.Celebrating the Life of Cabrillo Stage Founder Lile O. Cruse

When Santa Cruz photographer and 20-year Cabrillo Stage veteran Jana Marcus was starting to put together the celebration of Lile O. Cruse’s life at the Rio Theatre this weekend, she struggled with how to represent everything he had done at Cabrillo College. Hired as the director of bands for both classical and jazz music in 1970, Cruse was a popular teacher who founded the school’s jazz program and went on to be chair of the Performing Arts division. In addition, he led Cabrillo’s Summer Rep Theater until 1981, when he started and served for two decades as music director and leader of what stands as his greatest legacy: Cabrillo Stage.

When Cruse died on Aug. 23, after a short illness, at the age of 84, Marcus thought she was prepared; Cruse’s wife, Michele Rivard, had asked her three years ago to put together something that would be “short and sweet” in Cruse’s honor when the time came. But the more Marcus tried to make all of the pieces of Cruse’s life fit together, the more she realized that many of the most revealing ones didn’t happen at Cabrillo at all. Instead, they were things that happened outside of the college that grew out of the relationships he had built there.

She thought about Leslie Robertson Rhodes, who auditioned for a part in Cruse’s 1989 Cabrillo Stage production of Evita when she was 17 years old. Cruse saw something in her, and—despite the prevailing attitude that he was crazy to cast someone so inexperienced in the lead role—gave her the part of Eva Peron in what would go on to be one of the theater company’s most acclaimed productions. Rhodes went on to star in two more Cabrillo Stage productions, 1997’s Funny Girl and 2001’s Honk.

To Marcus, Rhodes is emblematic of the many cast and crew members whose talent Cruse recognized and fostered over the years.

“She loves Lile like a father,” says Marcus. “When Leslie got married and had kids, and one of her daughters got the part of Eva Peron in the high school musical, Lile and Michele went to Utah to see her daughter perform it. This was just a couple of years ago.”

Cruse stayed in contact with many of his music and musical theater alumni, and this particular relationship lasted until the very end.

“Leslie came to visit Lile several times when he was in his last months,” says Marcus. “He had a little bit of dementia, and Leslie asked Michele, ‘What can I do?’ And Michele said, ‘Sing for him.’ So Leslie was there in his nursing facility, singing ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.’”

Rhodes was only one of the people who wanted to be involved in this weekend’s celebration, which was originally conceived as a memorial, but quickly evolved into something quite different.

“As soon as we announced on Facebook that Lile had passed away, there were hundreds and hundreds of messages from people all over the country—musicians, techies, actors—and everyone was saying the same thing: ‘Lile changed my life,’” says Marcus. “I sat back and looked at all those messages, and it’s just really amazing how many lives he touched, and how people feel so incredibly loyal to him. And I thought, ‘Do we want to do a memorial, where people are going to get up and talk? Or do we want to let these people do what they do best, which is perform?’”

Honk Cabrillo Stage
CENTER STAGE A still from a 2000 production of ‘Honk.’

The answer was obvious, says Janie Scott, a Broadway veteran who has been directing Cabrillo Stage productions for the last 17 years. Scott is one of a core group of people helping Marcus organize what has become, in true Lile Cruse shoot-for-the-moon fashion, the 90-minute performance extravaganza Maestro: A Musical Celebration Honoring Lile O. Cruse; she will also host it. Even an hour and a half, however, has not proven to be enough time to accommodate all of the performers who started under Cruse’s tutelage and have gone on to great things—and now want to show their appreciation for the mark he made on their lives.

“There were more people who contacted Jana than we could use,” says Scott. “Otherwise we’d be having, like, a 24-hour marathon for this show.”

Rhodes will be there, but she will not be singing what Marcus calls “the freakin’ saddest song in the world.” “When we were putting this show together, we asked Leslie to come and perform, and she said, ‘I can’t sing ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.’ I won’t get through the song,’” she says. “That’s when I realized this needs to a celebration, not a dirge. This needs to a celebration for all the people Lile has left behind. For everyone who loves him, everyone who feels so indebted for everything he did for their careers.”

Instead, Rhodes will sing “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” from Funny Girl. “Which she is a powerhouse at,” adds Marcus. “She’s going to close the show. We thought that song was actually really appropriate, because this whole celebration is about how all of us went forward and forged our careers because of what Lile believed in in us. So here we go, we’re going to carry the torch—don’t rain on our parade.”

Gathered Together

Despite the huge convergence of talent at the celebration—there are four Broadway singers in the opening rendition of “All That Jazz” alone—the outpouring of emotion and dedication to Cruse that these former Cabrillo Stage and jazz band figures have shown makes the whole thing feel more like a family gathering than an all-star production.

And that’s how it should be, says Rivard, a music educator who was married to Cruse for 33 years and worked with him on every Cabrillo Stage production.

“That’s what Lile tried to do—create a family,” she says. “Everybody had a role to play, and everybody’s role was important to everybody else’s role. By being a family—not a team, but a family—then he could promote the passion that he felt. People didn’t do a ‘job.’ And that’s why they kept coming back.”

Sometimes, the family concept could get quite literal, as Scott discovered when she worked with Cruse on the 1999 production of Annie. They were having trouble casting the lead role, and finally Cruse asked her, “Do you know anyone you could get in here?”

Scott did—her 13-year-old niece, who came in to audition.

“I had never told Lile it was a family member, because I don’t play that card,” says Scott. “So Lile sits next to me, and as she’s walking on stage, he says, ‘I hear you know this one.’ And I say, ‘Uh … yeah.’ He says, ‘I was just talking to her mom, and that happens to be your sister, Janie.’ And I went ‘OK, OK.’ When you spent a little bit of time working with him, you really caught on to what his very sly, dry wit and sense of humor was. And you had be somebody who appreciated that. I was a big fan.”

Her niece got the part, and Cabrillo Stage’s Annie became one of the first professional credits for Chelsea Morgan Stock, who has since gone on to perform in Broadway shows like The Little Mermaid—in which she played Ariel—Something Rotten and Sister Act.

Stock is far from the only national success story to come out of Cabrillo Stage. For Cruse’s very first production for the company in 1981, he chose Chicago—which was then fairly new and somewhat controversial—and chose L.A. actress Belle Calloway as the lead. Calloway went on to star as Roxy in the Broadway run of Chicago for several years. More recently, Rickey Tripp, who was the secondary lead in Cruse’s 2002 production of Some Like it Hot, has found success in Broadway shows like Hamilton and In the Heights, and choreographed last year’s live TV version of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Some of these success stories are returning to Santa Cruz County for Maestro, like Stark and Natalie Ballenger, who performed in several Cabrillo Stage musicals as a child and currently stars as Maria in the national touring production of West Side Story. A number of local favorites with connections to Cruse, like Cabrillo’s Kathryn Atkins, Andrew Ceglio and Tony Panighetti will also perform.

“Lile got performers from all over,” remembers Marcus. “He would go into the Bay Area—San Francisco, San Jose—for the lead roles, he would go and audition people all over the place back in the early ’80s. Once Cabrillo Stage started to catch on, by the late ’80s, people were auditioning from all over the country, to be there and work with Lile. And then the kids growing up in town were always in the ensemble. It was really exciting when someone from the ensemble who started when they were 10 was suddenly 20, and Lile was like, ‘I want you to be a lead this year.’”

A Stage is Born

Marcus got to witness the beginning of Cabrillo Stage because she practically grew up in the Cabrillo drama department, where her mother Wilma Marcus Chandler was choreographing and directing in the ’70s.

“As little kids, my sister and I were sleeping in the theater seats during rehearsal because mom had no babysitter,” she remembers. “And in the summertime, Cabrillo would have these big theater festivals. This was not Cabrillo Stage, this was in the mid-’70s. It was called Summer Rep Theatre, and bad B-movie actors would come and star in plays, and then we’d have a main stage musical and a little show. It was usually four shows. And Lile always did the full pit orchestra, because he was the head of the Performing Arts division at Cabrillo. So I met him when I was a little kid.”

The passage of Prop. 13 in 1978 led to the end of funding for summer theater at Cabrillo, but in 1981 Cruse came up with a cost-effective idea to replace it: Cabrillo Stage, which would produce one show a year. Cruse took on the roles of both executive producer and music director, and his ambition for the company quickly elevated it to a level that most people didn’t expect.

“I think in Lile’s head he was looking at this as, ‘Let’s make this the most professional thing it can be. This is not just academic theater.’ I’ve worked in that realm for a whole lot of years, and it’s a different animal,” says Scott, who in addition to her own history on stage—including playing Wendy in the Broadway production of Peter Pan—has served on the faculty of San Jose State University for two decades. “Lile was not afraid to get in the trenches and do all of the work that needed to be done. And he wasn’t afraid to call the shots the way he saw them. I think maybe sometimes in his head he was thinking, ‘Now what can we do? Where can I go with this, and what can we do to up the production values, up the quality of everything?’ as he continued to build what was really a dream of his.

Cabrillo jazz class
CLASS IS IN Cruse teaches a jazz class at Cabrillo in the 1980s.

“He was very meticulous. He wrote everything down and he was extremely organized,” says Rivard. “He worked really hard to pick people who he could let do their thing, within his parameters. He would guide them if they started to stray, and if they never supported it, he didn’t hire them back. He really gave a lot of latitude, a lot of freedom. But he did set the bar high.”

His family and friends knew that underneath Cruse’s intent demeanor, that sly sense of humor was always waiting to spring. “He was always a joker, but he always looked like he was serious,” says Marcus.

Scott remembers what it was like to see him in the orchestra pit when she did her two lead roles for Cabrillo Stage productions—Peter Pan, appropriately enough, and Annie Get Your Gun. “While I’d be on stage performing, he and I would make eye contact often, and it was just sort of this unsaid communication. He was such a supporter for me in so many ways, including as a performer. He would give me that look which was, ‘This is great. Keep going. I’m happy you’re here and doing this.’ And I would of course be reflecting that back to him. It was just so evident in everything he did how much he cared for everybody, absolutely truly cared.”

“Everybody loved Lile,” says Marcus, “and that’s because Lile took the time to get to know everybody. You could be the volunteer techie mopping the stage before a show, and Lile would come up to you and go, ‘So, how are you doing today?’ He knew everyone’s name, and he made sure he talked to everybody.”

The Sound of Cabrillo

Cruse loved musical theater, which is what allowed him to create a company that is still the spiritual center of it in Santa Cruz County. But another part of his legacy is in music, especially jazz, and while it may seem separate, Rivard says it wasn’t to Cruse.

“There was no divide,” she says. “There was no divide between the styles of music, the styles of theater. If it was good and it was from the heart and soul, then it was worth listening to, and worth being part of.”

Cruse certainly brought both heart and soul to Cabrillo’s music program. He hired Ray Brown, and also taught Donny McCaslin—the saxophonist who collaborated with David Bowie on the music legend’s final album, Blackstar—as well as trumpeters Bill Theurer and Rebecca Coupe Franks, and saxophonist Paul Contos, who is the education director for the Monterey Jazz Festival.

One of Cruse’s early students at Cabrillo was Kuumbwa Jazz Center’s co-founder and Artistic Director Tim Jackson, who took a jazz history class from him shortly after moving to Santa Cruz in 1972.

“Lile was a really fun and inspiring teacher,” says Jackson. “He would actually bring groups in to perform. He started as a jazz cat—he was a professional sax player.”

Jackson went on to play in Cruse’s concert band, which gave him a whole different kind of education. “He threw a lot of hard music at us. Lile expected a lot from his band,” he says. “But he wasn’t dogmatic. He had very open ears.”

At the same time, Cruse headed a jazz band that has become somewhat legendary. “The Cabrillo College Jazz Band in the early and mid-’70s was just an amazing band, that had all these really great players,” says Jackson. “It was kind of a milestone band.” In 2011, Jackson reunited members of that band for a show at the Kuumbwa headed by Cruse, with the players coming from as far away as Spain to take part.

Maestro will also feature a tribute to Cruse’s bandleader days. “The very first singer Lile ever brought in to sing with his jazz band was this wild belter named Janie Finwall, who to this day still has a jazz combo upstate,” says Marcus. “She’s coming back to sing a song that she used to sing with Lile’s original jazz band, ‘Route 66.’ She scats, she’s a wild jazz singer.”

The Legacy

Leaving Cabrillo Stage wasn’t easy for Cruse. “Lile decided to retire in 2003 because West Side Story was his ultimate show. It was the most incredible production,” says Marcus. “It sold out a month in advance, every single show—30,000 people saw that show in six weeks. It was insane. And Lile said, ‘This is when I should retire. When everything is beautiful and big.’ And then he regretted it. He told me the next summer, ‘I don’t know what I did.’ It was very hard for him, which is why he came back as music director in 2005 and 2011. Because this was his baby. It’s hard to let go of your baby, you know? But Cabrillo Stage had reached a point that was amazing, both professionally and with the community recognizing, ‘Wow, we actually have Broadway-level theater right here in Santa Cruz.’”

Besides Broadway dreams, Cruse brought a real sense of fun and whimsy to the Santa Cruz County theater scene—and he enjoyed it as much as everyone else.

“He was entertained by the people, by the material, by the shows. He really, really was,” says Scott. “He really was pleased by the things that came from that, and I think he was just very proud of what he created. I hope he was proud. I think he was. He built an incredible foundation that is continuing on today.”

In the end, says Rivard, what matters is the people who made themselves—and continue to make themselves, at this weekend’s tribute—a part of Cruse’s world. They are more than just witnesses to his legacy.

“I think the people that participated in everything and went to see everything are the legacy,” she says. “Everything was for the audience. He wanted to always be entertained. And he wanted to entertain people.”

Maestro: A Musical Celebration Honoring Lile O. Cruse

An all-star performance hosted by Janie Scott, Maestro: A Musical Celebration Honoring Lile O. Cruse will be presented at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave. in Santa Cruz, on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. The show is free, with seating on a first-come, first-served basis.

Performers include Natalie Ballenger, Chelsea Morgan Stock, Aimee Puentes, Janie Finwall Roberts, Kathryn Adkins, Tony Panighetti, Andrew Ceglio and more. Michael McGushin and Daniel Goldsmith are the show’s music directors. There will be a reception following the program.


  1. Thank you so much for this heartfelt informative article about Lyle! He was truly great and I got to enjoy a couple of summers on Cabrillo Stage with his musical direction and that beautiful grin of his! He is and will continue to be missed forever!

  2. As an alum of Cabrillo Stage, and the proud husband of one of the performers mentioned here, I appreciate the research, effort and professionalism you poured into your article. Lile was a rare gem, and he will be with us always. The community and family we found under his steady hand will never be forgotten; we can only try to replicate it in our own lives. The evening celebrating his legacy was touching, and it was humbling to see how many outstanding performers and people he influenced. Best wishes and heartfelt thanks to Michele, his family, Jana, Janie and all the rest who loved and admired him.


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