A Brief History

Originally constructed in 1929, the building that is now the Geffen Playhouse was one of the first 12 structures in Westwood. It was built as a Masonic clubhouse to serve UCLA students and alumni, and remained as such for nearly four decades until the Masons sold it in the early 1970s to local business owners Donald & Kristen Combs. The Combs family restored many of the building’s original design elements, including the central courtyard and tile fountain, and reopened the building to the public.  The beautiful new space included a location of their furniture store, an Italian restaurant and a theater they dubbed the Westwood Playhouse.

In 1994 the Combs family donated the theater to UCLA under the premise that it would remain a theater in perpetuity, and that Gilbert Cates (founder of the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television) assumed development.  Cates, who for years had been advocating that Westwood have its own world-class theater, took the project on wholeheartedly and began rallying the local arts and entertainment community for support.  After pooling resources, fundraising, and putting together a board for the burgeoning not-for-profit, Cates renamed the theater the Geffen Playhouse in honor of entertainment mogul David Geffen’s generous founding gift.  The new playhouse officially opened its doors in 1995 with a hit production of John Patrick Shanley’s Four Dogs and A Bone starring Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Perkins, Parker Posey and Martin Short.

In 1999, Cates enlisted Steppenwolf Theatre alum Randall Arney to come on board as the theater’s artistic director, while Cates assumed the role of producing director.  With a new artistic team at the helm, Cates directed his first Geffen Playhouse production – Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories – in 1999; and Arney directed his first Geffen Playhouse production – David Rambo’s God’s Man in Texas – shortly thereafter in 2001.  In that same year, the organization began a $17 million capital campaign to upgrade the theater.  The new state-of-the art building would include enhanced technology and the capability to facilitate complex production designs, as well as restore the building’s original craftsmanship and beauty. In addition, guided by the vision and funding of Mrs. Audrey Skirball Kenis, part of the capital campaign was dedicated to constructing an additional, more intimate, space that could be used to create a stronger connection between the audience and the works on stage.  From 2003 – 2005, while construction was being completed, Geffen Playhouse temporarily presented works at the Brentwood and Wadsworth Theaters.

In September 2005 the entirely renovated building re-opened in Westwood, along with the newly added Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater.  In the spring of 2009, Geffen Playhouse staff, board and funders surprised its founder and producing director by naming the larger stage the Gil Cates Theater, enabling the not-for-profit to honor Cates nearly two years before his passing in October 2011.  Under the artistic leadership of Randall Arney, Geffen Playhouse continues to present ground-breaking theatrical productions – from world premieres to award-winning commissioned works and reinterpretations of timeless classics – in both the Gil Cates and Audrey Skirball Kenis Theaters. Following a strong 2014/2015 season during which five productions extended, the company’s 20th anniversary season features eight productions (two world and three West Coast premieres) featuring some of the nation’s leading playwrights and directors.

Click here for an interactive timeline to experience 20 years of Geffen Playhouse history.