premiere piece “Everybody’s Talkin’: The Music of Harry Nilsson,” an impressionistic trip through the catalog of the iconoclastic songwriter behind “Me and My Arrow” and others; that show starred two Tony Award-winning Broadway regulars, Alice Ripley and Gregory Jbara.
It was a very different project from “House of Dreams,” which is much more rooted in real history.
“One of the exciting things about this is that we have so much information from Brad about what was going on in the studio,” says Gunderson. “He has given me tapes of the Phil Spector sessions, where they’re not singing, they’re talking.
“So it’s not as if we have to sit in a room and say, ‘I wonder what that was like?’ We know what that was like.”
Such is the history of Gold Star that there was a whole lot that had to be left out for the sake of narrative focus.
“John Lennon had lunch at Gold Star,” as Velasco notes. “You don’t see that in our show. What is that? That’s just an extra sentence.”
To which Gunderson adds with a laugh: “We have lots of extra sentences!”
(It seems Lennon didn’t just have lunch at the place. As Ross tells it, the ex-Beatle was playing cards with Stan Ross there one day, but was going through a difficult time with his wife, Yoko Ono, who had called him at the studio. At some point, an upset Lennon wound up taking out his frustrations on a desk; he offered Ross $100 for the damage.)
To Velasco’s point, though: “We had to pick and choose and decide, ‘What is the wonderful stuff that happened there that helps us tell our story, and get our message across?”
And that message:
“I love seeing ordinary, average people onstage,” Velasco says. “And the thing that was always attractive to me about this project was, it wasn’t a show about the big, splashy people. It was a show about the people who support the big, flashy people — and the people who support the people who support the big, flashy people.
“Not this cavalcade of stars who sort of rotate through Gold Star. We need to care about the people who were at Gold Star for 33 1/3 years.
“That’s the story we’re telling.”
A sampling of songs recorded (all or in part) at Gold Star Recording Studio, and featured in the San Diego Rep musical “33 1/3: House of Dreams.”
“Good Vibrations,” the Beach Boys, 1966
“Unchained Melody,” the Righteous Brothers, 1965
“La Bamba,” Ritchie Valens, 1958
“Rhythm of the Rain,” the Cascades, 1962
“Be My Baby,” the Ronettes, 1963
“Tequila,” the Champs, 1958
“Summertime Blues,” Eddie Cochran, 1958
“Cherry Bomb,” the Runaways (featuring Joan Jett), 1976
‘33 1/3: House of Dreams’
When: Previews begin Aug. 1. Opens Aug. 7. 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through Aug. 25.
Where: San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.
Tickets: $25-$72 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 544-1000