Eugene and Ellen Dow

Eugene Francis and Ellen Albertini Dow Arena Theatre - Eugene Francis Dow Courtyard

From the inauspicious beginning of one evening drama class giving its first performance in a 35-seat tin-roofed bungalow, Eugene "Gene" Francis Dow, assisted by his wife, Ellen, founded the renowned Los Angeles Pierce College Theatre Department.

Eugene and Ellen Dow

It was 1957. Gene Dow arrived at Pierce College with a master's degree in drama and a rich background of professional experience in fifteen off-Broadway productions and six seasons of summer stock in New York and New England.

Born in 1916 in Massachusetts, Gene served in WWII, seeing action in seven major battles and decorated as a war hero. He then focused on his acting career in New York, where he met Ellen Albertini in an off-Broadway musical at the Carnegie Theatre. They married in 1951, moved to California and embarked on long and successful teaching and acting careers.

Gene was a director, writer and composer. As Pierce's only full-time theater instructor and department chair for many years, he produced and directed the great dramatic literature of the world. Using an abandoned platform, he created the stage for 13 summer outdoor Shakespeare plays. They would start with 20 minutes of Elizabethan songs and dances created by Ellen, then a grand procession and finally the production.

Ellen, who had studied dance, music, speech, acting and mime, taught at Los Angeles Pierce, Valley and City colleges for three decades. At Pierce she was Gene's collaborator, choreographer, musical director, costume designer and much more. She brought to life the first musical at Pierce: The Fantastics.

Ellen Dow

She not only created the Albertini Mime Players, performing in locations throughout the Los Angeles area, but introduced Saturday Musical Theatre for Children to the Pierce campus.

The productions were held in the Student Union, which the acting students would transform into a magical stage setting. The productions were accompanied by two pianos -- one played by a Pierce student, the other by Ellen.

To the rest of the world, Ellen Rose Albertini Dow was a character actress best known for her role as the wisecracking, rappin' granny in 1998'sThe Wedding Singer. She did not embark on her career as a film actress until she was 67, after her teaching career.

Ellen Dow

Born November 16, 1918 in Pennsylvania, the seventh child of Italian immigrant parents, Ellen began studying dance and piano at age 5 and received a B.A. and M.A. in Theater from Cornell University. She moved to New York and studied dance, acting and comedy, working with such legendary talents as choreographer Martha Graham and mime Marcel Marceau.

She performed comedy at the Second Avenue Theatre in New York and acted in summer stock companies on the East Coast.

She directed and choreographed stage productions such as The Beggar's Opera at Carnegie Recital Hall,The Magic Flute, and Julius Caesar. She founded the Albertini Mime Players, spending 19 years as its producer.

She became an acting coach before making her film debut in 1985's American Drive-In. Beyond her breakout role in The Wedding Singer, Dow was memorable as "Disco Dottie" in the movie 54 (1998) and as the grandmother who "outs" her grandson in Wedding Crashers (2005). She appeared in a host of television shows over the years, including The Golden Girls, Just Shoot Me, Will & Grace, Seinfeld, Hannah Montana, Scrubs, Sister, Sister, Six Feet Under and My Name is Earl.
She never stopped teaching or learning.

She never stopped teaching or learning.

In 1981, the Performing Arts Building was erected on a campus hilltop with a view of the San Gabriel Mountains. The Dows worked closely with the architect in the design of the original structure and the interior design. Gene was instrumental in obtaining permission to expand an existing classroom into a second theater.

An $8 million renovation in 2015 has turned today's Performing Arts Center into a first-class venue for the San Fernando Valley. It now features a Mainstage Theatre with 345 cushioned seats along with modern lighting and sound equipment; a contemporary lobby with concession area and new built-in box office; refurbished classrooms and offices; an underground costume and makeup area doubled in size; and properties workshop and storage. It also houses the 100-seat black box theatre -- a simple, unadorned performance space with black walls, a flat floor and movable seats for flexibility in set up -- formerly called the Arena Theatre.

Performing Arts Center

Eugene retired in 1983, never having taught in the new facility that he so influenced. He died in 2004, when Ellen was 92. She donated $150,000 to fund substantial improvements to the black box theatre and build a courtyard to honor her husband, continuing on the Dow legacy at Pierce.

Wide Audience

Forty-eight years after the Dows opened their first play in a primitive World War II Quonset hut on campus, a theatre in their name found a permanent home atop the campus in the Performing Arts Center -- the Eugene Francis and Ellen Albertini Dow Arena Theatre.

Just outside to the east is the Eugene Francis Dow Courtyard, a landscaped seating area with stone benches and a table where students can rehearse their lines.

Dinning Area in Park

In a ceremony and reception Oct. 9, 2005, Ellen Dow was the guest of honor as the Eugene Francis and Ellen Albertini Dow Arena Theatre was introduced to 100 colleagues, family members, friends and admirers joined as its first audience.

At the celebration Rocky Young, former Pierce President and then-Los Angeles Community College District Chancellor, said of the Dows, "They bring the one single ingredient I hope every faculty member can bring: passion -- there is no greater gift you can give to your students."

In thanking the group, Ellen said she knew Gene was beside her, encouraging her to go on, and that she could hear him saying, "I'm going to live forever!" She then invited everyone to her home to listen to a live Tahitian orchestra, drink coffee in her backyard, and "be happy."

Ellen Dow died at the age of 101 on May 4, 2015.

The resolution to name the Eugene Francis and Ellen Albertini Dow Arena Theatre was approved by the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees on 9/21/2005.

The resolution to name the Eugene Francis Dow Courtyard was approved by the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees on 9/21/2005.

The sign above the courtyard reads, "Eugene Francis Dow Courtyard... perchance to dream."

Eugene Francis and Ellen Albertini