Rancho Santa Fe couple produces musicals year-round for San Diego audiences
By Arthur Lightbourn
ContributorGary and Erin Lewis never dreamed they would be doing what they are doing today, but, in fact, they’re living their version of the American Dream.
In college, Gary, joked with his counselor that he might become a Tupperware distributor like his parents, but, with his talent for math, he thought he’d best apply himself to becoming a chartered public accountant and joining a top accountancy firm, which, as it turned out, he did — for awhile.
And, Erin, whose parents, Fon and Audrie Johnson, ran a kennel and trained police dogs, figured she would become a legal secretary, which she also did — for awhile.
But then, they met, at a dog show, married and their plans not only changed, but merged.
Erin, left her secretarial job, to become, yes, you guessed it, a Tupperware distributor, selling up a storm, and Gary, gave up his job as a CPA at Peat Marwick & Mitchell to help manage the administrative side of their growing Tupperware distributorship.
That was 38 years ago.
These days, the Lewises, now in their early 60s, live in a luxury 7,200-square-foot home (7,255 sq. ft., to be accurate, and Gary is) they bought as it was being constructed 11 years ago on one acre in Rancho Santa Fe.
“That’s what this house is all about,” Gary said. “Tupperware.”
“Made of plastic and we burp the doors” Erin quipped.
You mean, we had to ask, you were able to buy this house with proceeds made by selling plastic food-storage containers with airtight “burping seals” at home Tupperware parties?
“You betcha,” Erin confirmed. “We like to say: ‘This is the house that Tupperware built.’”
The Lewises continue to run their Tupperware business out of their office in Kearny Mesa as “legacy executive directors” in charge of a sales team of 600, but in 2006 they added a new element to their dream scenario.
They founded the San Diego Musical Theatre (SDMT), the now award-winning nonprofit theater company that produces contemporary and classic musicals year-round and provides employment for professional actors, directors, choreographers, musicians and technicians.
SDMT is about to launch its third full season with the production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical hit “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamboat” Sept. 23 through Oct. 9 at the Lyceum Theatre in downtown San Diego’s Horton Plaza.
Asked what prompted them to take on the daunting challenge of producing hit musicals — often requiring large casts and expensive sets — in San Diego?
“Blame it on our daughter, Jill, who started in musical theater when she was 11,” Erin laughed.
As a parent of a child involved in theatre, Erin, soon found herself driving her daughter to rehearsals, sitting through rehearsals and getting involved as a volunteer and “angel” (a person who contributes money and/or services to a theater company) with the companies putting on the shows.
Erin even, blushes to admit, even tried her hand at performing with her daughter in the Moonlight Theatre’s production of “The Sound of Music.” “I played a nun,” she said sheepishly.
“And then as Jill got older, Gary, too, got involved, painting sets, working on crew … and doing sound design for them.”
Their daughter continued performing in musicals in Los Angeles while attending UC Irvine; and Gary and Erin continued to be involved.
“We just loved the whole atmosphere of it,” Erin said. “And we thought for a number of years we might like to somehow bring musicals to San Diego and we thought with our business background maybe we could make it happen.”
When Tupperware changed its method of product delivery and distribution, Gary found he had more free time to look into the idea.
“The thing we felt that was missing in San Diego was a year-round, professional, nonprofit musical theater,” they said. “We thought, well, we’ll try it and see if there’s a place for us.”
In 2007, the Lewises produced their first show, the regional premiere of “The Full Monty” at the North Park Theatre. The show won the San Diego Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Musical Direction for director Don LeMaster
The fledgling company followed up with its first full season productions of “Guys and Dolls,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Dreamgirls,” which won a Critics Circle Award for outstanding musical for the year and garnered a Patté Award for best male performer (Tonex). Season Two then came on strong with another trifecta: “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “The Story of My Life” and “Chorus Line.”
Season Three will kick off later this month with “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” to be followed by “The Marvelous Wonderettes” and “Rent.”
“As a nonprofit,” Erin said, “we at least wanted to break even and we’re really close to that. We’re getting to the point now that if we just had a couple of nice-size donors, we could make it happen as far as breaking even.”
As a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, donations are tax deductible.
The only ones who get paid are the actors, directors, choreographers, musicians and technicians. “All the rest of us are volunteers,” Erin said.
The Lewises run the theater company from their Tupperware office in Kearny Mesa.
“In general,” Gary said, “ticket sales cover up 60 percent of the costs of a production. We have to supplement the difference with donations from corporations and individuals.”
Each production costs “anywhere from $150,000 and $175,000,” he added.
Because SDMT doesn’t own a theater, yet, it has to rent theater space which adds to the cost of each show. This season’s productions are all being staged at the Lyceum Theatre.
“Our big goal,” Erin said, “is to build a theatre here on the coast, in the Carmel Valley/Encinitas area, where it could be the home of San Diego Musical Theatre and we could run it. There are a lot of orphan theatre companies that don’t have a place and are bouncing around from theater to theater. They could rent it, as well, at a nonprofit, nice rate for music, dance and community events.
“We’re looking for donors to make that dream a reality,” Erin said.
Also, as part of their outreach mission to introduce children to musical theatre, the company provides free special show admissions to youngsters who are members of Boys and Girls Clubs from military bases.
SDMT show schedules, tickets, volunteer and donor information are available at the company’s Website:
Gary and Erin Lewis
Gary and Erin Lewis are the founders and executive directors of San Diego Musical Theatre, a nonprofit professional award-winning theatre company, now about to launch its third full season on Sept. 23 with Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice’s hit “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamboat” at Horton Plaza’s Lyceum Theatre.
Rancho Santa Fe
Los Angeles, raised in San Diego
Born and raised in San Diego
B.S. in business administration with emphasis in mathematics, San Diego State University, 1972.
United States International University Cal Western (now Point Loma Nazarene University) where studied music and English, but left without a degree to attend a business school to become a legal secretary.
Married 39 years. One daughter, Jill, a musical theater performer who lives in New York City with her musical theater performer husband Robert Townsend. The couple recently completed a national tour with “Camelot.”
Roxy, a Doberman.
Gary: CSI shows and “anything with whales and sharks.”
Erin: “Modern Family,” “Amazing Race,” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Connects with the Edgar A. Guest inspirational poem “It Couldn’t Be Done…and he did it.”
“You have to work for what you get…and it’s all about people for me and how we treat people is really important.”